Last week, ahead of its game against Maryland, Rutgers announced a new starting quarterback. Redshirt freshman Johnny Langan would make his first collegiate start. The reason behind the move was anything but ordinary: Artur Sitkowski, the starter in the previous two games, was choosing not to play while considering a redshirt this season.
Two weeks ago in Houston, the same happened. Starting quarterback D’Eriq King chose not to continue playing this season in order to preserve a year of eligibility. One of his receivers, Keith Corbin, made the same decision, as both of them used a rule the NCAA passed last year to allow players to redshirt while competing in as many as four games in a single season. King’s decision has sent a ripple effect through college football. Players making similar choices are springing up across the county. Some of them like King are remaining on their current teams—for now. They are publicly expressing no interest in transferring, using the year to develop in preparation for the next season. Others, like Michigan State running back Connor Heyward, are immediately entering the transfer portal in an effort to get a head start on their next stop.
This has gone from peculiar anomaly to widespread trend in a matter of days. Texas A&M lost its starting punt returner, receiver Roshauud Paul, who was averaging 13 yards a return. Kansas lost its leading running back, Khalil Herbert, who was averaging nearly nine yards a carry. North Carolina lost a senior linebacker who last season started four games, and Ohio State lost a safety who started more than half the season in 2018. This is happening even on the FCS level. Howard University starting quarterback Caylin Newton, Cam Newton’s younger brother, announced recently he would redshirt and transfer after playing in four games.
It is an October Exodus, and many feel like it will only grow. “It’s an epidemic,” says Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback who now works as an analyst for ESPN. “It’s not ideal for the sport and trying to promote teamwork.” This is the newest frontier of the player empowerment movement sweeping the game, says Jacob Hester, ex-LSU running back-turned-Baton Rouge radio personality. It is the latest trend in the rapidly changing world of college football, along with players sitting bowl games and entering the transfer portal. “It’s going to snowball,” Hester says. “Maybe it’s old school, but I can’t imagine a guy after four weeks just shutting it down when I played.”
College football is firmly divided on the issue. There are those against it, like McElroy, Hester and plenty of coaches, and there are those for it, like Don Jackson, an Alabama-based attorney specializing in NCAA matters. For the last 18 months, Jackson has consulted with several players and their families about the process of electing to redshirt. Not only does he feel that it is good for the game, but he hopes the NCAA takes the redshirt policy to the sport of basketball. Four games is one-third of a regular season in college football. A third of a basketball schedule is about 10 games. “Coaches are not very happy about it,” Jackson says. “It doesn’t make sense for a student-athlete to be forced to lose a season of competition at a place that he does not fit or where he is unhappy. The fact the coaches are dissatisfied with it tells me it’s beneficial for the game.”
Many coaches are indeed unhappy. Some administrators are concerned, too. Those who spoke to Sports Illustrated did so under condition of anonymity. Players’ rights issues are sensitive matters these days. On this latest trend, at least one Power 5 athletic administrator believes the Group of Five will become even more of a minor league for the Power 5 than it is today. The big boys will poach the lower-level clubs’ best players. King’s situation at Houston is a prime example. He’s one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, but the Cougars began the season 1–3 with first-year coach Dana Holgorsen. Few around college football believe King will keep his word and remain at UH. Some have a stronger feeling about it than others. “There isn’t any way in hell that kid is going to be a Houston Cougar next year,” says an FBS coordinator. Because he did not announce a transfer or enter the portal, King remains with the Houston football team. That means he has the luxury of medical care, scholarship money, coaching lessons and practice snaps. Many believe a Power 5 club with an open starting quarterback position will soon come calling—if they haven’t already. King will have a year of eligibility remaining and can play immediately as a graduate transfer. “That whole story with D’Eriq King blows my mind,” says one Group of Five assistant. “What if some big school comes in and says ‘Why don’t you come here to play?’ Jalen Hurts is going to graduate and if [freshman backup QB] Spencer Rattler isn’t ready…”
Most of the players who are making these decisions have a few things in common. They compete on teams that endured a tough first month and recent coaching change or the player is not receiving what he feels is adequate playing time. But redshirt decisions aren’t only in the hands of the players, says Gerry DiNardo, the former head coach at LSU, Vanderbilt and Indiana. If the first month of the season goes poorly, will coaches manage their roster in a way to gear up for next season and punt on this year? Maybe. “Now that King has done this, I think coaches are going to say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’” DiNardo, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, said on the network last week. He offered an example of a senior offensive tackle who struggled through the first month of the season. The tackle could sit the rest of this season and be in better position next year to help the team. Other coaches view this as another step toward free agency. “That’s scary to me,” says an SEC assistant. For some of them, landing spots might be difficult. “There’s still a lot of old school coaches in the game saying, ‘Do I want a guy who quit on his team?’” says an FBS staff member.
The ironic twist here: This is an unintended consequence of a rule that coaches exhaustingly fought to pass for years. The rule was intended to give players, namely freshmen, key experience while not removing a complete year of eligibility, and for coaches, it relieves them from a late-season dilemma of burning a kid’s redshirt while using them only a few plays. Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, was a leader in the movement to modify the redshirt rule. Berry and coaches discussed the measure for years before its adoption, and so far this year, he’s received rave reviews from coaches and administrators. “We knew there were going to be some of these circumstances,” Berry says. “I don’t foresee it snowballing.” Many others disagree. In fact, Jackson believes players would have used this method more last year if they and their families better understood the “process and benefits.” With more understanding will come more of these situations, he says.
Last year, the most notable of these scenarios was Kelly Bryant—the former Clemson quarterback who lost his starting job to Trevor Lawrence four games into the 2018 season and then took off the rest of the season—eventually finding a home at Missouri, where he’s led the Tigers to a 4–1 record so far this season. Despite the uniqueness of his situation, Bryant’s decision last year still caused a stir nationally. He’s quitting on his team. Many of the same comments are floating around in light of similar decision this year. “I’ve seen them characterized as selfish and quitting,” Jackson says. “I don’t have a good understanding as to why people are taking such a harsh approach.” There are strong opinions on each side. One coach even connected this situation with that of declining attendance. “If the kids are going to say ‘f--- it,’ fans can quit too.” Says another SEC staff member, “The quitters are going to quit regardless. Sometimes they quit on you and still go to practice, which is worse than them entering the portal. Then you’ve got to deal with their attitude and all the s--- like that.”
Urban Meyer, the former Florida and Ohio State coach who’s now a FOX analyst, believes the redshirt rule is still a good rule despite this unintended consequence. During a Big Ten Network spot with DiNardo, he wonders how other players privately feel about their teammates choosing to redshirt a third of the way through a season. “Publicly, they’ll support him,” he said specifically talking about King’s situation. “I bet there’s a few behind the scenes going… imagine the seniors on that team.” But DiNardo countered with a different viewpoint. “Might be enough of juniors that weren’t going to have him next year saying, ‘Hey! He’s coming back for my senior year!’” DiNardo said. “Everybody’s going to look at it differently.”
One Power 5 athletic administrator believes the rule will eventually be modified to restrict its use to freshmen only. That was the original intention. Many of the players electing to redshirt this season have been upperclassmen. Not all of those players plan to leave the team, but that scenario—a senior, for instance, sticking around another year—could pose a problem for schools, too. “The coach is thinking, ‘We didn’t recruit you. I need that scholarship,’” says one FBS administrator. “It’s going to happen and it’s going to put administrators in a bad spot.”
This is too young of a trend to know its full repercussions, but McElroy believes this could potentially devastate lower-level FBS programs because of their lack of depth. The Alabama and Ohio States of the world have nothing to worry about, he says, but programs like Houston and Rutgers might not be able to recover from such losses. “If a player did this at Alabama when I was there, Nick [Saban] would say ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,’” McElroy says. Maybe that’s what happened at Kansas, where Herbert initially planned to redshirt and return to KU next season, but “things did not work out,” he posted in a statement online. He’s expected now to transfer.
At Rutgers last week, it got worse for interim coach Nunzio Campanile before playing the Terrapins. After his starting quarterback expressed interest in redshirting earlier in the week, his starting running back did the same just a few hours before the game against Maryland. The Scarlet Knights lost 48–7 to a team that had lost the week before 59–0. After the game, Campanile expressed his displeasure in the situation. “Am I disappointed by it? Incredibly. Do I understand it? I guess so,” he told media. “I guess that’s the way the world is now. I think this is a game about your team, and it’s about sacrificing personal accomplishment for the success of the team. But that’s the world they live in and they have a lot of people telling them, ‘Worry about you, worry about you.'”