New redshirt rule has surprising support across the country

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- In December, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette decided to skip bowl games. In January, coaches unanimously supported a proposal that would conceivably allow any redshirting player to participate in a bowl game.

While it is easy to connect the two with one straight line, anybody who follows the NCAA knows that nothing is ever as simple or clear-cut. Before McCaffrey and Fournette ever played a collegiate down, coaches discussed ways to change redshirt rules.

For years, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has wanted players to get five years of eligibility. Others advocated giving players five years to play four. Their reasons had nothing to do with bowls. Fisher pointed to the scholarship numbers, the wear and tear on teams, the ability to help alleviate depth concerns and player safety.

While those two plans are not in play, Fisher and his fellow ACC coaches are in favor of the current proposal: allowing redshirts to play in four games per season without it costing them a year’s eligibility. They are not alone. Coaches from across Power 5 conferences appear to be in favor, too, from Nick Saban and his SEC colleagues to Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern to Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia.

Let’s put that into perspective. It is rare to get coaches from across the Power 5 conferences to agree on specific rules changes. For instance, ACC coaches spent two days at their spring meetings lamenting the new recruiting calendar, many wondering how counterparts in conferences such as the Big Ten supported official visits in the spring.

Go back to last season, when debates erupted over satellite camps. Here, the ACC and SEC stood firmly against, while the Big Ten and Group of 5 conferences led the charge in favor. Need another example? It took a decade for an early signing date to pass because so many conferences and coaches had so many different opinions.

You get the idea: Coaches, and therefore conferences, often have divergent views depending on what benefits them.

So to see coaches from across conferences united behind a redshirt proposal that suddenly seems to be on the fast track to passage means one thing: There is no perceived competitive advantage (one driving force behind many disagreements).

Fisher, Saban, Fitzgerald and Holgorsen lead programs at different points on the Power 5 spectrum. Fisher and Saban are College Football Playoff contenders every season; Northwestern and West Virginia do not claim to have the same resources or facilities (these are often points where disagreements arise, too). What is good for Alabama is not always good for Northwestern, and vice versa.

In this case, though, every team struggles with injuries, depth and deciding how to use redshirts. Changing the rule helps alleviate those concerns.

“For player safety it’s a good rule,” Fisher said. “At the end of the year, if a guy has developed himself and is ready to play, he may not have been ready early, and all of a sudden you’ve had some injuries those last four games; whether he’s on special teams or they incorporate themselves into playing time, I think that is a significant thing to do, and I think it’s a good thing.”

If that ends up meaning more redshirt freshmen play in bowl games, that's a worthwhile goal, too. Outside the playoffs, coaches view the bowls with a dual purpose: putting a bow on the current season while looking forward to the next. There is no better way to look forward than to catch a real-time glimpse at what could be in store for the future.

That leads back to Fournette and McCaffrey. There are coaches who believe their decisions will lead to more players skipping bowl games. Others, such as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, don’t believe it will become a trend. But that idea alone shouldn’t inform the ultimate decision on what to do with the redshirt rules.

“That’s just a small one because I don’t think you’re going to have a mass exodus of guys not playing bowl games,” Swinney said. “You might have a guy here or there. There’s lots of positives ... from an overall player-welfare standpoint, the length of the season, the maturity and development of guys. I think guys would be much more engaged. ... I don’t see a negative at all. All the coaches love it.”

What the final version looks like remains to be seen. (Remember, tweaks often happen during the lengthy review process.) For instance, should a coach be able to choose which four games he uses his redshirting player? If so, think about the strategy involved, especially in high-stakes conference games as the season wears on.

Whatever shape it ultimately takes, Swinney could have been speaking for many of his colleagues across the country. That’s what makes this potential rule change so different: what appears to be universal agreement.