99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Virginia football season kicks off in 80 days.
Lindell Stone got into one game as a true freshman. ~ Kris Wright

During the 2017 season, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall mentioned potential legislation that could change how the NCAA treats a redshirt year in the sport. He sounded optimistic that a new rule would pass that could allow players to play in a limited number of games but still preserve a redshirt season.

On Wednesday, the Division I Council passed that new rule exception. The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series looks at the specifics and how that might change the rebuilding calculus for Mendenhall.

No. 80 – Play, But Still Redshirt

At a meeting in Indianapolis this week, the Division I Council decided that Division I football players can participate in up to four games in a season without using a season of competition (thus preserving the redshirt year). This is an exception for football to the overall Division I rule for student-athletes that have five years to participate in up to four seasons of competition. The release from ncaa.org states that “the Division I Student-Athlete Experience Committee will examine how a similar concept could be applied to other sports, including what number of games would be appropriate” in consultation with the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

The release also says that this proposal had been tabled in April due to questions about “timing” and “the number of games” among other things. For that reason, the Council “adopted noncontroversial legislation to specify that midyear enrollees who participate in postseason football competition that occurs before or during the student-athlete’s first term at a school cannot use the exception.” That clause seems to exclude January enrollees that play in a postseason contest from being eligible for the exception.

Per Virginia athletics media relations, Mendenhall said the council made a great decision to allow the redshirt exception.

“I think this new rule will be a great opportunity for a student-athlete and their overall college experience. It provides them the chance to participate in our sport throughout their entire college careers which could lead to better engagement, better graduation rates and hopefully more individuals getting the opportunity to earn a masters degree.

I think this is great for college football as well due to the roster limitations and the fact we are seeing extended playing seasons. It provides more options for a program, especially one that might experience injuries issues. I applaud the Division I Council for allowing student-athletes to have more participation opportunities and their overall rationale for adopting this change.”

Mendenhall first discussed the potential for this rule change when UVA decided to use true freshman Chris Glaser on the offensive line against Georgia Tech in the ninth game of the year. While there was some thought that the rule may become retroactive for the 2017 season, that did not happen according to Wednesday’s release. Glaser ended up playing in five games with the bowl game. Still, a retroactive rule could have applied to true freshman quarterback Lindell Stone, who appeared in just one game. He checked in late against Boston College.

When the coaches played Glaser late last season, Mendenhall said they discussed it with him and his parents before making the decision. If this rule already existed, that would have been a much easier decision – with only four games left in the regular season, he could have participated and kept his redshirt intact.

That’s the type of scenario – thin depth numbers at a position where injuries take place during the season – that ACC coaches had in mind, at least in part, when the league first made the proposal for this rule exception.

“This change promotes not only fairness for college athletes, but also their health and well-being. Redshirt football student-athletes are more likely to remain engaged with the team, and starters will be less likely to feel pressure to play through injuries,” Blake James, the Council chair and Miami’s athletics director, said in the release. “Coaches will appreciate the additional flexibility and ability to give younger players an opportunity to participate in limited competition.”

Regardless, the shift to allow up to four games for a player while still preserving a redshirt year likely will lead to roster management evaluations and strategic decisions that did not exist previously. The rule exception applies to any class year and not just true freshman. So in the aforementioned Stone situation at quarterback, the Cavaliers could use him this year in up to four games and then still have the option of giving him a redshirt season. UVA named Bryce Perkins the starting quarterback at the end of spring practice so it’s possible that this scenario could be one that unfolds in 2018.

There could be other applications too for Virginia this coming season too. One position that has been discussed quite a bit this offseason already, including in this “99 Thoughts” article, is the defensive line. UVA enters the season with nine or 10 players projected for the D-Line. That’s a low number, particularly if injuries hit the unit, so the prevailing theory is that at least one of the three true freshmen among the group would make the rotation.

Now, UVA could strategically play each of Samson Reed, Jordan Redmond, and Aaron Faumui as true freshmen while still keeping redshirts available for long-term development and availability in play. For example, let’s take Reed and Faumui (since Redmond is reportedly capable of contributing in multiple games like Mandy Alonso did last season). The Cavaliers open the season with Richmond and face Liberty in November, two opponents where the Hoos should be favored (make your 2016 Richmond jokes if you must). The Hoos could play the two players late in both games for experience and take a few snaps of hits away from players normally in those situations.

Or what if an ACC game unfolds like the Boston College game last season where Kurt Benkert was taking a lot of hits and the score spiraled? That’s the situation that got Stone into the game. That could be the type of opportunity later in a season where Coach Mendenhall could choose to borrow some defensive line snaps in order to address overall roster health. If you add one game with that mop-up duty to the two in-state games already mentioned, Reed and Faumui could have played in three games without losing a potential redshirt season.

It seems like that could be one way to potentially try to manage the roster numbers on the defensive line.

An example from last season shows another way this rule exception could be applied strategically in a similar way. Senior offensive lineman Jack McDonald appeared in nine games last season, but his Virginiasports.com bio reads that “injury has limited him to mostly special teams protection.” In other words, McDonald played through a lingering injury on special teams to help with some depth issues on the O-Line in 2017. That role could have gone to someone like Tyler Fannin or Ryan Nelson in some games instead without removing a redshirt year from the table. Both players are in competition for spots on the two deep at least in 2018 so a little playing time experience could have been an attractive development possibility for the staff as it tries to build the offensive line into a consistent unit.

What about the receiver position? Mendenhall mentioned at the end of spring practices that the program would be open to adding a graduate transfer at that position. To date, however, no additions have been announced. If the Cavaliers think another player is needed for depth purposes, then perhaps Billy Kemp, Tavares Kelly, Ugo Obasi, or Woody Theork-Youmans get some snaps as true freshmen. Kelly, for certain, and Obasi, possibly, already figured to get a look, but the rule exception offers more possibilities. Keep in mind, that Cole Blackman checked in for four games at receiver in 2016 after playing for the first time on Oct. 29 against Louisville in the eighth game of that season. He ended up missing last season with an injury so the redshirt came back into play, but under the new legislation he would have still had a redshirt year available even without the injury.

There could be other potential special teams applications as well. With the new kickoff rule on fair catches inside the 25-yard line leading to touchbacks, could some coaches play a few safety-linebacker type players for the non-conference games on their schedule and call for sky-high kicks? That could conserve some energy for starter-level players. And so on.

At the very least, it seems likely that coaches will put players into games between FBS and FCS teams or into other potential lopsided score games. Does that lead to fewer injuries or fewer players toughing it out through injuries unnecessarily? Perhaps. Does that allow some so-called football factories to essentially try out some players and then shuffle them through roster turnover? Perhaps. It will be interesting to see how varying coaches with teams in varying situations try to use the rule exception.

So far, the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed Jordan Mack, Jordan Ellis, and Joe Spaziani and much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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