The Arizona Wildcats list 23 true freshmen on their 2018 football roster, 16 of which were part of their most recent recruiting class. The others are invited walk-ons, players who under normal circumstances wouldn’t be expected to see action in their first year of college.
But thanks to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, freshmen under scholarship and those paying their way share a common link in that most are apt to get on the field at some point this fall.
Instead of coaches having to worry about “burning” a freshman’s redshirt by simply putting him into a single game, players can now appear in up to four games in a season without losing a year of eligibility. And not just the first four games, it can be at any point.
“We really want to be able to give everyone a chance,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said.
That means fans could see the debut of some of this year’s freshmen in October or November, or even during a bowl game, and they’d still come back in 2019 with four years of eligibility remaining.
Had the rule been in place in 2017, two of Arizona’s true sophomores (defensive end JB Brown and quarterback Rhett Rodriguez) would be redshirt freshmen. Until now the only way to get a redshirt after playing was because of injury, as was the case in 2016 when J.J. Taylor appeared in the Wildcats’ first four games before breaking his ankle and earning a medical redshirt.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is a big fan of the change, particularly since three of his seven quarterbacks—Kevin Doyle, Jamarye Joiner and walk-on Luke Ashworth—are true freshmen.
“Hopefully in the course of the season you’re going to get (them) into a football game instead of just showing up next year and they’ve never taken a snap in the stadium,” Mazzone said. “Now you’ve got kids that … they know they’re practicing not just to be the scout team guy all year but that they’re going to get into football games.”
Doyle and Joiner are battling redshirt freshman K’Hari Lane to be Khalil Tate’s backup, a job that under ideal circumstances won’t involve more than garbage time. Thanks to the rule change, Sumlin and Mazzone don’t have to worry about wasting eligibility for minimal snaps.
“There’s always been times, whether there are games where there’s a large margin in the game and you don’t want to have a starter out there because you’re thin at that position,” Sumlin said. “Or late in the season where you have an injury and a guy has really improved and changed his strength and everything else and you want to play him but there are only three or four games left.”
Sumlin said in past years a team’s playing rotation, despite 85 scholarships, was much smaller because of redshirt considerations. If someone got injured, the decision had to be made to burn a redshirt for depth purposes or just go with even fewer available bodies.
“It’s a great way for players to stay engaged instead of being another team for the whole season and missing out on being able to get better at their craft,” Sumlin said.
Sumlin cited freshman tight end Jake Peters, who has impressed during camp, as someone that could benefit greatly from the rule change.
“I don’t know that he’s going to figure into every down, he may later in the year,” Sumlin said. “He’s the kind of guy this rule can really affect. Next year at this time he’s going to be 240 (pounds) and in the mix for a lot.”
Special teams is somewhere that many freshmen figure to make their debut this season, but so too could defensive players who can help spell starters and backups when playing up-tempo teams. The more players defensive coordinator Marcel Yates can cycle on and off the field, the fresher the starters will be in the fourth quarter.
“We’re not afraid to play a freshman,” Yates said. “We recruited them to come in and play, so standing next to us on the sideline, that isn’t going to do us any good.”