Several times during the 2018 season, Arizona Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin was asked how he planned to use the NCAA’s new redshirt rule. The rule allows players to participate in up to four games (one time) without losing a year of eligibility.
Sumlin declined to divulge specifics, but he enthusiastically embraced the new rule. He viewed it as a way to keep players engaged in practice and to test their readiness in game situations. He suggested that it would have a profound impact on roster management.
“We talk about it every week,” Sumlin said during the season. “We track every single player who has a redshirt available, how many games they’ve played. We discuss them each week, because the dynamics of your team can change based on injury and depth and those types of things. We have a good grasp of that. We have a plan for every player who’s available to play and who’s approaching the four games.”
We now have a clear picture of that plan.
Among the 18 scholarship newcomers with more than one year of eligibility remaining, only four played in more than four games. The other 14 – 11 of whom appeared in at least one game – preserved their redshirts.
Let’s take a closer look at how it all shook out:
* Three of the four players who participated in more than four games were freshmen: cornerback McKenzie Barnes, offensive tackle Donovan Laie and defensive back Christian Young.
Barnes and Young mostly played on special teams. They combined for three starts. Young played safety and cornerback and became an important figure down the stretch when injuries thinned the secondary, particularly at corner.
Laie started every game, a rarity for a true-freshman offensive lineman. He’ll be a cornerstone for a line that could have multiple new starters in 2019.
The other newcomer who appeared in more than four games was defensive tackle PJ Johnson. Johnson could have been a one-and-done at Arizona after transferring from City College of San Francisco. After a breakout season, he applied for a sixth year of eligibility and is expected to be a key leader for the UA defense in ’19.
(UPDATE: Johnson has decided to enter the NFL draft. Details here.)
* Four players appeared in exactly four games, including three freshmen: receiver Tre Adams, safety Dayven Coleman and tailback Darrius Smith. The other newcomer to hit the number on the nose was offensive lineman Steven Bailey, a junior-college transfer.
Coleman and Smith might have exceeded four games if not for injuries suffered during the season. Both were healthy enough to return, but Sumlin and his staff made sure they didn’t go over the limit. As such, each has four years of eligibility remaining.
* Seven freshmen played in 1-3 games: receivers Jalen Bailey and Thomas Marcus; defensive linemen Mykee Irving and Nahe Sulunga; tight ends Jake Peters and Zach Williams; and quarterback Jamarye Joiner.
* Three freshmen did not appear in a game: quarterback Kevin Doyle, linebacker Issaiah Johnson and offensive lineman David Watson.
* The percentage of players who ended up redshirting in 2018 was significantly higher than the previous season, which was something of an outlier. Arizona needed and received significant contributions from a robust freshman class in ’17. Per my calculations, only 12 of 27 newcomers with multiple years of eligibility redshirted. That group included edge rusher Jalen Harris, who appeared in four games but got hurt and was granted a medical redshirt.
Interestingly, classmate and fellow pass rusher JB Brown also appeared in four games. But he didn’t get a redshirt because he didn’t get hurt. If the new rule had been in place for the ’17 season, Brown would have joined Harris as a redshirt sophomore in ’19. Instead, Brown has only two years of eligibility left, barring an injury that limits him to four or fewer games in one of the next two seasons.
A few other redshirt-related personnel notes:
- Receiver Brian Casteel, who played in 11 games as a freshman in 2017 before missing the ’18 season because of injury, will be a redshirt sophomore in ’19.
- Tailback Nathan Tilford, who played in 13 games as a freshman in 2017 but only one in ’18, also will be a redshirt sophomore thanks to the new rule. It remains to be seen if Tilford can make a positive impression with new running backs coach DeMarco Murray after failing to do so under his predecessor, Clarence McKinney. The fact that Tilford saved a year could make transferring a more appealing option if he’s unable to move up the depth chart.
- The new rule made it simple for veteran cornerback Jace Whittaker to get an extra year. Whittaker played in only one game in 2018 because of injuries. In the old days, Whittaker would have had to apply for a medical waiver. Now he’s a fifth-year senior, no questions asked.