A difficult decision in 2014 could have prevented Michael Deiter from returning to the University of Wisconsin football team this season.
Set to be a fifth-year senior this fall, Deiter was a true freshman when the Badgers’ offensive line ran into injury issues prior to the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State. Center Dan Voltz planned on playing through an ankle injury he picked up the previous week against Minnesota, but UW prepared Deiter to play his first game in an emergency situation.
“You’ve got to be able to snap the ball to keep playing,” former UW coach Gary Andersen said before that game. “So if that means Michael Deiter plays, then Michael Deiter plays.”
Voltz only lasted four offensive snaps against the Buckeyes, but the Badgers never turned to Deiter. If they had, the lineman would have burned his redshirt for a 59-0 blowout loss and saw his eligibility expire after last year’s Orange Bowl.
Some aren’t as lucky as Deiter. West Virginia running back Martell Pettaway played his first snap in 2016 during the Mountaineers’ 11th game of the season, rushing for 181 yards on 30 carries while a number of other backs sat out due to injury. After burning his redshirt season, Pettaway has carried only 62 more times in West Virginia’s 15 games since as he heads into his junior year.
Predicaments such as these are why many stand in favor of a proposed new rule that would allow players to participate in four games and still redshirt. The rule could be voted on by the NCAA Division I Council this week and go into effect for the 2018 season.
“I think everybody’s always troubled by that sort of thing,” said Big 12 commissioner and NCAA Football Oversight Committee chair Bob Bowlsby, referring to Pettaway’s situation in 2016. “I think it’s got a reasonable chance. ... I don’t think it’s a fait accompli that it will pass, but I think it has enough traction that it is worthy of debate.”
The current proposal would allow true freshmen and other players who haven’t redshirted to participate in any four games during the season and maintain that year of eligibility. It appears unlikely that a final version of the rule would apply retroactively to previous seasons.
Any reason for hesitancy stems from the rule’s major departure from the NCAA’s long-standing eligibility model. While the change makes sense from the perspective of Division I football, it may not fit neatly into a box for every other NCAA sport. Bowlsby said that can create some headwind in efforts to adopt the rule, even though the current proposal only calls for a change in football at the FBS level.
Bowlsby said passing the proposal could cause the NCAA to rethink guidelines on medical hardships as well. While he’s interested to hear the debate on this issue, he said the oversight committee is in favor of the new rule and he expects to ultimately vote for it to pass.
The American Football Coaches Association has been pushing some version of this rule since 2001, according to executive director Todd Berry.
Coaches are the ones in the difficult position of asking their players to burn redshirts late in the season. Berry, the former head coach at Illinois State, Army and Louisiana-Monroe, said he once had a defensive lineman who didn’t want to lose his year of eligibility when asked to play late in the season.
Instead, Berry played another defensive lineman 87 snaps in one game — exposing him to a greater risk of injury.
“We vote every year on things, and in our business meetings, across all levels, this has been unanimous,” Berry said of the proposed new redshirt rule. “That doesn’t happen very often. Everybody has some uniqueness to their institutions or their level or their region, and they tend to vote for what’s best for their own university.
“This is something that’s been unanimous for two years. I’ve never seen anything be unanimous one year, let alone two.”
UW’s true freshmen could have benefited from this last season in multiple ways.
Some of the most talented prospects who did redshirt, such as tight end Jake Ferguson, safety Scott Nelson and offensive lineman Kayden Lyles, could have gained experience in late-season games against Minnesota and Miami (Fla.) while maintaining freshman status in 2018.
Quarterback Jack Coan and cornerback Madison Cone each played as true freshmen but in minimal roles. The Badgers wanted Coan to have at least some game experience in case starter Alex Hornibrook suffered an injury, so he saw the field whenever the score was out of hand late in games. While Cone mainly played on special teams, UW wanted to get his feet wet before getting a shot at starting in 2018.
The two played in six and nine games, respectively, but likely could have been limited to four given their roles on the team.
Cone said last season still felt like a redshirt year, even though he lost a year of eligibility.
“I know I’m going to be a sophomore, but this honestly feels like my first year to really show people what I can do,” Cone said. “If you look at my case, I played but it was hardly any. I don’t even remember how many games I played, but in all of those it wasn’t much. It wasn’t more than a series or two.
“I definitely think (the new rule) is something that’s going to help guys out.”