Clemson knew it had a quarterback controversy when the No. 2-ranked player in the 2018 recruiting class, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, signed with the Tigers and stepped on campus.
Incumbent starter Kelly Bryant had won 12 games and led the Tigers to the College Football Playoff in 2017, but through the first few games of this season Lawrence kept nipping at his heels until ultimately he was named the starter by head coach Dabo Swinney after the fourth game.
The timing of that decision is no coincidence. The new redshirt rule enacted this year by the Division I council states that a player can participate in up to four games of a single season without burning his redshirt, thus saving a year of eligibility. Redshirting this season will allow Bryant to eventually transfer as a graduate and play immediately at the new program he chooses.
Back in June, ESPN asked anonymous assistant coaches from the ACC, Pac-12 and SEC to help explain some of the finer points involving what this rule means and who would be most impacted by it. Now that we are four games into the season, let's try to answer some questions you might have about how the redshirt rule can be applied.
Does this apply to all players?
Initially the thought was that this rule would mainly apply to incoming true freshmen. The first-year players could play in up to four games of the season and contribute and develop without burning a redshirt.
We are seeing now that the rule is having a big impact on more veteran players, using the rule to determine if their playing time will diminish, like Bryant at Clemson.
The rule does not discriminate against the number of years spent in a program, so it applies not just to true freshmen but any player who has not participated in more than four games in a single season.
The caveat to that is that the transfer rules still apply, so if a third-year player decides to redshirt for the season and transfer out after the season, he is still required to sit out the following year before being eligible to play. The way around that is for a player to graduate and then transfer, which would allow him to play immediately, similar to the way quarterback Joe Burrow did when he left Ohio State for LSU.
Who are the high-profile veteran players who are already taking advantage of this?
Bryant is not the only veteran taking advantage of the new rule. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy announced on Monday that wide receiver Jalen McCleskey would be transferring and that the school will allow McCleskey to sit out the rest of the season to use his redshirt before he moves on to another program.
Gundy said McCleskey didn't feel good about the Cowboys getting him the ball, despite that he had 15 receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the first four games. Allowing non-freshmen to utilize this rule could be an issue for roster management, according to Gundy.
"If I was just to throw something out there, probably should be a rule that would be consistent within your first two years of eligibility," Gundy said. "So the NCAA's going to have to take a hard look, because right now the rules, forget Jalen's situation, the rules don't allow us to add a number to that. So let's say you had five guys do it, well I'm playing with 80 instead of 85 on scholarship now and I can't replace those numbers, even at the semester."
McCleskey is joined by Oregon senior running back Taj Griffin, Arkansas wide receiver Jonathan Nance and Auburn receiver Nate Craig-Myers and tight end Jalen Harris, who all intend to redshirt and transfer at the end of the season.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley also feels the spate of transfers means the NCAA may need to make adjustments.
"As we go forward with this rule, it may be something we need to look at," Riley said. "Because I don't know if it's good if you play a game for somebody that you should then be able to go play for somebody else or leave that year. I don't know. Maybe there should be a stronger penalty, potentially. I don't have the answers right now. We're all working through it."
Alabama coach Nick Saban noted on his radio show last week that the intent of the rule was to allow younger players to develop in real game action, but Saban said he's worried the use of the rule by older players will start to cause problems for coaches trying to manage their rosters.
"Now, I think that people are manipulating the rule in terms of older players who may be thinking, 'I could be a graduate transfer, so maybe if I only play in four games this year, I'll have a place to play next year,'" Saban said. "I don't think that was really the intent of the rule. It's probably one of those unintended consequences of what all rules sort of bring."
Which freshmen have made the most of the new rule?
Lawrence is one of the true freshmen who have made the most of the first four games of the season. Coming in as the No. 2-ranked prospect in the country, behind only Georgia quarterback Justin Fields, many believed Lawrence would eventually earn significant playing time, but he has now been named the starter.
"After four games, just looking at it, they've both played well, but this came down to you have to reward productivity. [Lawrence] has taken advantage of [opportunities]," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Monday. "Kelly didn't do anything wrong, but it's a situation where he's been in the game and productive, and to be fair to competition, just like we do for every position, Coach [Swinney] decided to name him the starter."
Lawrence split time with Bryant in each of the first four games, completing 39 of 60 passes for 600 yards and nine touchdowns along the way.
Fields has had less opportunities, completing 14 of 17 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns at Georgia with Jake Fromm ahead of him on the roster. Fields has appeared in all four games as well, though, so if he plays against Tennessee on Saturday, his redshirt opportunity will be gone. A redshirt is very unlikely, but the opportunity is there.
LSU senior left guard Garrett Brumfield has been ruled out for the Tigers' game against Ole Miss and coach Ed Orgeron said he is unsure when he will be back. Lucky for LSU, freshman Chasen Hines has been able to come in on two occasions when Brumfield went down. Hines was originally a defensive lineman but switched to offensive line earlier in the year and is now very likely to be the starting left guard in Brumfield's place. He can fill in two more games before burning his redshirt.
How has the rule impacted playing time for freshmen?
In 2017, Auburn played 11 true freshmen the entire season and nine through the first four games. This season, the Tigers have played 21 first-year players, nine of whom have played in all four games.
Clemson has seen an increase as well, playing 13 true freshmen so far this season, compared to eight in 2017. Among the 13, Lawrence, defensive lineman Xavier Thomas, wide receivers Justyn Ross and Derion Kendrick and kicker B.T. Potter have played in all four games.
Georgia increased its freshmen usage from 15 last season to 20 this season; Notre Dame increased from 10 to 14; and Oklahoma played eight true freshmen last season compared to 14 in 2018, with three playing in all four games thus far. Penn State only played three true freshmen in 2017 but already has played 15 in 2018. Stanford has seen eight true freshmen play in the first four games this season to four through the first four games of last season.
Those totals will likely change going forward. Not every player is going to play the whole season, and likely not every true freshman who will play this season has played. Coaches are being strategic about when to use their freshmen and how.
Texas coach Tom Herman said he and his staff are learning every week and coming up with new ideas daily to figure out which games to use his freshmen players.
"There will be some guys that maybe get injured early part of the season, and you maybe say, 'OK, let's take the middle couple games here and just not do anything at all and then use [the redshirt rule] at the end of the year,' and then you still get that year," Herman said. "That case can be made for a lot of true freshmen as well that we've held off of special teams. That might have been their only role back in the day, and you say, 'That's good enough for 10, 15 snaps a game on special teams, you're going to contribute.'
"But now it's like, 'Well if we can just save these, if we can get by on special teams toward the end of the season, we can have a mass shift in the personnel and use a bunch of fresh true freshmen who had two months of training with us as well.'"
A few thoughts from some of the coaches we talked to in June:
What do coaches think of the new rule?
ACC coach: "I think, No. 1, every place I've ever coached my entire life, a kid has a story that he played 15 snaps because there was an injury. He played 15 snaps or 30 snaps and lost an entire year because of it. It's not fair to him, because he had to do it because of the injury, so now kids are safe from that. I also think a lot of coaches, especially in nonconference play, will be a lot more apt to play those borderline freshmen. Maybe he gets a taste of live action, he plays better with the motivation of playing time, and as a coach, you're not so worried about burning that kid's redshirt."
Pac-12 coach: "I think it's a really good thing. It could be motivation. If you go down and crush it on scout team for the first half of the season, now there's that motivation that we'll play you. You don't have to wait until next year. I don't see too many negatives with it."
SEC coach: "I think there's obviously more positive [impact]. The majority of the kids who come to college now are so far ahead physically, they're closer to being ready to play. The thing that is the unknown is how the kid is going to handle college mentally. Those are the things that usually hold some guys back. The only way you can determine that is to put them out there and play. It'll give you an opportunity to put them out there under the lights and make a decision if this guy is a two-game guy or a one-game guy."
Are there any negatives to the new rule?
SEC coach: "I think there are some things that will come from this, but I do think there's going to be an influx of transfers. You play a kid two games and then you pull him back; he goes through the whole year and he does everything you ask. You get to the bowl game and you're going to play that kid because you're anticipating he's going to contribute next year. So you're going to play that kid in the bowl game because it doesn't trigger his redshirt. There's going to be somebody on the team that says if you're already playing him in the bowl game ahead of me, I'm probably not going to play next year. So that's going to create some transfers or movement."
What players could this impact the most?
ACC coach: "That's going to be huge for quarterbacks. Especially a guy who's behind an established starter. If you do it right, you basically have four seasons and four games, and I think for the overall development of the kid, that will be huge. One of the unintended consequences of it, because of the rule, a lot more freshman quarterbacks will play. Just to keep them happy, keep him there, hopefully don't transfer, you'll put him out there. On the flip side of that, when you have these five-star quarterbacks who can play, but they're at a place with an established starter, now if they transfer, [other teams will] have a lot more tape to look at. You're getting a lot more grad transfers with two years of eligibility, and now you'll have more tape from actual game film to scout."
SEC coach: "Offensive and defensive line is probably an area you won't see it as much. But the skill positions, you might get a receiver who is physically ready but might not know the playbook, so it buys him some time."
Does the new rule impact Power 5 or Group of 5 schools more?
Pac-12 coach: "I don't know that it will necessarily impact either one more than the other. As far as those big-time recruits that people think will play right away, you kind of have an idea with him that he'll play early. But what about the kid that comes in and didn't have all the hype and he's just crushing it on scout team? I think there are more of those type of players at the Group of 5 level. You're bringing in 25 guys who aren't five-stars and you don't know how it's going to sort out."
SEC coach: "I think it helps the Group of 5 schools the most, because you're expanding the depth. If you can replace that second-string walk-on with a freshman scholarship guy for four games, maybe you can win a few more [games]. It helps those Group of 5 teams establish legitimate scholarship depth, and you're not playing with walk-ons. Your first-string guy is good, and there's a big drop off to your second string; now you can plug in a freshman and you give yourself a chance."
How do you choose which games to play your athletes in?
ACC coach: "I think there's going to be a whole science in terms of roster management with it. Let's say everyone's healthy; now what four games do we want to get guys experience in so they're better as a redshirt freshman, sophomore and junior? I don't think it will be a blanket deal. With quarterbacks, you'll have coaches who will only play guys in blowouts, then you'll have the coaches who will say let's be smart about it and get this kid 10 reps in a rivalry game, even if it's just on special teams, so he can be a part of it. The kids that are redshirting on the scout team, let's get this kid 12 reps on kickoff and use it as a motivational tool. I think there will be some forward thinking if they use it as a motivational tool or developmental tool."
Pac-12: "The biggest advantage of the whole thing is the attrition. Guys are going down with injuries and the rosters aren't super big already. Now you can use those four games to help bridge injuries and you're not burning a redshirt. And you can save guys for the bowl games. We're seeing a lot of big-name guys not play in bowl games, and I think this will add an element to it. This kid's going to be a top-10 [draft] pick and wants to preserve his interests. Well, now I can activate this freshman [in his place], and he's getting better and more comfortable for the next season."
SEC coach: "We're not going to throw kids out there that aren't anywhere near ready; it's not a test run. You put a corner out there and he doesn't get the check, it doesn't matter if you're playing William & Mary or Alabama, he's going to get scored on. So do you use the guy who's ready in the first four games to see what's going on? In the middle of the season when the injury bug hits and you're trying to get through that? Do you use him in one nonconference game and three conference games? If I'm Akron, I might not put him out there against Ohio State early on. For us, it might make sense to put our kids out early to build some confidence, give him a legitimate chance to show what he can do. It just depends on where you're at."