In June the NCAA approved a new rule regarding redshirt eligibility, which the American Football Coaches Association had proposed in January. The new rule allows players to appear in as many as four games before they forfeit their redshirt option.
The proposal is well supported among coaches, including North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman. Klieman, who was voted to the American Football Coaches Association board of trustees in January, offered comment at his media day press conference Aug. 8. “We’re going to play some freshmen,” he remarked. “Don’t ask me which ones because I don’t know other than to say all of them are going to have an opportunity.
Klieman played coy at media day, but the Bison’s raucous 49-3 triumph over Cal Poly in the home opener offered some insight into the head coach’s mindset. With the game essentially decided less than two minutes into the third quarter, backups and true freshmen had nearly two quarters to prove themselves.
Of NDSU’s 30 true freshmen, only linebacker Jasir Cox, strong safety James Kaczor and wide receiver Phoenix Sproles saw action this past Saturday.
None of the trio had any substantial impact. Sproles saw snaps with the first team, but failed to record a reception on three targets, one from Easton Stick and two from backup Holden Hotchkiss. Kaczor’s lone tackle came on special teams. Cox, Jabril’s younger brother, did not appear on the stat sheet.
After the game, Klieman indicated that both the maturity and physicality of the three stood out during fall camp, giving him confidence that they could figure into the equation in the opener.
The task ahead for the 2017 Missouri Valley Coach of the Year and his staff is to bring the other 27 true freshmen up to speed. It was another rule change that complicated matters with respect to developing players. The number of fall practices was reduced from 29 to 25. With that and adjusting to life on campus, the job of raising teenagers to FCS-caliber play became even more difficult.
With a bye week preceding the Herd’s contest with FCS debutants North Alabama, much can change on the depth chart.
Klieman indicated that Sproles would likely play in every game this year. A two-time all-conference player at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota, Sproles is clearly a player that Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham will look to increasingly feature as the season progresses.
Another candidate for playing time in the non-conference schedule is Trey Lance, though he is presumably below Noah Sanders as the No. 4 quarterback on NDSU’s roster. Still, if the scoreboard permits, Lance could see his number called in garbage time duties.
Hotchkiss was the only quarterback besides Stick to play against Cal Poly. The Florida native completed one of four passes and scored a rushing touchdown.
It’s worth noting that each player’s allotment of four games can be used at any point in the season and doesn’t need to be consecutive. This allows for coaches to plug in true freshmen if injuries late in the season force them to do so. The rule isn’t limited to freshmen, either.
In the case of Dimitri Williams, this may wind up being the case. Williams — a fourth-year senior — was officially listed as a wide receiver in 2017. This season he is converting to running back, the position for which he was originally recruited, and may use his redshirt option.
Klieman still anticipates that other freshmen will prove themselves and play the entire season as a result. How and when he deploys the remaining 27 freshmen is still yet to be seen. While the non-conference schedule offers a lower-stakes proving ground for young players, using them early in the schedule isn’t without risk.
Given the unpredictable nature of injuries and the looming gauntlet of Missouri Valley play, it is impossible to predict when players will get injured or rest will be needed. Therefore, year one under the new redshirt rule will be more of an inexact science than a set-in-stone tactic.
It’ll continue to be a fluid situation for NDSU while fresh faces continue to familiarize themselves with the offensive and defensive schemes.
Had the new redshirt rule been instituted a year ago, Klieman admitted his rotation of availiable players for the national championship game would have been different. “Michael Tutsie would have played in the national championship game and probably would have been one of our best players on punt and kickoff,” Klieman stated. “I wasn’t going to burn a (redshirt) on one game.”
Should a similar scenario arise this season, it is safe to say a freshman would be in line to play as long as he hasn’t played in four games already. Tutsie, a strong safety, would have provided value on special teams in the absence of Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush.
The new rule wouldn’t have saved Seth Wilson, however. With Ty Brooks, Lance Dunn and Demaris Purifoy all injured at various points a year ago, Klieman begrudgingly had to pull Wilson’s redshirt for the final six games of the season.
Wilson proved to be ready to go, but losing an entire year of eligibility stung. If the current rule was in place, perhaps his playing time could have been managed to keep him at the four game cap.
Another youngster to monitor is Zach Mathis. The 6-foot-6-inch freshman from Tampa could become a matchup challenge for opposing defensive backs. A lanky wideout would make a nice complementary piece for Stick.
With favorable rules in place regarding eligibility, it seems more likely than not that the majority of NDSU’s freshmen will see action before season’s end.