It was the final game of Bill Curry’s final season at Kentucky. The head football coach had been fired seven games into the 1996 season, but was allowed to finish out the year. The Cats had responded with a three game-winning streak heading into the season finale at Tennessee.
Curry and offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac started a true freshman named Jimmy Haley during that 56-10 loss to the Volunteers. A tight end, Haley had been converted to fullback to fill a need created by injuries. He had not played in a game all season. Thus, the season’s last game was his first game.
By playing in that one game, for a coaching staff that was on its way out the door, Haley burned an entire year of eligibility.
A new rule proposed by the American Football Coaches Association, and taken into consideration by the newly formed Division I Football Competition Committee on Tuesday, would prevent that from happening again.
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Under the proposal, a player would be allowed to participate in up to four games in a season and still be allowed to redshirt. In essence, he could play four years and up to four games in a fifth season.
It’s about time.
Currently, as happened with Haley, one play equals one year. If a player plays in just one game, he loses a year of eligibility. The exception: he suffers a season-ending injury that would grant him an extra year of eligibility under the appropriate guidelines.
When Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly was lost late in the season to an ACL, head coach Hugh Freeze took the redshirt off highly touted true freshman quarterback Shea Patterson. The five-star recruit played three games for a 5-7 Rebels team that failed to make a bowl game.
As UK Coach Mark Stoops stated on Monday’s SEC teleconference, the Cats could have faced the same situation. When starting quarterback Drew Barker was lost for the year to injury during the season’s third game, juco Stephen Johnson became the starter and true freshman Gunnar Hoak the backup. Luckily, Johnson remained healthy the rest of the season. Had Johnson been injured, Stoops might have been forced to burn Hoak’s redshirt year for just a few games.
In fact, with Johnson ailing heading into the season’s 11th game against OVC member Austin Peay, Stoops chose to keep the redshirt on Hoak and start walk-on transfer Luke Wright. After a rough start, Walker was replaced by Johnson, who led the Cats to a 49-13 win.
Under the proposed rule, Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran could have played Hoak, giving the staff a game to evaluate and the rookie quarterback valuable experience.
That’s just one benefit of the rule. With the college season now 12 games, not counting conference championships, bowls and the College Football Playoffs, the new rule would allow more players to be available to play. That would mean fewer snaps for regulars and fewer opportunities for injury.
It will help bowl games, as well. LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey sat out their team’s respective bowl games last season for fear of being injured before the NFL Draft. We will see more of that in the future, not less. That’s especially true given that Michigan tight end Jake Butt, a projected first-round pick, played in the Orange Bowl, tore his ACL and slipped all the way to the fifth round.
With the new rule, coaches and fans could get a longer look at freshmen who did not see much, if any, action during the year. In one sense, bowls would become the preview of the new season instead of the final game of the last season.
Will the rule pass? If approved by the competition committee, the proposal could be voted on by the NCAA in January. And all 14 SEC coaches on the spring teleconference spoke in favor. It makes too much sense for the coaches, the programs and, most importantly, the players.