A new NCAA ruling that will allow football players to participate in up to four games in a season without losing their redshirt would’ve been especially handy for Kentucky on numerous occasions during the Mark Stoops era.
Think about the Austin Peay game in 2016 when quarterback Stephen Johnson was hurting from a knee injury against Tennessee and Drew Barker was out with a back injury.
At the time, freshman Gunnar Hoak looked ready to play. Coaches wanted to see what he could do, and Hoak needed the live game reps.
Under the new ruling — announced Wednesday and going into effect this season — Hoak would have been able to play without penalty.
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Because of situations like that one and dozens of others through the years, Mark Stoops said he is in favor of the change announced by the Division I Council.
"I think it’s a win-win for all concerned,” Stoops told the Herald-Leader through a team spokesman. “There’s no question it would help the team and it helps the young man. It would help keep the individual engaged throughout the season if there is a chance to play."
The Kentucky coach specifically mentioned the suspension of starting punter Matt Panton late last season for an off-the-field issue, which nearly led to UK having to remove the season-long redshirt from Grant McKinniss.
"It worked out but to take the redshirt off would have penalized the young man," Stoops said. " That’s a situation when this rule would have helped."
The ruling allows a player to play four full seasons and up to four games in a fifth year.
The benefits are many, Division I Council chairman Blake James said in an NCAA news release on Wednesday.
“Redshirt football student-athletes are more likely to remain engaged with the team, and starters will be less likely to feel pressure to play through injuries,” James said. “Coaches will appreciate the additional flexibility and ability to give younger players an opportunity to participate in limited competition.”
One of the lone exceptions to the rule appears to keep a mid-year enrollee from participating in a bowl game that takes place before he has his first academic term at the school. (So for instance, a team playing in the national title game couldn't play a recent signee. )
The Division I student experience group also will look at how this ruling could apply to other sports, including what number of games would be appropriate. But for now, it's all football.
There have been many times that this rule would’ve directly benefited Kentucky during the Stoops era.
On multiple occasions, the Kentucky coach has expressed his wish to get a look at a player in live-game situations, but instead kept the redshirt on him out of caution.
“We were borderline playing probably four, five, six of these guys” in 2017, Stoops said of the redshirt players who could have been difference makers for UK at various points during the season like Alex King or Jordan Wright. “We did save their redshirt. I’m excited about these guys getting an opportunity to work and get on the field next year.”
The new rule would’ve been especially useful for UK during times late in a season when injuries stack up and the Cats have few options at specific positions like on special teams.
Under the new ruling, a true freshman could come in and play up to four games at any point during the season and still have four full seasons of eligibility remaining.
“I think it makes a lot of sense. It can protect the player and their redshirt year, help gain a little bit of experience for the following year, and overall I think it’s a very good rule,” Stoops said when it was introduced last June.
In recent seasons, Stoops also has lamented having to play guys who probably needed an extra year of development to reach their full potential, specifically mentioning players like defensive back Marcus McWilson and wide receiver Charles Walker.
Being able to play someone like that less than a handful of games and allowing him to keep that final year of eligibility might have made McWilson a more viable NFL prospect or helped UK’s secondary later.
“I really wish we could have redshirted him,” Stoops said of McWilson. “If I could go back and hit myself in the head, I would, and just bite the bullet and redshirt some of those guys as you try to build the program because he would be a real difference-maker one year later.”
In November, Stoops talked about the number of players that coaches considered pulling the redshirt off for any number of reasons, but being leery of costing them a full season of eligibility.
Redshirting is beneficial for players still because they get “extra lifting, they get some extra time with (strength and conditioning coaches) and those guys,” Stoops said, especially offensive and defensive linemen.