To redshirt or not

Since Dennis Franchione took over as head coach, there have been a lot of significant changes associated with the Alabama football program. But probably none so dramatic as the philosophy regarding playing time for true freshmen. Under the previous regime, as many as eleven true freshmen in a year were thrown on the field immediately. This season?<br><br>So far, one.

And despite the fact that defensive end Todd Bates is acclaimed by all his coaches as a potential all-star, even he would probably not be playing were it not for Antwan Odom's shoulder surgery.

Several basic precepts underlie the philosophy, beginning with the simple belief that (virtually) every true freshman needs a redshirt year to gain strength, mature and acclimate to college life.

Period. End of story.

Yes, players like Saleem Rasheed exist--a true freshman who was both mentally and physically prepared to play almost from the moment he first arrived on campus. But Rasheed is the exception.

Saleem Rasheed played (and starred) as a true freshman. But that doesn't negate the rule that virtually every player would benefit from a redshirt season.

An exceedingly rare exception.

The second idea is no less important, and is embodied by a phrase familiar to Tide veterans.

  • Athletes should have to earn the right to wear that Crimson jersey
Playing football for The University of Alabama is special--something not easily obtained, and once earned, should be held dear.

Frankly, the privilege shouldn't be granted until a player has some understanding of the history and tradition that has gone before. Otherwise, callow youth will tend to take the experience for granted.

The final principal was explained by Franchione recently. You don't burn an athlete's redshirt year on just a few plays. Nor do you foolishly waste the year in an unnecessary backup role.

In discussing the possibility of middle linebacker Freddie Roach or cornerback Charlie Peprah--both of whom are physically ready to contribute right now--playing this season, Franchione stated flatly that it wouldn't happen unless the coaches were committed to giving them significant minutes in a meaningful role.

Of course every new player wants to get on the field immediately. As Freddie Milons likes to say, that's just part of being ‘young and dumb.' But it's a coach's job to be the grownup. And whether the youngster is capable of seeing the long view or not, by definition a coach is mature enough to see it for him--or at least he should be.

It's difficult to come up with accurate numbers, because many players either never arrived on campus, weren't eligible their first season, or left quickly (for a variety of reasons) soon after. But we estimate that under the previous regime almost half (our number was 36 of 79) of eligible true freshman played.

Because Alabama was thin at tight end when he arrived on campus, Terry Jones Jr. played (and started) almost immediately. But even then his coaches admitted in private that they weren't being completely fair in throwing him into the fire of SEC competition with no time for seasoning.

Yes, that number includes names like Rasheed, Kindal Moorehead, Kenny Smith and Terry Jones Jr.--all of whom were clearly able to compete successfully their first seasons. But at the same time, it's impossible to argue against the fact that the vast majority of true freshman ‘should' redshirt, if possible.

Shawn Draper, Freddie Milons, Reggie Myles, Kenny King, Dante Ellington, Antwan Odom--exceptional athletes every one. But did any of their freshman-year production justify using up the season?

And that doesn't even touch on the other group--players that burned their first year for no discernable reason whatsoever.

Shontua Ray, Alonzo Ephraim, Brooks Daniels, Donnie Lowe, Hirchel Bolden, Triandos Luke, Cornelius Wortham... That's an impressive list of names. Every one a player that Tide fans would dearly love to have back for an extra year in Crimson. But in every case their potential redshirt season was burned, yielding little or no particular benefit to the team's final record.

And the really hard truth is that many other names could be added to the list.

Yes, recruiting has changed. Many (actually most) of the big-time recruits list early playing time as their most important factor in choosing a school. No one is arguing that point, nor denying that coaches must deal with that reality.

But the question remains. What good is it to bring aboard a top recruit if, because of the way he is used, his career ends up a disappointment?

Alabama clearly needs help at safety this season, and at some point in his career Roman Harper is viewed as a potential starter at the position. But don't expect to see the true freshman on the field this year.

If a player leaves early for the pros, he leaves early. The lure of professional money is there, and it's not likely to disappear any time soon. But athletes like David Palmer are exceptions. And should the fear of what might happen in three years prompt a coach to compromise on what he knows is right?

If an athlete 'on the edge' academically winds up ineligible, then he does. Certainly Alabama has lost several players in recent years to the NCAA's degree-progress rule. But there are just as many examples of young men who have gotten their academic act together and end up graduating.

Again, should the problems of a few 'at risk' student-athletes turn a coach away from a course he knows is right?

The truth is that even the most talented players can be hurt (even ruined) by being played too soon. Bad habits aren't corrected, the youngster has no intrinsic motivation to improve, and, worst of all, the athlete is robbed of the chance to learn one of the most important lessons that football can teach. Success in life (and football) is paid for through hard, grinding work. Nothing comes easily.

Nothing of value, at least.

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