There are a few times in a coach's career path when he can, however, change just about anything and everything about his approach to the game: the first season at a new job.
Even the most rabid and success-crazed fanbase in college sports would be hard-pressed to fire any coach after their first season, no matter what the record. There's an understanding that with a new coach and a new staff come some initial bumps and detours. The players are learning new schemes, terminology and adjusting to an entirely different style of coaching. If the way the previous guy operated didn't work, the new coach will likely operate in a manner diametrically opposed to his predecessor. Tom O'Brien and the erstwhile Chuck Amato are perfect examples of this.
So with that big ol' Get Out Of Jail Free card burning a hole in O'Brien's pocket, now's the time to take a page from the playbook of Wake Forest's Jim Grobe and sacrifice the here-and-now for a brighter future down the road. In other words, he should redshirt like he's never redshirted before.
The benefits of freshmen redshirting their first season are obvious. They get a full year of coaching and playbook study under their belt. They get to watch and learn from their upperclass teammates. They get a full year of weight and dietary training to add bulk and prepare their frames for the increased punishment that comes at the major college level. They also get a full two semesters (or more, counting summer sessions) to get on solid academic footing and get acclimated to the rigors of balancing an academic workload along with football.
When Grobe came to Wake Forest, he made no bones about his redshirting intentions. He planned to redshirt virtually every player he signed unless circumstances forced his hand otherwise. It may have cost Wake wins in his first couple of seasons, but a roster full of redshirted players proved invaluable to the Deacs on their way to the conference title last season.
For O'Brien, now would be the perfect opportunity to do the same here in Raleigh. He should redshirt everything in sight, quite frankly. Freshman, sophomore, reserve or starter, it shouldn't matter. If a player doesn't have the "RS" designation in front of his class, buddy, he should be sitting out 2007. Hell, even the trainers should take a year off.
O'Brien can't take it to that extreme, of course—he can't very well yank a true senior starter from the depth chart about to begin his fourth season with the team. But O'Brien realistically can—and should—redshirt every freshman on this year's team, and every freshman from here on out. This is the year where expectations for wins will be at their lowest and where change in any form or fashion will be greeted with open arms and not with an air of skepticism.
If O'Brien tries to win early in his career in Raleigh by putting his most talented true freshmen on the field this year as backups in spelling the starters, he will be doing a disservice to himself and the Pack of the future when these players are no longer with the team. Folks in Raleigh may wonder why the wunderkind from last year's class isn't seeing time at a spot where the Pack may be desperately thin, but those kinds of questions are best answered with the results that will come on the field and in the classroom five years from now.
Was the Pack better off succeeding to a minor degree in 2000 when all-everything Philip Rivers started as a true freshman, or could the Pack have had a truly special season in 2004 when the ACC's greatest quarterback would've played with the nation's stingiest defense? It's scary to think what a fifth-year Rivers could've done in that scenario.
That's the ultimate woulda-coulda-shoulda in recent Pack history, of course, and hindsight is always 20/20. It's much easier, however, to make a full-scale commitment to redshirting in a coach's first year than later down the road.
Ask John Bunting at Carolina how understanding the fans and administrators were when he decided to redshirt the majority of what would become Bunting's final recruiting class. It was too-little, too-late and when the losses mounted, the potential of a heavily-redshirted freshman class wasn't nearly enough to save his job after years of disappointing finishes.
Selling the idea of redshirting an entire class to high school prospects is tough when you're going after the best available. Kids like to play football and hate to sit on the sidelines, especially the real talented prospects with their eyes already on the next level.
But if O'Brien has even the slightest desire to institute full-scale redshirting, he's got a proven model for success in the Piedmont to show recruits and fans alike just what full-scale redshirting can do.
Now would be the time to do it.