Starter Chad Kelly had suffered a season-ending ACL injury in an Ole Miss win over Georgia Southern Nov. 5 and, at the time, the Rebels were but two games away from bowl eligibility. Freeze wanted to give his departing seniors — which included Evan Engram, a first-round NFL Draft pick of the New York Giants — the best opportunity to win.
But Ole Miss fell one game short of the postseason. And ever since, his decision has been regularly debated throughout college football. He was even asked about it during his time on the SEC teleconference on Monday, some six months later.
“Obviously it was a decision that, at that point in the season, you’re looking at the Evan Engrams of the world, the D.J. Jones, Derrick Jones, those seniors,” he said. “What gives them the best opportunity to finish strong? In my mind, I knew that Shea gave them the best chance to win, but you also know that, man, you’re getting ready to play a kid for a possible three games, maybe a fourth. That was the struggle that I would have.
“But he and his parents were all on board, so ultimately you make that decision based on what you think is best for the team. I think typically when you make decisions based on what’s best for the team it’s usually the right thing to do. That’s really what it came down to.”
Freeze’s decision would have been a no-brainer had a new rule recently proposed by the American Football Coaches Association been implemented last season.
The AFCA last week put forward to the NCAA a potential rule change that would significantly alter the long-standing redshirt rule. If adopted, players could appear in up to four games without losing their redshirt status.
For example, had the rule been in place last season, Patterson would be entering 2017 as a redshirt freshman, despite having started three games under center for the Rebels. Patterson was 1-2 and totaled six touchdowns compared to three interceptions. He averaged 293.3 passing yards per game.
Freeze, obviously, is fully on board with the idea. The rule would allow for redshirt players to get valuable playing experience, as well as provide cover for teams that are dealt depth issues due to injury or other factors. Fans would also get a glimpse or two of the future stars of their respective programs.
“I love the new proposal that’s out there,” Freeze said. “I think it’s needed with everything that’s going on with college athletics. The season’s getting longer, and the more physical play that these kids are in year-around, the toll that’s on their bodies, I just think it’s a great option if you can play freshmen or a kid that’s going through a redshirt year in four games or less, I think it’s a very positive and needed change that we need to make.”
A player, under current rules, can still receive a redshirt if he plays in a maximum of 20 percent his team's games, but only in games at the beginning of the season. Still, in such cases, a redshirt is usually only granted if a player suffers a season-ending injury.
To be enacted as a rule, the proposal would have to pass the NCAA Division I Council and the Football Oversight Committee next year, meaning it wouldn’t take effect until at least 2018, if then.
“That would have affected (the Patterson) decision very easily,” Freeze said. “That would have been an easy decision to make. I’m a huge proponent of that. I think it’s going to be beneficial in bowl games when you can throw a kid in there and they get the experience. I’m excited about that.”