Just a few months ago, the NCAA determined that college football players who play in four or fewer games during the course of a season are now eligible for a redshirt. Whether players qualify due to injury or their position on the depth chart, the same flat four game limit applies regardless.
This opens up some major opportunities for Illinois and its young roster, but Lovie is keeping his exact response to the rule change close to the vest.
Lovie: Last year I don't think (new redshirt rule) would have changed much. We felt like we needed to play those freshmen who gave us the best chance to win. Odds are we're going to play more (young guys) this year, but we have options. #Illini— Scott Richey (@srrichey) July 24, 2018
By allowing players to take part in up to four games per season while maintaining a redshirt, Lovie Smith and Co. can get a look at how newcomers react in real game situations. Using that information, coaches can decide whether to continue playing them in five or more games that season, or they can bench them for the rest of the year if it seems like they could use the added strength, conditioning, and technique work that comes with a redshirt year.
For the offense...
I especially see this rule having a major impact on the offense, where depth is finally building at the running back and quarterback positions. Running back should be held down by Mike Epstein, Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin, and Ra’Von Bonner, hopefully allowing freshman Jakari Norwood to redshirt and still see some game action as both a back and a return man. California-native and freshman running back Kenyon Sims should also be able to find the field this fall while qualifying under the new redshirt rule.
Illinois very quickly went from having barely any scholarship quarterbacks, to now having five. AJ Bush will start in 2018, and it appears Cam Thomas will be his immediate backup. Barring injury, all three freshman quarterbacks should be able to play at least a live series in a one-sided game while still maintaining their redshirts. If Bush is able to stay healthy much of the season, it’s even possible that Cam Thomas could take advantage of the new rule and have an extra year to hone his skills.
It’s tough to say if any of the wide receivers will be able to qualify under the new rule due to the lack of depth at the receiver spots and the impact that we know freshmen can make at the position, as Ricky Smalling showed last year. The same is true of the offensive line. I hope many of the incoming linemen can take a redshirt using the relaxed requirements, but depth concerns could make that difficult.
For the defense...
The new rule’s impact on the defense is a little trickier to project, since many defensive players who do not start at their normal positions do see regular time on special teams. I would really like to see sophomore defensive lineman Marc Mondesir have an extra year to get accustomed to his new position after moving from linebacker. But I am more excited about the possibility of allowing Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery to get their feet wet in game action this year, while keeping them in orange and blue for five years if the NFL doesn’t come calling sooner.
Illinois doesn’t have much depth at linebacker, so it will be tough for anyone at that position to qualify for a redshirt. On the other hand, the secondary is loaded with young talent, and it would be great to have the freshmen who aren’t needed extensively this season take an extra year to get stronger, faster, and better accustomed to Illinois’ defensive schemes.
The new redshirt rule also allows coaches to take more control over class balance. With as much roster turnover as Illinois has had in recent years, class balance is going to be key to maintaining any success that we find in the upcoming seasons. This rule allows coaches to even out their recruiting classes and move talent around, while still receiving some immediate benefits from young players.
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