Four years ago, linebacker Dominique Tovell wasn’t the happiest of the Louisiana-Lafayette fall campers.
Tovell was told he would sit out his true freshman season as a redshirt. It was when he got his first dose of post-prep reality, and it wasn’t sitting right with him.
“I wanted to play just like every freshman wants to play coming out of high school,” Tovell said. “You’re the big man on campus at your high school, so you want to come in and get on the field.”
Flash forward to the present, and Tovell is a preseason all-conference player and is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, which is awarded annually to college football’s best lineman or linebacker. It may have been tough to understand at the time, but now Tovell has two years of eligibility remaining at his physical peak.
“At the end, it was the best decision for me,” Tovell said.
Tovell is not alone. Thanks to the depth the Cajuns have built through their own success on the field and the recruiting trail, the program can afford what many others can’t by handing out a redshirt.
Don’t get the coaching staff wrong, it doesn’t redshirt players simply because it can. If a freshman comes in and proves himself ready to compete, coach Mark Hudspeth will find a spot for him on the field.
“All of it depends on the people in front of them, it depends on the depth, it depends on if they’re ready,” Hudspeth said. “Normally by the first game we have an idea of who’s going to redshirt, who’s going to play and who’s on the bubble.”
And if he could use an extra year of development? The Cajuns feel their experienced roster allows them a chance to abstain from throwing young players to the wolves.
“Redshirting is a luxury that you build to,” said assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator Reed Stringer. “We didn’t redshirt in our first two years here. We signed kids to play. That’s what we felt like we needed to do.”
That becomes evident when looking at the Cajuns starting lineup. Seven of the Cajuns 22 projected starters have a redshirt year under their belt, eight if redshirt freshman receiver Matthew Barnes is included with that group. A few of those can be attributed to the prior regime, as fifth-year seniors Trevence Pratt and Daniel Quave both sat in the last year of the Rickey Bustle era. One, quarterback Terrance Broadway, sat a year because of NCAA transfer rules.
That’s not an unusually high number. Many of the starters this season were counted on to play big roles as freshmen, whether as starters or as key reserves. But peel the layers of the Cajuns’ depth chart, at least a dozen prominent backups have a redshirt season under their belt.
“There were some very good players here, but there were also some depth issues that needed to be fixed as well,” Stringer said. “Kids played early. We have built this team to the point now where we could redshirt every kid we sign (if we wanted to). That’s a good thing.”
Redshirting is a hindsight business. It’s hard to notice the benefits at first, but the where the difference is made, especially at a program where replacing players who declare for the NFL early isn’t a yearly problem, is when Hudspeth and his staff are able to deploy fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors.
Take a look at the Cajuns’ projected starting offensive line this season, which includes a fourth-year junior at left tackle, a junior at left guard, a senior at center, a fifth-year senior at right guard and a fourth-year junior at right tackle.
“In the long run, that extra year of development is critical to having successful teams,” Stringer said.
It doesn’t come without its difficulties, though. One of the best selling points for a college football recruiter is early playing time, which is the exact opposite of a redshirt year.
That does not stop the Cajuns from targeting players they think will be ready immediately, a model used by the Southeastern Conference. From that point on, it’s on the freshmen to go out and earn playing time.
“We sign kids to play them,” Stringer said. “If they’re good enough to play, we play them. We don’t sign kids to redshirt them, but it is a luxury once you build enough depth where you don’t have to play all of them. Because one they’ve been in the program for a year, they’re a changed kid.
“Scott Austin, Darius Hoggins and Tracey Walker are three kids that come to mind that redshirted last year and are completely different players. They’re actually ready now to contribute, and that’s a good thing.”
Not every player is disappointed in getting a redshirt.
Junior left tackle Mykhael Quave, who came to the Cajuns in the same signing class with Tovell, was a high school tight end who needed the year to bulk up and learn the finer points of the position. Now Mykhael Quave is regarded as one of the better left tackles in the Sun Belt Conference.
“I feel like the redshirt is what really made the difference for me in my career here,” Quave said.