“Put 2-9 in,” a disgruntled Nick Saban said into his headsets.
Travis Daniels, in his No. 29 LSU jersey, followed his coach’s orders, jogging from the sideline and onto the field during the 2001 Southeastern Conference championship game against Tennessee.
The first play of his college career came seconds later — in the third quarter of the 12th game of the season, effectively ending his planned redshirt year.
“You’re forced to play, and as a player you don’t want to let your team down (and say), ‘Oh, I’m going to lose a year,’ ” Daniels said this week. “We had a good amount of guys getting hurt. I had an idea that if somebody else goes down, there’s a chance I would have to play. When it happened, I saw coach hang his head. I could tell he was disappointed, but we had no choice.”
The redshirt is on the cusp of significantly changing.
The NCAA can pass a proposal next week that would allow players to participate in any four games in a season and use their one redshirt for that year. If passed, the change is not retroactive for current players and certainly doesn’t give Daniels, out of school for more than a decade, another year of eligibility.
However, the change would alter and, at times, extend the future careers of college football players starting with the 2018 season. For instance, if granted a redshirt for that 2001 freshman season, Daniels said he would have remained in school for his fifth season in 2005. He could have graduated on time, instead of returning later like he did, and he could have improved his NFL draft value.
“That’s a great rule change,” said Daniels, retired from the NFL and living in Miami with his wife and two daughters while operating a wedding photography company. “It would have helped me out later down the line. I would have gone from a fourth- to a first-round pick just because of that one extra year.”
The redshirt proposal is one of many up for approval in front of the NCAA Division I Council at their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
Many of the other football proposals are player-friendly, too. One makes it easier for players to receive a sixth year of eligibility, for example. Another allows coaches to speak with recruits in the spring, turning an evaluation period in April and May into a contact period. A third gives walk-ons a quicker way to earn a scholarship.
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The 37-member council, made up mostly of school administrators, must vote a majority to pass each of the dozens of proposals, many of them sponsored by conferences. Passage by the council is the first of two steps. Legislation is only final after it is approved April 25 by the NCAA Board of Governors, a 24-member panel of high-ranked school administrators.
The redshirt proposal is the most significant on the docket. The NCAA allows athletes to play four full seasons over five calendar years, using one as a redshirt. If the new proposal passes, a player could actually play 4⅓ seasons.
“It’ll help out a lot of younger athletes,” LSU defensive end Breiden Fehoko said. “Once guys get to the college atmosphere and realize it’s not like high school, you’ve got to learn a lot more, mature a lot quicker. I think that’s why it’s good to get out there and test it out those four games. It’s not fair to burn an athlete’s year of eligibility if they just step on the field once.”
Through the years, many players have been victim of the latter.
At LSU alone, at least eight players over the previous two seasons could have used the potential new rule. Defensive end Deondre Clark played in three games as a senior in 2017. He’d have a fifth year of eligibility in 2018 if the change applied last season. Racey McMath, Mannie Netherly and Justin Thomas played in a combined five games last season as freshmen.
In 2016, quarterback Brandon Harris played in four games. Like Clark, he would have a fifth year of eligibility in 2018 as a redshirt senior. Cornerback Kristian Fulton, as a freshman in 2016, played in three games, and David Ducre played in four games in 2016. Ducre enters this season as a senior on his final year of eligibility. He’d be a redshirt junior with two more seasons to play, if the new change applied.
“Love it,” coach Ed Orgeron said of the proposal. “You can take those guys, invest in your roster, invest in the development of your team, invest in your rotation. This is basketball on grass these days. You got some offenses out there trying to run 100 plays (a game). The more guys you can play without burning a year would be great.”
Coaches have been unanimous in their support for this change for two consecutive years, said Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. Personally, Berry has fought for this change to the redshirt for 17 years.
The move is a benefit for both the player and the team, Berry said, giving a freshman key experience — as late in the season as a bowl game — and relieving a coach from tough decisions like Saban endured in 2001. The Saban-Daniels example is one of the primary “rationales” for the change, according to a document the NCAA publicly released in February.
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The current rule often places coaches in a difficult position to decide whether to play an athlete a limited amount or preserve his season of eligibility, the document said. Additional flexibility with substitutes may allow starters and more experienced players additional rest and/or to feel less pressure to play through injuries.
Medical redshirt waivers would, in some cases, be unnecessary. Medical redshirts are handed out to players who meet strict criteria: They must have suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of the season, and they could not have played in more than three games before sustaining the injury.
Berry provided an example of a former player who received a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending injury. Recovery from the injury lasted through the first half of the next season. He returned in the sixth game of an 11-game season and suffered another season-ending injury.
Under the proposal, the player would have been eligible for a regular redshirt for that second season. Under the current rule, he'd potentially lose that second year.
“Is there potential for some gamesmanship with the proposed rule? Maybe a little,” Berry admitted. “Maybe a kid plays early for three or four plays just as a simple reward for working hard and doing the right things. There is potential for players to play in a bowl game as a reward for the end of the season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Transfers are at an all-time high in college football. Players who redshirt as freshmen are not often as engaged during the season as others, prompting their decisions to leave the school.
“One of the most difficult things for players is they can’t play at all when they’re freshmen to be able to gain a redshirt year,” Saban said last year about the proposal. “They all want to play. This would give them an opportunity to play some and would actually enhance their development to some degree.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason last year called the current redshirt rule “antiquated.” He’s for the proposed change, citing a potential increase in a team’s depth for bowl games.
“(In 2016), when you look at (Leonard) Fournette, (Christian) McCaffrey and those guys not playing in bowl games — (missing) those guys affect games,” he said. “Is that going to be a future trend? I don’t know. As we move forward, coaches have to prepare for guys who may be draft-worthy possibly not playing in postseason games. And what does that do to you in terms of your numbers and/or players who are readily available to you?”
Daniels played in LSU’s Sugar Bowl victory over Illinois a few weeks after Randall Gay’s injury against the Volunteers thrust him into action in 2001. He played in less than six total quarters, basically losing a full season of eligibility.
He has no regrets about playing. So low on depth, his team needed him, and he batted away at least one potential Tennessee touchdown during that SEC title match.
“For me,” he said, “not going into the game was not even an option.”
Several other bylaws are up for amendment. Here are a few noteworthy ones.
Sixth year waiver
- This bylaw change would make it easier for a player to receive a sixth year of eligibility through an NCAA waiver. A player who redshirted his or her freshman season, because of a coach’s decision, would be approved for a sixth year. This player would have had to miss at least one other season, potentially because of injury, over their final four years.
New contact period
- This is a recruiting bylaw change. It would expand the spring evaluation period (April 15-May 31) into a contact period, allowing coaches to speak to players while they visit their high schools. This proposal was triggered by the addition of spring official visits and the early signing period in December. The entire recruiting calendar is shifting forward.
Social media interaction
- This is a recruiting proposal that will allow current college athletes to engage with recruits on social media regarding their recruitment, provided the communication is not made at the direction of the institution's coaches or staff. Currently, college players cannot interact publicly on social media with recruits.
- This proposal would allow a player (a walk-on) who has been enrolled at a school for one year to receive a scholarship and not be included in a signing class. Now, a walk-on must be enrolled at least two years at a school in order to receive a scholarship.
Underclassmen pro day
- A bylaw currently exists allowing underclassmen to participate in pro day, but the policy forces coaches and underclassmen to “count” their participation in pro day as a spring practice session. This proposal eliminates that, leading to more underclassmen participating in pro day.
From 105 to 110
- Under this proposal, the NCAA would increase the number of players allowed to participate in preseason camp from 105 to 110.
- The proposal would eliminate the prohibition on alcohol at NCAA championships. For the previous two years, the NCAA has sold beer and wine at NCAA championships through a waiver. Results have been so “favorable,” the NCAA reports, that the governing body is completely abolishing long-standing legislation that prohibits alcohol.
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