Nebraska is heading into week four of the season, which means decision time is quickly approaching regarding how much to play true freshmen.
The four-game redshirt rule has changed how coaches handle their rosters and rotations, providing those that are ready to see the field but buried on the depth chart behind more experienced players a chance to get a taste of college football without burning a year of eligibility.
Last season, five players burned their redshirts: quarterback Adrian Martinez, running back Maurice Washington, kicker Barret Pickering, outside linebacker Caleb Tannor, defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt and wide receiver Jaron Woodyard (a junior college transfer with three years to play two). None of them were simply special teams players (other than Pickering, that is); each of them got a chance to work in on either offense or defense.
Fourteen others played in between one and four games (two played in four, one in three, three in two and eight more in one).
What is this staff’s philosophy regarding the new rule?
“You have your pool of guys that you would like to redshirt if possible,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “So you look at that and then you kind of project, ‘’OK, this guy could play here, here and here, barring injuries and health. Then we can use this guy for here, here and here.’ We don’t want them all to play at once, you’ve got to spread it out a little bit. There’s strategy involved in it. We look at the guys that we really would like to redshirt if possible and then we kind of strategize it to where we project this guy in this pod of games, this pod of games, this pod of games.”
So far this season, receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, outside linebacker Garrett Nelson and cornerback Quinton Newsome have played in all three games. Robinson is a starter and certainly isn’t redshirting. Looking down the list of outside linebackers, Nelson appears to be fifth behind Alex Davis, Caleb Tannor, JoJo Domann and Tyrin Ferguson. Nelson has also played a little bit on special teams. Newsome is the opposite of Nelson — he’s played primarily on special teams but has also gotten a little time on defense, most notably in Nebraska’s dime package and in garbage time against Northern Illinois.
Safety Noa Pola-Gates has played on special teams the past two games, but he hasn’t gotten any snaps on defense, even in the final drive against Northern Illinois when the back-ups were in. Unless he manages to jump ahead of a couple of the defensive backs currently seeing playing time, Pola-Gates seems like a good candidate to play in four games but no more.
Walk-on kicker Dylan Jorgensen was pressed into duty when Pickering suffered an injury and played in the first two games, but he’s also banged up now. Unless Pickering is out long-term, I’d expect Jorgensen to redshirt.
Five others have played in one game, four of which made their debut last week. Right tackle Bryce Benhart, wide receiver Darien Chase and running back Rahmir Johnson all got in with the second-string offense, though Chase also got a few snaps while the game was still somewhat in doubt. Safety Myles Farmer played on special teams.
I’d expect Benhart to redshirt barring injury to Matt Farniok (or if both Brenden Jaimes and Broc Bando have to miss time). Farmer seems like a candidate to play in up to four games. Chase and Johnson are more interesting to me, particularly the running back. Held said on Wednesday that he’s preparing him as if he’s going to play, though there haven’t been many snaps to go around once you get past Washington, Dedrick Mills, Robinson and even senior walk-on Wyatt Mazour. Chase has a lot of competition as well at wideout. Ultimately, if I had to choose one side I’d pick four games max for both.
The fifth player with one game under his belt is walk-on inside linebacker Luke Reimer who made a big play on the kickoff unit in his week two debut but did not make the participation report against Northern Illinois. The coaches told him once he was healthy to be ready to play as much as he can on kickoff and kickoff return, so his absence on Saturday was interesting.
Beyond that group, Nebraska might try to work in a few guys here and there as the season rolls on, but I’d be surprised at this point if anyone who hasn’t already appeared in a game plays enough to burn his redshirt.
We received a Mailbag question this week about the staff’s use of the redshirt rule and suggesting it might be worth it to throw some younger players into the game to see if they can provide the team a spark. That’s not how it works for this staff. Nebraska wants to take advantage of the rule, but it has to make sense to do so.
Even with special teams, where most players’ caeers begin, the coaches can’t just throw a handful of guys out there simply to get them into the game.
“The number one thing we look at with these guys is special teams just because the wear and tear on your guys throughout the season, on your starters on defense when they’re playing on defense and then playing a lot on special teams, that wears you out over time,” Held said. “But if you can get a guy that can be a four-core guy, help us, give a guy a break here, play here, start here and it doesn't go down a level in terms of… Because you don’t want to mass substitute. We've been playing really well on special teams — I think we’ve all noticed — but it’s because of consistency.
“But if we can put a guy in that can help us in that, and then if the matchup thing works out, whether it’s offense or defense or depth or whoever we’re playing, I think we’ll look at that as a strategy on certain positions for sure depending on what they do, either side of the ball.”
Nebraska will continue to strategically get freshmen in the games, but only when they’ve earned it and only where it makes sense. A select few will continue to be a part of the rotation all season, though not every member of the freshman class is going to get four games, and several of them might not play at all. In all three cases, however, the coaches have a plan.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.