COLUMBUS, Ohio — The American Football Coaches Association has put together a proposal that would alter the way redshirts are counted. Could it have helped Ohio State a few years ago?
Currently, any player who takes the field for a single snap loses the chance to redshirt that season (with the exception of a season-ending injury after 3 or fewer games). A new rule would allow for a one-time exemption, allowing players to redshirt one season even if they play up to 4 games.
That would be great news for a school such as Ohio State, where coach Urban Meyer has often wanted to play up-and-coming freshmen, but doesn’t want to burn a year of eligibility for only a few games.
Meyer could have played Sam Hubbard late in the 2014 season, when the Buckeyes could have used some depth on the defensive line. In 2015, he could have turned to wide receiver K.J. Hill to give the vertical passing game a spark.
Perhaps the biggest what-if, though, came in the 2013 season. After playing as a true freshman in 2012, wide receiver Michael Thomas was redshirted the following year.
“He didn’t have a great fall camp,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said in spring 2014. “So I didn’t play him in the first game, mainly because I wanted him to realize that we’re not going to go a whole season with him preparing the way he prepared, performing the way he performed in practice. That’s just not what we expect here.
“After that game, [we] kept going, he kept growing, but we didn’t want to waste a year on Mike just to catch 12 balls or 15.”
A year later, Smith reiterated those claims.
“It was tough,” he said. “You don’t want to waste a year for one game. But you’re looking at some ‘wow’ moments, and not only that, by the end of the year he had developed a lot.”
Once the decision had been made to redshirt Thomas, holding him out down the stretch despite his impressive practice play was the correct move. At that point, it becomes a value equation: Is one season of eligibility worth 1 or 2 games?
The Buckeyes certainly could have used him, though. After a 12-0 start, a leaky defensive secondary was the primary culprit in Ohio State’s back-to-back losses in the Big Ten Championship Game and Orange Bowl.
The wide receivers weren’t excelling, either. Ohio State completed 8 passes for 101 yards against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, quarterback Braxton Miller completed 16 passes but only one receiver had more than 2 catches. While facing the best teams, the Buckeyes could have used a viable second option to leading receiver Philly Brown.
Thomas knew it. After the Orange Bowl, he went on a since-deleted Twitter rant about the team’s wide receiver play. However he went about it, he was right. The Buckeyes could have used him against Michigan State’s imposing defensive backfield. A win there likely would have put the Buckeyes in the BCS title game against Florida State.
Over the next two years, Thomas showed exactly what the Buckeyes could have had down the stretch had they been able to play him without costing him an entire season. In 2014, he caught 54 passes for 799 yards and 9 touchdowns. In 2015, he caught 56 passes for 781 yards and 9 touchdowns.
In the NFL last season, Thomas set New Orleans Saints rookie records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Smith knew Thomas needed to develop and learn how to properly prepare, and once it got late in the season there was no going back. But had the rules been different, putting him on the field late in the season after he’d shown growth would have been an easier call — and possibly a winning one.