COLUMBUS, Ohio — To redshirt or not to redshirt? That is the question Urban Meyer faces each signing day.
And every time he’s asked — or has asked himself — about sitting out a freshman in order to preserve an extra year of eligibility on the back end of his career, the Ohio State coach often arrives at the same conclusion: If you’re good enough to be recruited by the Buckeyes, you should also be good enough to play — right away.
“I first learned that when Pete Carroll was at USC,” Meyer said this past September. “I read an article that they don’t recruit a guy to redshirt them. There’s too many good guys that want to come to a top five-type school. And we consider Ohio State a top five. And we’re recruiting a player to play immediately.”
Yet in his first five years in charge of the Buckeyes, Meyer has made several exceptions. In fact, of the 120 newcomers Meyer has recruited since arriving at Ohio State, 71 have redshirted as freshmen.
As a result, it’s become difficult to take Meyer at his word when he insists the bulk of the Buckeyes’ true freshmen will play right away. Even in 2016, 12 of Ohio State’s 23 first-year players kept an extra season of eligibility intact by way of a redshirt.
That’s not to say Meyer is doing something wrong in running his program by relying so heavily on redshirts. Far from it. When the Buckeyes start the 2017 season this September, the core of its roster will be comprised of players who initially sat out the first seasons of their college careers.
J.T. Barrett, Billy Price, Tyquan Lewis, Chris Worley, Michael Hill and Sam Hubbard — they all redshirted and will enter 2017 as multiyear starters at Ohio State.
But in order to truly understand why Meyer’s gamble paying off is such a big deal, you first need to know why some — including Meyer — think Ohio State shouldn’t redshirt in the first place.
The case against Urban Meyer redshirting
In theory, it seems simple enough. Either a player is good enough to play as a true freshman or you wouldn’t want him around for a fifth year anyway.
“That’s exactly the thought process,” Meyer said when the thought process was proposed to him last fall.
In other words, if you redshirt a player and he develops accordingly, you’re then risking losing him to the NFL draft after just two seasons of on-field production. It’s a potential consequence Ohio State has become all too familiar with.
Last offseason, the Buckeyes lost 2013 redshirts Eli Apple, Darron Lee and Jalin Marshall to the draft after each of their respective sophomore seasons. Even this year, Ohio State will see Malik Hooker leave for the NFL after three seasons on campus, one of which was was spent redshirting.
If you’re going to only have a player in your program for three years, do you really want to waste one of them with him redshirting? And conversely, if he’s not good enough to leave for the NFL by then, do you really want him on your roster for a fifth year anyway?
But as the Buckeyes’ 2017 roster would show, it’s not always so simple.
The case for Urban Meyer redshirting
When it comes to Meyer’s redshirt policy, two typical exceptions apply: Quarterbacks and offensive linemen. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barrett and Price are among the fifth-year seniors who will play for Ohio State in 2017.
And really, had either declared for this year’s draft, redshirting wouldn’t have been to blame. Neither were ready to play as true freshmen in 2013 — the same of which could be said for the likes of Lewis and Worley.
In fact, fifth-year seniors have become so rare in the Buckeyes’ program, that they should almost be treated like unicorns. The core of this year’s team may very well be made up of them, but don’t count on this becoming a common occurrence in Columbus anytime soon.
Rather, where Meyer’s redshirting gambles will pay dividends most for Ohio State in 2017 is in the case of Hubbard. A highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Meyer famously wrestled with whether or not to play the former 4-star prospect throughout the Buckeyes’ 2014 season.
“Let’s play him,” Meyer said of Hubbard during an episode of his call-in show. If Hubbard redshirted, he wouldn’t be around for a fifth year anyway because he’d be “playing for money” in the NFL instead.
And while that may still be the case, it’s tough the argue with the way Hubbard has since progressed as he enters his redshirt junior season. The 6-foot-5, 266-pound has been a mainstay on the Buckeyes’ defensive line for each of the past two seasons and will be a cornerstone of the OSU defense in 2017. Even if he watched the Buckeyes run to the national title in 2014 from the sideline, it’d be tough to classify that as a wasted year.
A happy medium?
Of course, each individual player comes with his own special set of circumstances. Hubbard started his college career without a natural position, toggling between linebacker and tight end before settling on the defensive line at the end of his redshirt campaign. Not all players need that much time to adjust.
Whether it’s the need to add size or catch up to the speed of the college game, the reality is there are several benefits that redshirting a player can provide. Sure, ideally players like Lee, Apple and Hooker would contribute for longer than they did during their respective college careers.
But who’s to say they would have ever reached their potential without the development that redshirting allowed? Is there really that much of a difference between their careers and the career of Curtis Samuel, who played sporadically for two seasons before starring in 2016 and leaving after his junior year?
While Ohio State played freshmen more liberally this past season, Meyer will continue to determine redshirts on a case-by-case basis. A highly touted 2017 class could lead to more early playing time, but make no mistake, some players in Columbus will continue to redshirt.
As is the case with any form of gambling, there’s always some risk involved.
But with Barrett, Price, Worley, Lewis and Hubbard each still on their roster entering 2017, the Buckeyes are now set to reap the rewards that redshirting can bring.