The new redshirt rule was approved by the NCAA yesterday. This news earned an actual fist-pump from me when my son texted me the news. I think it's quite helpful for a team like Illinois. And I will now attempt to explain why.
For starters, here's old rule vs. the new rule. Both rules acknowledge that you get five years to play four, but...
Old rule: If you play a single play, you lose your redshirt that year. The one exception was the medical redshirt. If you played A) less than 30% of the season - four games, basically - and B) those games were played in the first half of your season, you could apply for a medical redshirt. Tony Adams and Mike Epstein both had season-ending injuries in the fifth game last year... so both used up a year of eligibility because they crossed the 30% line. Cam Thomas only played in four games last year, but most were in the second half of the season, so he crossed "none beyond the first half of the season" line.
New rule: All players can retain a year of eligibility if they only play in four games or less. This more or less eliminates the entire "medical redshirt" concept. If Florida State's quarterback gets hurt in the opening game, he still gets a redshirt under this rule. If a freshman sits for the full season and then has to play in late November because the starter and backup are injured, he gets a redshirt under this rule. Play five games - you used up a year of eligibility. Play in four or less - you can use your one-time redshirt.
I anticipate that this rule - which goes into effect this season - will be used differently by the haves and the have-nots. If you're Alabama, this allows you to expand your playoff roster. If you're a rebuilding team like Illinois, this allows you to play the freshmen but then maybe pull them back out before they used up that year of eligibility. Some explanation on that:
Alabama: Last season, Alabama had all kinds of injury issues on the defensive side of the ball. I believe the stat was that only three defensive players played the full season (and they still won the national title - HA). So late in the season, they had some decisions to make. Keep the redshirts for the freshmen who hadn't played (and gain the 2021 season from them in return), or play them and lose a year of eligibility? Under this new rule, more or less, they can expand their playoff roster. Freshmen who weren't ready to play in September (they'd only been practicing in the schemes for four weeks) are now ready - even if it's just special teams - so they can play them in the final four games. For Alabama, that means an expanded roster for the Auburn game, the SEC title game, the playoff semifinal, and the playoff final. Even if it's "this defense is tired - take those two linebackers off special teams and put two freshmen in their place", it's helpful.
Illinois: Last season, Cam Thomas played in four games. Under this rule, he'd be a redshirt freshman right now. It was similar to the scenario I described above - he wasn't anywhere ready in September (quarterbacks rarely are), but by the Minnesota game on October 21st, the coaches thought him to be ready so into the lineup he went. This season, they can do that and, as long as he only plays in four games, he'd retain a year of eligibility. For a staff who wants to play their players as soon as they can (but also wants to build deep, experienced rosters in the future), it will be quite helpful to be able to A) test the freshmen on the field, and B) pull some of them back if they're not quite ready. Safety Dawson DeGroot last year? Played in four games when injuries necessitated another safety in the lineup. This year, he'd still be a redshirt freshman.
So while I think you'll see a lot of November call-ups at Alabama, at Illinois, I think you'll see a lot of spot duty from freshmen. Try-outs, if you will. Ease them into the game (like the four games for Thomas and DeGroot last year) so that they're ready to contibute sooner rather than later. Last year, that meant Thomas and DeGroot used up a year of eligibility. This year, it means they could come back as freshmen again.
Take the three freshman quarterbacks. I think most people assume that the QB rotation will be sophomore Cam Thomas and 5th-year transfer AJ Bush. We'll likely play at least two quarterbacks this season, whether it's for ineffectiveness or injury. So while those two rotate in, what if we could get some spot duty for all three freshmen? What if we gave Coran Taylor some Wildcat snaps here and there but limited those to four games? What if we're losing 41-3 to Penn State and we wanted to see what Matt Robinson can do? What if we're up 41-3 over Kent State and want to give MJ Rivers a few series?
Or what if I could have my "each quarterback gets a month" scenario. Rivers is the mop-up QB in September, Robinson is the mop-up QB in October, Taylor is the mop-up QB in November, and then all three come back as freshmen next year?
But seriously, I think this rule is good for Illinois. We're a team forced to play freshmen early which leads to a lack of experienced fifth-year seniors in the future. We want to build this like Wisconsin, but we also want to sustain this like Wisconsin, and they do that with a lot of fifth-year seniors. A "we don't have much depth so we need them to play" system that allows us to still redshirt some of them can only be good for us.
Yes, there's the concern that redshirts mean 5th-year transfers to better schools. Dawson DeGroot develops as a player and then 5th-year transfers to Auburn to provide safety depth. Yes, maybe that becomes an issue. But the majority of our 5th-year transfers recently have transferred down, not up, and I'd expect that to continue.
Bottom line: anything that gives Lovie more flexibility is a good thing. We still don't have much depth, and we're still going to use a lot of freshmen, so the ability to still redshirt some of them will be very good for us. Other teams attempt to rebuild with jucos and 5th-years. Lovie goes pure freshmen (and uses nearly all of them) so this rule, even if only used for 4-5 players, will be beneficial for us down the road.
Well, if Lovie's still here. The way we churn through coaches, we'll be on coach #3 (and offensive coordinator #7) by the time Coran Taylor graduates.