Like it or not, college football is quickly changing before our eyes. And the shifts are collectively giving more power to the players.
We started seeing it a few years ago when Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey elected to sit out a bowl game in 2016. The transfer portal has made switching teams a much smoother process for players. The redshirt rule allowed players (mostly freshmen) to appear in four games while still retaining a season of eligibility. The Fair Play Act recently passed in California (with other states potentially following) and allows collegiate athletes to make money off their likeness starting in 2023.
And now, the latest trend: The redshirt, decided by the player. A self-benching, if you will.
It’s not your typical redshirt. This isn’t where a player is sitting out because of injury. It’s not the freshman who isn’t ready to play. It’s not the transfer who has to sit out a year at his new school. This isn’t a player who lost his starting spot. This redshirt is a strategic redshirt, and two Rutgers players are the latest example.
Quarterback Art Sitkowski and running back Raheem Blackshear are choosing (as of now) to sit out the final eight games of the season. They aren’t hurt, and they didn’t lose their starting positions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sitkowski had a clear path to start the rest of the season after Texas Tech graduate transfer McLane Carter suffered a concussion in the season opener and decided to retire. Blackshear, a team captain, had led Rutgers in rushing the previous two weeks with 185 yards, averaging 11.6 yards per carry. They benched themselves.
On the heels of Houston quarterback D’Eriq King’s decision to redshirt after four games, two of Rutgers’ best offensive players are following suit. Are these guys trailblazers forging a brighter path for their fellow player? Or are they starting a trend which will ultimately hurt college football and the overall health of the game? Are they innovators or quitters?
Either way, welcome to the new reality.
Fans aren’t going to like this (and I don’t blame them) because this is going to hurt their teams. Teammates, deep down, probably won’t like it either regardless of what they tell the media; you spend eight months in the offseason training together, and your buddies bow out after a few weeks? But I certainly understand it from a player perspective.
I think LeBron James (and others) have changed the way today’s generation of athletes think, that they should put their career first. They are unapologetically looking out for themselves, and that can be interpreted as positive, negative or somewhere in between, depending on your perspective. If King does in fact stay at Houston, maybe it is worth having him there an extra season after the start of this season didn’t go as planned. But in the Rutgers case, these decisions correlated with the firing of a head coach and an offensive coordinator.
It seems that in Sitkowski’s mind, the writing was on the wall. Rutgers, coming off a 1-11 season, was 1-3 and fired coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty. Taking away the two coaches a quarterback and an offense depends on the most, just four games in after spending all offseason preparing, doesn’t exactly set you up for success. So why waste a year of eligibility on that? If the administration is going to punt this year (because that’s what switching coaches in the middle of the season signifies), then Sitkowski can too. Switching head coaches mid-season is a move intended on prepping for the future, and Sitkowski is also prepping for his future.
Blackshear’s decision was announced a few days later, just before Rutgers took on Maryland. The data has shown that running backs have as short of a shelf life as any position in sports because of the beating they take on each carry. So why waste it when your head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback are gone? And that’s after Carter had already decided to retire.
Amid that chaos, these decisions are understandable.
We’ve already seen players who aren’t starting decide to enter the transfer portal after four games, like Michigan State running backs Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson after they lost out to redshirt freshman Elijah Collins. But if what King, Sitkowski and Blackshear did – starting players who decide to bench themselves – becomes the norm, it represents yet another shift in college football.
This is the way it works in sports and in life. Someone cracks the door open a little bit, and everyone else follows. Remember the reaction when Fournette and McCaffrey chose to skip their teams’ bowl games in order to preserve their health for the NFL? Players like Ezekiel Elliott and Marshall Faulk questioned why they would do it. Kirk Herbstreit called it a “disturbing trend.” And they were far from alone in their criticism. But fast forward to 2018 and the list of players electing to skip bowl games was exponentially bigger, with some of college football’s biggest stars sitting out (and not just running backs). In just two years, it became normal for players to skip bowl games. Watch what happens this year and beyond. If some of the top players on non-College Football Playoff teams play in their bowl game, they will be in the minority – and maybe even questioned for risking their futures.
Don’t be surprised if we see that kind of shift with this redshirt rule, which is ironic because this was a rule the coaches wanted to help develop players and give them flexibility. But it has given players flexibility too.
In the future, Week 5 (or Week 6, depending on the placement of byes on the schedule) is going to be huge. Which players will suit up and burn a season of eligibility? Which will make a business decision and decide to sit?
Fournette and McCaffrey got paid in the NFL and have gone on to successful careers. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with King, Sitkowski and Blackshear. Will they transfer? Will they stay at their schools? Will this work?
If King, Sitkowski and Blackshear find success with whatever road they go down, it could pave the way for a new normal in college football.