Published Monday, August 19, 2013 AT 1:22 PM / Updated at 3:38 PM
Mad Chatter, Aug. 19
Dirk Chatelain Omaha World-Herald

When it comes to redshirting incoming freshmen, I’m old-school. I grew up in the heyday of the Nebraska depth chart, when Tom Osborne had approximately 36 capable players at each position. In a normal year, Osborne played about 10 percent of his true freshmen. When he got crazy, he played about 20 percent.

Made perfect sense to me.

Playing true freshmen was a sign of weakness, not strength. Would a high school football coach EVER give up a kid’s senior season in order to play him as an eighth grader? Of course not. So why wouldn’t you redshirt every kid, barring a glaring depth problem?

Bill Callahan used to throw away redshirts like junk mail — Niles Paul, Chris Brooks, Harrison Beck, Ndamukong Suh (thankfully, NU got that one back on a medical redshirt). We used to joke that Callahan, a proponent of a five-year eligibility clock with no redshirts, made decisions as if the NCAA had already changed the rule.*

* The NCAA never did.

In reality, Callahan likely realized he needed to fix Nebraska ASAP. He prioritized short-term solutions over long-term stability.

When Bo Pelini showed up in 2008, one of the things I liked most about him was the way he handled true freshmen. He prioritized the long-term. He got back to the old Nebraska. Unless the kid was a running back or a receiver, Bo basically stamped “redshirt” on his back before the season opener. That’s how you build long-term depth, I thought. Bo knew he owed it to every single kid to maximize his eligibility, even if it hurt the team slightly in the short-term.*

* This isn’t the same thing as getting contributions from redshirt freshmen and sophomores. I’ve been critical of that issue at Nebraska, as have others. Once Year 2 rolled around, Bo could’ve (and should’ve) thrown a few more youngsters to the fire.

College football has changed over the years. The 85-scholarship limit, established in the early 90s, diminished depth. Walk-on programs, challenged by a new wave of legitimate D-1 programs and increased tuition, aren’t as prolific as they used to be. True freshmen come in more prepared to play — it helps that they show up in June rather than August. And, face it, kids just don’t like to wait anymore. A few months stuck on the sideline and their “homesick” meter starts climbing.

I’m still an advocate of redshirting. But I recognize that more and more exceptions must be made. I recognize that more and more coaches are thinking about NOW, not four years from now.

In last year’s season opener, Urban Meyer played 14 true freshmen! In a season when Ohio State wasn’t even eligible for a bowl! Remarkable. But Meyer immediately wanted to establish a culture of competition. He wanted to get players prepared for 2014, even if it meant sacrificing a little in 2017. By then, he’d have four recruiting cycles to worry about depth.

Nick Saban, coming off a national championship in 2011, played 11 true freshmen last year, including 1,000-yard receiver Amari Cooper and 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon.

His message is clear: Push your stars, don’t hold ‘em back. If all goes according to plan, the blue-chip recruit will be ready for the NFL by Year 4 anyway. Why not accelerate the learning curve? (Surely coaches like Saban also do it to keep their freshmen happy).

Nebraska doesn’t recruit like Alabama or Ohio State. But Pelini, who played just three true freshmen in 2012 (Curry, Moss, Cross) and averages four per year during his Nebraska tenure, appears on the verge of joining the new school. Taking the bold approach of throwing a bunch of rookies into the fire:

Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry, Courtney Love, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice, Cethan Carter, Adam Taylor, Terrell Newby, maybe more.

Bo lost his huge senior class and doesn’t have the usual amount experience on defense. How does he make up for that? Developing second- and third-year players is a start. But there’s a clear benefit right now to throwing as many athletes into the mix as possible. Making competition for spots as intense as possible. (Sam McKewon hit this same theme in today’s Rewind).

Maybe it means getting to November and having a few regrets about burning a redshirt. But it might also mean identifying a playmaker or two early, someone who can become a star in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

This back-loaded schedule (the month of October is essentially one long bye) allows guys like Banderas and Gerry a chance to fail and try again. Fail and try again. Fail and try again. By November, maybe they’re playing like sophomores.

Even better, maybe they’ll catch up to those true freshmen blue-chippers at Alabama and Ohio State.

***

>> Bill Belichick had an interesting answer in his press conference the other day that underscores why it’s so hard to analyze football games, especially without the use of replay. The whole thing is posted here.

Question: Is it easy for us to look at things too generally without knowing who ran a wrong route or who was in the wrong position?

Belichick: “Yeah, absolutely and that happens to us too. That’s why I say, ‘Let’s take a look at the film’ sometimes. It might even look to us like somebody made a mistake but then we look at it more closely maybe somebody besides him made a mistake and he was trying to compensate. I think we need a little closer analysis a lot of times.

“Sometimes the play calls or what was called on the line of scrimmage might be something that we’re not aware of. That could happen in any game. You think a player did something that he shouldn’t have done but maybe he got a call, a line call or a call from a linebacker or he thought the quarterback said something so he did what he thought was the right thing. Or maybe it was the right thing, but that call shouldn’t have been made or should have been on the other side. But yeah, I think we need to be careful about what we’re evaluating…

“Believe me, I’ve watched plenty of preseason games this time of year and you’re looking at all the other teams in the league and you try to evaluate players and you’re watching the teams that we’re going to play early in the season and there are plenty of plays where I have no idea what went wrong. Something’s wrong but I don’t … these two guys made a mistake but I don’t know which guy it was or if it was both of them. You just don’t know that. I don’t know how you can know that unless you’re really part of the team and know exactly what was supposed to happen on that play. I know there are a lot of experts out there that have it all figured out, but I definitely don’t.”

>> The AP poll came out last week. Here’s a few nuggets from my research:

In the past 20 seasons, 22 teams have been crowned national champs — there were split titles in ’97 and ’03. Here is where the national champs started in the AP preseason poll:

No. 1: 3 teams (Florida State ’93, Florida State ’99, USC ’04)

No. 2: 6 teams (Nebraska ’95, Miami ’01, Texas ’05, LSU ’07, Alabama ’11, Alabama ‘12)

No. 3: None

No. 4: 2 teams (Nebraska ’94, Florida ’96)

No. 5: 2 teams (Florida ’08, Alabama ’09)

No. 6-10: 4 teams (Nebraska ’97, Tennessee ’98, USC ’03, Florida ’06)

No. 11-15: 3 teams (Michigan ’97, Ohio State ’02, LSU ’03)

No. 16-20: 1 team (Oklahoma, ’00)

No. 21-25: 1 team (Auburn, ’10)

>> Notice 13 champions have come from the Top 5, which means — based upon recent history — any preseason Top 5 team has about a one in eight chance to win a national title. Those are pretty good odds.

>> A few coincidences: The starting sweet spot is No. 2, not No. 1. Six of 22 champs started second. (A good omen for Ohio State this year.)

Also, the biggest Cinderellas came at the start of new decades — 2000 and ’10. The trend actually goes back further. In 1980, Georgia started 16th. In ‘90, Georgia Tech, which split a title with Colorado, was unranked to start the season. For the record, national champ Nebraska started 9th in 1970.

>> Back to real news. According to Brett McMurphy, “Syracuse, TCU, Oklahoma State & Wisconsin won’t announce starting QBs before game day.” Taking the ol’ Taylor Martinez 2010 approach, huh.

>> Mark Mangino is happy and healthy at Youngstown State. The ex-KU coach has lost 127 pounds!

>> Most of the NCAA-hating over the weekend came because of this story about a former Marine and Middle Tennessee receiver deemed ineligible because he played in a few military recreational games. But this one about an Old Dominion team captain, who played in eight minutes of a Clemson scrimmage a few years ago, is just as ridiculous.

>> I know it’s hard to believe, but MLB screwed up the new instant replay policy, Joe Posnanski says.

>> It was like 2003 all over again at Fenway Park last night. Baseball is better when the Red Sox and Yankees are yelling at each other. (As long as ESPN doesn’t feel the need to build SportsCenter around it).

>> Dan Wetzel says it’s time to pay players … at the Little League World Series.

>> Finally, Clay Travis writes a (fake) “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode from Larry David’s (real) golf round with President Obama. Pretty funny stuff.

About Dirk Chatelain

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments. You can follow Dirk on Twitter (@dirkchatelain) or email him at dchatelain@owh.com