Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Redshirt does not mean red flag

Husker fans have heard the word “culture” used quite a bit. There was Bill Callahan “flipping” the culture in his tenure as head coach from 2004-2007. Since Bo Pelini came aboard as Nebraska’s head coach, the word “culture” takes on a far different meaning.

Such as valuing the walk-on program. Such as mixing with the masses of the fan base. Such as scraping the “NFL mentality” that while I enjoy on one level, just does not work at college level. Especially at Nebraska. Such as fielding teams that outwork the opposition. Most of all, such as redshirting and developing incoming athletes.

Defense is Pelini’s forte and while Nebraska rising from 112th overall in 2007 to 55th a year ago was a welcome site, it’s no where near where Pelini aspires. Pelini said as much about Nebraska’s 9-4 finish in 2008. Again, it’s a good start under the new regime but not where the program ultimately needs to be. With the Huskers being talent deficient in some areas (i.e., linebacker), some fans wondered why Pelini did not burn redshirts and put talented freshmen on the field.

The reason? It’s about the process of developing them the right way. If you start a talent-limited but experienced senior over a potentially talented but inexperienced freshman, that suggests that the coach is here for the long haul. Pelini redshirted virtually his entire 2008 recruiting class and is likely to follow that trend for the 2009 class and as long as he is in charge of the Husker program.

Most people have wondered if true-freshman-to-be quarterback Cody Green suddenly has a shot at becoming the starting signal-caller since Patrick Witt left the program. The feeling here is that the job belongs to Zac Lee, with whom Witt was supposed to compete for the starting job. The feeling is also that the only way Green’s redshirt gets lifted is if Lee or redshirt freshman Kody Spano gets hurt.

Anyhow, back to this whole “culture” thing and how it pertains to redshirting freshmen. The current NCAA rules state that an eligible athlete has five years to complete four seasons. Therefore, student-athletes may practice for a team but not play in a game for one season, not counting against his or her four seasons of eligibility. This is known as a redshirt. Fans don’t see their contributions in that they do not happen on gameday but the redshirt season is a valuable year in a system in that it provides shelter against some of the harsh realities of jumping to a new level of football.

You see, some highly-touted high school studs make their college choices in the recruiting process based on early playing time. Some coaches promise it or tell the youngster he has a fair chance to compete for playing time. Others will demand an automatic redshirt. Pelini might not redshirt 100 percent of his recruits as freshmen but it’s going to be rare when he does not.

Pelini redshirted 50 scholarship players (including walkons) last season. As mentioned earlier, the Huskers were already thin at linebacker entering 2008. So thin they converted running back Cody Glenn to linebacker. Glenn, who earned the starting weakside linebacker job, was suspended late in the season and starting linebacker Phillip Dillard was limited the last half of the season with an ankle injury. Pelini still resisted the temptation of burning redshirts on talented players like Sean Fisher, Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley.

There are numerous reasons to redshirt freshmen. For starters, the college game moves a hell of a lot faster than high school, which means decisions have to be made faster. Therefore, the extra season working against starters in practice is a benefit.

Also, highly touted high school studs were often the stars of their team and their league. They were exponentially better than their high school peers. In college, everyone is at least as good if not better. That extra year of conditioning will give the youngster a better chance to handle the rigors of a 12-14 game college schedule.

The verbiage of a playbook (especially on offense) is also far greater in college than in high school as is the intricacy of reading the opposition. Some of that pressure can be alleviated during a redshirt season.

Then there is the whole matter of adjusting from high school to college away from the field. For some of these youngsters, it’s their first time away from home. All of the sudden cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and partying are a juggling act. Throw that in with trying to balance academics with athletics.

Pelini understands that the temptation to put the best talent on the field is tough to overcome. The development of a successful program, however, is not about talent alone but it is about the development of an overall player and his maturity to handle the pressures and demands of being a great college football player.

You sense the roster is being better managed under Pelini than Callahan and one of the biggest indications was beating a Clemson team that was obviously faster, more athletic than our team.

I am of the opinion that the star system only matters in high school and freshman year. I will take a three star senior with four years of good coaching over a five-star freshman that demands early playing time with huge expectations and not much else any day.

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