EVERY HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL STAR BELIEVES HE'S READY TO HANDLE THE COLLEGE GAME. SOME MUST WAIT LONGER THAN OTHERS TO PROVE IT.
SELLING PATIENCE IS HARD. SELLING PATIENCE to a teenager who is used to getting his way is impossible. Meet Jim Grobe, pusher of the impossible.
While 68 college football teams are preparing for bowl games this December, the head coach of the 5-7 Wake Forest Demon Deacons is on the road, pitching patience to high school players, coaches and parents. He stands in their living rooms and locker rooms with a scholarship offer in hand and a proverbial redshirt draped over his shoulder. "Come play for me," he pitches, "but not right away." In nine years in Winston-Salem, Grobe has played only sixteen true freshmen and never more than three in one season. He asks the rest to take a redshirt, to sit out one year for the sake of the program and for themselves. "I realize other schools are promising you playing time as a freshman," he says with a disarming smile, "but what does that mean? A few downs on special teams? Why not get in four good years of playing time instead of wasting one or two?"
Right about then, the 57-year-old strokes his 2006 ACC championship ring. "I know we aren't in a bowl this year," he continues. "But we've made the BCS's smallest school a consistent winner and we've done it with redshirts. We're knocking on the next-level door. Wouldn't it be great to be the guy who kicked that door open?"
Grobe wants his athletes to swallow their pride and wear the redshirt for one year, to help Wake Forest stockpile talent that emerges from a season in hiding more schooled, more drilled and better prepared. It's how the Demon Deacons gain leverage on bigger, stronger, faster rivals. He tells these recruits that by the end of their college careers they will have a championship ring, a college degree and five years-not four-of memories that will last a lifetime. "I know it's a hard philosophy to buy into," Grobe says. "Asking a star high school kid to sit for a year can be tricky. But the benefits are pretty special." In Grobe's eyes, every redshirt fits just fine.
FIRST THINGS first. A redshirted athlete doesn't have to really wear a red jersey, does he? "Redshirts run the opposing team's offense and defense so the starters can practice," answers ex-Wake linebacker and current Seattle Seahawk Aaron Curry, who was taken No. 4 overall in this past April's NFL draft. "And, yes, that often means your jersey is red, especially before the NC State game." Fair enough, but that's just practice. Redshirted players don't have to wear red jerseys around campus, do they? "Not literally," says Denver Broncos cornerback Alphonso Smith, a second-round pick in 2009. "But you feel like you're wearing one all over the place, like a scarlet letter. 'Hey, look at this dude! He thinks he's a football player but he doesn't actually play!' "
Wait, Curry and Smith, All-Americas at Wake Forest and early-round NFL draft picks, spent their freshman year on the sideline? "Sitting out helped me get three rings," Smith replies with a chuckle. "2006 ACC championship, 2007 Orange Bowl and Wake Forest University, Class of 2009."
In collegiate athletics, student-athletes are allowed four years of participation. But when it comes to most college football players, a barely postpubescent freshman with the ability to contribute immediately is rare. So instead of wasting an entire year of a player's eligibility on little or no playing time, college coaches have the option of tagging an athlete with a "redshirt," allowing that player to work out, practice and even dress for games, but not participate in them. In exchange, the player's four years of eligibility are preserved and he (or she; this applies to every scholarship sport) receives a year of extra coaching to-the theory goes-become better on the field and in the classroom. More and more freshmen are even taking it one step further, enrolling one semester early to get a head start on spring ball and learn the ropes around campus. By the time they finally take the field in their second season (the proverbial "redshirt freshmen") they've been practicing with their team for a year and a half.
True, big-time programs hand out redshirts sparingly, if at all; heralded recruits are often closer to finished products and don't need the extra year of work (see: USC's Matt Barkley, Pitt's Dion Lewis). But Wake Forest lives in the world of second-tier recruits and, out of necessity, the football team redshirts virtually every athlete who walks onto BB&T Field. "Florida or USC might hand out a redshirt here and there because they have a half-dozen five-stars at one position and nowhere to put them all," says Ray McCartney, the Demon Deacons recruiting coordinator and defensive tackles coach. "But here we're in the diamond-in-the-rough business. The guy I sign might be a step too slow or 20 pounds too light. After a year of work, he's ready to go. By the time he's a fifth-year senior, he should be a stud with a distinct advantage: He's making his 30th college start against a guy who might be making his third."
That approach doesn't guarantee a team will win all of its games, but it does seem to ensure that it will have a chance. Grobe himself was a redshirt as a guard and linebacker at Virginia, and in his first head-coaching job he led poor-but-proud Ohio University to five straight winning years by grooming his players with redshirt seasons. At Wake Forest, the philosophy has put the Deacons in a bowl game three of the past four years. When Wake took the field for its Nov. 28 season finale against Duke, 21 of 22 starters were former redshirts. The 45-34 shootout win made the senior class the school's all-time winningest, its record of 33-19 topping the classes of 2007 and 2008. Of the Demon Deacons' seven losses this year, five came by three points or less, two in overtime. "Success happens when you take the time to develop football players instead of throwing everybody out there," says former Deacons and NFL wideout Ricky Proehl.
The first known redshirt athlete was Warren Alfson, who played linebacker for Nebraska. In a near-perfect success story, the freshman Alfson looked up at the Husker depth chart in 1937, realized he was undersized (he played halfback in high school) and asked Nebraska head coach Biff Jones to let him practice with the team but not to play him, thereby preserving that year's eligibility. Jones agreed and gave Alfson a red practice jersey to wear during his season of nonparticipation. One year later, the bigger, stronger Alfson emerged to become a three-year starter and two-time All-America.
As other coaches quickly took to the practice, the redshirt was born. The fun was curtailed a little in 1961, when the NCAA declared that redshirts could be used only to preserve the eligibility of an injured athlete. But with coaches finding ways to game the system (former Washington coach Don James famously redshirted 21 of 23 freshmen in 1978), the governing body relented in 1981, allowing every athlete a redshirt season. "But for every redshirt success story there are hundreds of guys you've never heard of who flamed out, got hurt or just didn't play," says former Virginia head coach Al Groh. "There is a nuance to knowing when to redshirt, when not to, and how to sell it to recruits. At a powerhouse you could never pull it off. Even at midlevel programs it's hard to change the mind-set. Players see Matt Barkley at USC or Adrian Peterson when he was at Oklahoma and think every true freshman should see the field."
Florida State's soon-to-retire coach, Bobby Bowden, who lost three in a row to Wake from 2006 to 2008, is more succinct. "Our kids won't do it. They pitch an absolute screaming fit over it. A lot of that is ego, and they think they're all going to the NFL in two years. They don't want to hear it when we tell them, 'Son, you're not as good as you think you are. Not yet anyway.' " Of course, sometimes coaches have no choice but to get their young stars on the field. "You end up yanking that redshirt off a young man before he's even had a chance to wash it," says Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer.
That is a not-so-veiled reference to current Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who came to Blacksburg in 2007 as the country's No. 3 prep quarterback. Out of necessity, he started five games as a true freshman and endured an injury-plagued, roller-coaster season. Beamer entered the 2008 season with the intent of redshirting the sophomore to help him mature. But an embarrassing season-opening loss to East Carolina ended that experiment out of the gate (inserting a player into a game for even one play voids his redshirt). Fortunately for Beamer, Taylor has started 21 of 23 games since. The QB trails only Michael Vick in career winning percentage in the Beamer era at Tech.
When Grobe and McCartney walk into a family living room to make their sales pitch, they don't aim at the players. They shoot for the parents and coaches who've worked to keep their teens' egos in check. "I've been coaching for a long time and I've never had a player good enough to go from playing against Thomas Jefferson High one year to Miami the next," says Mickey Thompson, head coach of Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va. His player and son, Zach, signed with Wake as a defensive end and spent 2009 as a redshirt. "Why not get your feet wet, get a year of classes behind you, and play when you're actually ready for it?"
Says Grobe, with a laugh: "You usually have to get the mothers onboard first. Dad usually wants his son to play. But when mom hears that her little boy has less of a chance of getting hurt and is almost guaranteed to get his college degree if he spends a year as a redshirt, it's amazing how quickly she can make things happen."
As Wake began making gains on rivals in the past few years, opposing coaches began preying on Grobe's penchant for sitting his freshmen. They'd stroke the egos of recruits by pointing to their success as NFL factories, by dangling the promise of early playing time. But thanks to Curry, Smith and 2009 Saints draftees Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux, Wake's redshirt plan is beginning to speak for itself. "Young guys should see redshirting as a means to an end," says Curry. "Look at my class at Wake, the guys who arrived in 2004. We were mostly redshirts and we had more people drafted last year than Florida State, Notre Dame or Florida. Don't let anybody tell you this isn't working."
Oh, it's working. Perhaps a little too well. Four bowls since 2002 makes it easy for Black and Gold faithful to forget the Deacons had been to just five between 1946 and 2001. And heightened expectations (after Wake won only eight games in 2008 there were calls for offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke's head) have Grobe occasionally reconsidering his redshirt plan. "Our strategy has always been to keep a redshirt on a player unless we feel like he can make an immediate impact, which I define as 20-25 offensive or defensive plays per game. Sometimes injuries may drive you to pull his redshirt. But now that we've established ourselves as a program that wins consistently, the redshirt decisions become more difficult. You don't want to leave a kid on the sideline if putting him on the field could mean making a bowl. We used to not have that problem."
Grobe stood at that crossroads at the end of September. Tough early losses to Baylor and Boston College had offset a big win over Stanford and its star tailback, Toby Gerhart. The Deacs were 2-2, and when Grobe looked ahead to a brutal schedule that included Top 25-ranked Georgia Tech and Miami, he knew his ACC title hopes and bowl eligibility were in trouble. Up next: NC State and its hyperaccurate QB, Russell Wilson. So Grobe overhauled the team's most glaring weakness-a defensive backfield depleted by graduation. He inserted redshirt freshman cornerback Kenny Okoro, telling him, "You haven't started in a game, but you've been running this defense for a year and a half, so I know you know what you're doing." Then Grobe and secondary coach Tim Billings evaluated three true freshmen defensive backs: Dominique Tate, Daniel Mack and Duran Lowe. In the end, Tate got the nod and his redshirt was pulled. The skinny, 180-pound freshman corner joined kicker Jimmy Newman and fullback Tommy Bohanon as the only true rookies in the Wake starting lineup. In his first seven years in Winston-Salem, Grobe played just 10 true freshmen. In the past two, he has played six and considered at least a dozen others. He agonizes over each decision.
Grobe crossed his fingers and watched his newly retooled secondary hold State to less than 300 yards passing and intercept Wilson twice, including a game-sealing pick by Okoro. "I spent nearly two years waiting to play," says Okoro, a local Greensboro product. "When I finally got in there, I was desperate to play well. Trust me. I did not want to go back to the sideline."
For a moment at least, the season had been saved. Tate saw his first game action and Okoro became the leader of the secondary. Perhaps more important, the Deacons-and future recruits-were reminded that Grobe isn't so married to the redshirt that he won't pull one to replace an underachiever.
Never mind that Wake went on to lose five out of its last seven, including nail-biters to Miami and Georgia Tech. After defeating Duke two months later, the Demon Deacons seniors walked off the field as the winningest class in school history. And to hear Grobe tell it, his team is positioned for a better future because he turned this season's weakness into next year's strength. "I now have two young guys with a ton of game experience in our defensive backfield for next season. And to push them, I have two redshirt freshmen who will be prepared to step in and contribute right away. It was the right call."
His players would agree. Following that Duke game, Wake quarterback Riley Skinner, who had just made his mind-bending 49th career start (he redshirted his freshman year) with a 5-TD-pass performance, grabbed the pristine white shoulder pads of freshman QB Brendan Cross, son of NFLer Randy Cross. The kid had just spent his entire freshman season as a redshirt on the scout team, on the sideline, having to answer those will-I-see-you-play-on-Saturday questions. Just like Curry, Smith, Skinner and Okoro had before him. "I know it's been tough to be patient," Skinner told his apprentice. "But you get to have four more years of this. And I'm totally jealous of that."
EVEN BLUE CHIPS WEAR REDSHIRTS SOMETIMES. THESE FOUR TOP 2005 RECRUITS SAT AS FRESHMEN. AND NOW? THEY'RE LOOKING LIKE FIRST-DAY PICKS THIS APRIL, ACCORDING TO SCOUTS INC.'S TODD MCSHAY.
1. NEBRASKA DT NDAMUKONG SUH: As a prep senior, Suh was considered an OT/DT prospect. Huskers coaches liked him better on D, but a knee injury forced him to sit his freshman season. That helped, because he watched starting DT and future first-round pick Adam Carriker dominate. These days the 6'4", 300-pound Suh shows elite hand usage along with startling athleticism and range. It's unheard of for a DT to lead his team in TFLs (Suh has 16), pass breakups (Suh has 10) and Heisman votes.
2. USC OT CHARLES BROWN: If Brown had played right away he'd have been at tight end. But USC was stacked at the position, so he spent half a season blowing up D-linemen as the scout team TE, and coaches thought, Hmmm, maybe he's a tackle. Today, he's a tackle with exceptional athleticism, quick feet and a 6'6", 285-pound body that can handle even more bulk. Brown can play either tackle spot and is inching toward the draft's first round.
3. TEXAS QB COLT MCCOY: With Vince Young entrenched as its 2005 starter, eventual BCS champ Texas was set under center. So McCoy, the winningest QB in FBS history (45 and counting) sat, learned and got bigger, beefing up his 6'2" frame from 190 pounds to 210. McCoy has tremendous accuracy (a career 70.3% passer, just 0.1 of a point off the FBS record), with above-average arm strength and mobility. He needs work on his mechanics, but he's a future starter in the NFL, where, again, he could use a year to sit and learn.
4. OREGON TE ED DICKSON: In 2005, then-Ducks coach Mike Bellotti said Dickson was exactly the kind of tight end he liked. But Bellotti liked his all-conference starter Tim Day more than redshirted Dickson. Four years (and one nine-game stint on the D-line) later, Dickson has broken all of Day's school records. With 4.76 speed, a big body (6'5", 243) and soft, reliable hands, he looks like a second-rounder.
THE COLOR WHEEL A 30-SECOND GUIDE TO THE VARIED HUES OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL.
BLACKSHIRT Occasionally worn by QBs in practice to signal "no contact." More famously, it refers to practice jerseys worn by the Nebraska defense. Back in 1964, a Huskers coach, looking for a way to distinguish defensive players from the offense, went to a local sporting goods store. He purchased black jerseys because they were on sale.
GREENSHIRT Given to freshmen who graduate early from high school so they can enroll in college (and spring practice) one semester early.
GRAYSHIRT Applies to recruits who, usually because of academic struggles, sign with a school but don't join the team until the following spring. Once on the team, grayshirts go to school, participate in spring practice and take fewer than 12 credits.
PINKSHIRT Okay, this one didn't catch on, but it's worthy of a mention. In 2005, Arkansas coaches assigned pink jerseys to lazy players. It was all the buzz in coaching circles until protests by breast cancer awareness groups scuttled the idea.
REDSHIRT To delay or extend a college athlete's eligibility one year to recover from injury or develop physically and mentally. A redshirt practices with the team and suits up for games, but cannot log any playing time.