LINCOLN — Noah Vedral’s helmet popped off so fast — on his fourth play of the game — that Husker coach Scott Frost barely had time to discuss with his quarterbacks coach who might play if, well, the helmet of Nebraska’s No. 2 signal-caller popped off.
“Without thinking about it,” Frost said, he told Mario Verduzco that true freshman Luke McCaffrey would go in for Vedral in case of an emergency. Next thing Verduzco knew, Vedral’s helmet came off and he had to leave for one play, and McCaffrey was already on the field.
“I must have breathed it in into existence,” Verduzco joked.
McCaffrey’s single play, just two years ago, would have cost him his redshirt season. Like Harrison Beck’s one shining moment in the 2005 Kansas State game cost him his redshirt. Or Niles Paul’s one catch for 6 yards in 2007 cost him his redshirt. But a new NCAA rule allows players who have yet to take a redshirt season — usually true freshmen — to retain it while participating in four or fewer games. That one play burned one of McCaffrey’s four games, but not his redshirt.
And if coaches have more plans for the precocious, highly praised freshman, they can still use them in three more games.
“It’s an awesome rule,” said McCaffrey, who’s drawn raves from coaches and teammates while he redshirts and works to push Adrian Martinez for the starting role next season. “I think it’s fantastic.”
Nebraska coaches and players agree. The rule helped Darrion Daniels retain his redshirt at Oklahoma State last season after a serious hand injury limited him after four games. That redshirt led to a graduate transfer to NU, where he has 21 tackles this season. Defensive end Deontre Thomas used the rule last year to redshirt when injuries sidelined him after four games. Nebraska even has the option to use the four-game rule with kicker Barret Pickering, who has missed all season with an undisclosed leg injury. Should Pickering recover by November, he could in theory kick a game-winner and return next season as a sophomore.
But as the rule expanded opportunity for players, it expanded the amount of thought coaches have to put in to using those four games wisely.
“We just have to talk about it every week,” Frost said. “I think you can have a plan going into the season, but things change. It’s impossible to come up with a strategy and stick to it.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said there is “indecision” each week about which redshirting players will participate in the game or travel with the team.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever know the right answer on some of those things until you lose a game and somebody says, ‘You should have played that guy,’” Chinander said.
Three of the signees in NU’s 2019 recruiting class — receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, outside linebacker Garrett Nelson and cornerback Quinton Newsome — have burned their redshirts.
A few others, including walk-on linebacker Luke Reimer, are bumping up against the four-game limit. Almost all of the 2019 signees are headed for a redshirt and some combination of games. Usually, they get rotated on and off special teams.
“The guy we want to reserve the redshirts for, the biggest question is: Who’s going to help us on special teams?” Chinander said. “Who’s down? If Cam Taylor-Britt’s down, then another safety comes up and gets plugged in at some special teams spots. If a linebacker is down, Luke Reimer — or hopefully Nick Henrich sooner or later — he’s got to take linebacker reps, but he’s got to get plugged in to all the special teams. That’s the juggling act right now. Who can fill in? Who can play special teams?”
Defensive backs, linebackers and tight ends, generally.
Against Northwestern, freshman tight end Chris Hickman played his first game on the kickoff return unit. Safety Myles Farmer, meanwhile, rotated off three special teams units after appearing on them for the Ohio State game. Hickman replaced Farmer on the kickoff unit. Javin Wright played in the Illinois game. And so on. This rotation, Chinander said, helps save multiple redshirts. Two years ago, one player likely would have sacrificed his redshirt and played all year on special teams to save the redshirts of his teammates. Tyrin Ferguson did something similar in 2015 before redshirting in 2016.
McCaffrey, receiver Darien Chase and running back Rahmir Johnson have appeared on offense. Johnson, who had 9 yards rushing in the win over Northern Illinois and a couple of token snaps against Northwestern, is an “on-the-cusp” player who, two years ago, may have burned his redshirt and played all season, Frost said.
“He’s practicing really well,” Frost said of Johnson. “He’s fast. He’s going to give us a weapon somewhere down the road. He’s played in two games — we got him in for a series on Saturday but probably didn’t get him in enough. That’s two games, so we’re going to try our best to keep him around here for four more years after this. You never know what’s going to happen with injuries and other things with the teams. We might end up having to play him.”
The same is true of at least one offensive lineman, true freshman Bryce Benhart, the No. 2 right tackle. He’s appeared in one game this season; Nebraska would like to redshirt him. Every lineman who’s signed under Frost is on a redshirt track. That includes junior defensive end Keem Green, who joined an already-deep defensive line in August and needed time to get in football shape after a summer spent trying to get academically eligible.
Green, essentially, is the co-No. 5 defensive end with redshirt freshman Casey Rogers. Two of the ends in front of him, Carlos and Khalil Davis, graduate after this season, so the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Green is headed for the rare third-year redshirt. He’ll vie for a starting job in 2020.
Green still has three games left this season. Nebraska opted not to play Green in the 13-10 win over Northwestern — junior Ben Stille logged 70 snaps at defensive end instead — and may keep those three games in its back pocket until Wisconsin and Iowa come to town in November.
“I need to pick the games where he fits best into what we’re doing, because he’s got to be ready to go for next year, and those game reps are important,” Chinander said. “You don’t get better playing football without playing football.”
The rule keeps younger players engaged in the process, too, senior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. Because of a shoulder injury suffered in his freshman season at NU, Barry said he wouldn’t have played four games had the rule been available, but “a lot of guys” in his recruiting class would have liked the option.
“Some were not ready to redshirt, some were,” Barry said. Eight 2015 signees — Devine Ozigbo, Stanley Morgan, Antonio Reed, Aaron Williams, Dedrick Young, Tyrin Ferguson, Jordan Stevenson and Jordan Ober — played immediately as true freshmen. Seven remained at NU their entire careers.
In 2016, that number dropped to four — Tre Bryant, Lamar Jackson, Caleb Lightbourn and JoJo Domann. Because of good depth at receiver, Nebraska chose to redshirt JD Spielman, already one of the most accomplished wideouts in school history.
What if NU had Spielman for four games in 2016? Does he turn heads as a returner or receiver in a way that earns him more playing time? If he’s on the field at Wisconsin for the Huskers’ final two drives — one in regulation and one in overtime — does the outcome change?
“Someone like JD was so small, it helped him to develop his body in the weight room,” Barry said. “You play some kids too early, they get banged up and it really messes up their confidence. You don’t want that kid going through all those injuries, when, with just one more year in the weight room, that probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s more than just talent level. It’s durability.”
In that sense, McCaffrey is in the ideal situation. He hasn’t been dinged up. He’s spent just a week with the scout team. He’s played in one game — one play — but he’s prepared like a starter. Barring a long-term injury to one or both quarterbacks in front of him, McCaffrey is headed for a redshirt like his older brother Dylan, a quarterback at Michigan. But like his other two older brothers at Duke and Stanford, he’ll play as a true freshman.
“It’s not so much wondering, but staying prepared, staying on top of it every week,” McCaffrey said. “When that game comes, there’s no switch (to flip). Stay prepared so you don’t have to get prepared.”
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