One of Al Groh’s stock quotes during his 10 seasons as Virginia football pertained to redshirting.
“When they’re ready, we’re ready,” Groh routinely would say several times a year.
Successor and former Groh defensive coordinator Mike London has been known to use that line on occasion but there’s been something of a change in tone.
The Cavaliers held a scrimmage Aug. 19 for newcomers who were “on the fence, to see whether they’re part of the depth for BYU or if they may be guys who provide reps for scout team,” London said.
At the time, cornerback signee Tim Harris had an injury that had limited his practice time.
“He may one of those guys on the bubble,” London said. “I don’t want to jeopardize [the eligibility] of a guy that’s not ready to play.”
Walk-on Daniel Hamm from Fort Chiswell was enjoying a nice camp at time but London acknowledged he might be best-served by “having to soak for a year.”
CAVALIER-WATCHERS might wonder how much this year’s linebacker corps would have benefitted from the return of outside ‘backer LaRoy Reynolds, who played 782 plays in 2012 and was second on the team in tackles with 80.
Reynolds did not have a fifth year at UVa because he had played 98 plays – all on special teams — for a 3-9 team in 2009, Groh’s last season. That same season, 17-year-old true freshman defensive tackle Will Hill played 84 plays.
Otherwise, he could have returned this year as a fifth-year senior.
The 2009 team was not an isolated case. Defensive end Chris Long, who went on to become the No. 2 player taken in the 2008 NFL Draft, played 67 plays as a true freshman in 2004. In 2005, defensive lineman Alex Field lost a year’s eligibility in just 33 plays.
The case could be made that Long might not have returned for a fifth year in 2008, just as Heath Miller, who was redshirted in 2001, did not return in 2005. But, for guys like Reynolds and Field, who became impact players late in their college careers but went undrafted, an extra year might have been a godsend.
PROSPECTS OFTEN BASE decisions on an opportunity to play “right away,” but that’s often not in their best interest.
Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans was redshirted as a freshman at UVa in 1999, played briefly as a freshman in 2000, split time with Bryson Spinner in 2001 and was the ACC player of the year in 2002.
On top of that, Schaub returned for a fifth year in 2003.
Former coach George Welsh, whose UVa teams won seven or more games in 13 straight seasons, originally was not a proponent of redshirting. He had come to Charlottesville in 1982 from Navy, where nobody redshirted, and he didn’t want to tinker with success.
However, after three straight winning seasons, the Cavaliers dropped to 3-8 in 1986.
“That’s the year we finally talked coach [Welsh] into redshirting people,” said Tom O’Brien, an offensive assistant under Welsh. “Now, we could have played some of those young kids, but we didn’t.”
“THAT’S WHEN THE WHOLE PROGRAM TURNED AROUND.”
Freshmen redshirted during the 1986 season included quarterback Shawn Moore, a fifth-year senior and co-captain of the 1990 UVa team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for three weeks.
“That class that redshirted was the class that helped this whole program take off,” O’Brien said.
“It’s different today because you’re operating at 85 [scholarships] instead of 105 or whatever we had in those days,” O’Brien said.
Scholarship limits for Division I-A dropped from 105 to 95 in 1978. A reduction from 95 to 85 took place over a three-year period, 1992-1995.
“OK, so, it was 95,” O’Brien said, “but those 10 were huge as far as numbers on the football team. Plus, with the early exits [to the NFL], if you’re only going to have a guy for three years, you don’t want to redshirt him.”
O’BRIEN DIDN’T WANT to get into a debate over players like Trent Corney, a promising defensive end from Canada who played 49 snaps as a true freshman last year. O’Brien, now back for a second stint as a UVa assistant, was the head coach at North Carolina State in 2012.
“I’m a proponent of redshirting,” O’Brien said, “but there are so many things that come into play [like] injuries. I didn’t want to play my freshman tailback last year, but [by] the fourth game, I had no other tailback left.”
But what about the old Groh line: “When they’re ready, we’re ready?”
“It’s like the old commercial, ‘You don’t want to serve a wine before its time, right?,’ “ O’Brien said. “It’s the same way with kids. You want to give them a chance to grow up and have success.
“If they don’t have [success], it takes them a long time to get them back to that level.”