Boise State football recruit Stefan Cobbs is a touchdown machine
The Boise State football team was leading Hawaii 54-9 in a 2009 game in Honolulu — on its way to an undefeated season and a Fiesta Bowl berth.
Despite that 45-point lead late in the fourth quarter, star quarterback Kellen Moore was still in the game. And he was dealing with a bum ankle.
The reason he didn't exit: Backup quarterback Mike Coughlin took a hit to the head in the first half and couldn't return, and third-stringer Joe Southwick was a true freshman who was redshirting.
"If Kellen couldn't have gone back in, then we're going to burn Joe's redshirt year," said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on that team.
That's just one of many scenarios that college football coaches hope to avoid by pushing for a new rule that would allow a player to compete in up to four games and still use a redshirt season. That would replace the current rule, that only allows players to redshirt if they sustain a season-ending injury while playing in 30 percent of a team's games or fewer.
The rule change was tabled by the NCAA in April but is expected to be considered at the Division I Council meeting June 12-13. It received unanimous approval from the American Football Coaches Association, which has pushed for the change under the leadership of Executive Director Todd Berry.
The new rule would have allowed the Broncos to insert Southwick into that 2009 Hawaii game — giving him valuable experience and protecting Moore — without losing what became Southwick's redshirt senior season in 2013.
The change also would open the possibility of every new recruit playing at least a few snaps during the 2018 season — whether as a test of readiness, a reward for practice effort, a chance to play in front of family or an emergency situation.
It's an idea that should pass easily — it protects student-athletes without making a huge impact on the way the game is played — but Berry worries a decision will be delayed until 2019. One concern that has come up is how the rule could or should apply to other sports. The current proposal affects Division I (FBS and FCS) and II football.
"One more year of this is quite honestly still too much," Berry said. "This is unfair to the student-athlete and we should be able to rectify that, even if it's just for football."
Berry was a college coach for 34 years and has argued for changing the redshirt rule since 2001. He was the head coach at Illinois State in 1999 when he asked a defensive lineman to burn his redshirt in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. He did, and the team lost. That's a one-game season for the player.
"It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do as a coach," Berry said. "The fact that we're having to ask our coaches and players to make those decisions is completely wrong."
Later in his career, at Louisiana Monroe, Berry played a defensive lineman 87 snaps in a game because injuries mounted and his only other option was a true freshman who didn't want to play.
"That's exposing him to injury," Berry said of the starter.
Part of the problem, Berry points out, is that coaches are trying to get through 13 to 15 games with the same 85 scholarship players they had with 11 or 12 games. Improved concussion awareness has led to more players missing games with head injuries, and some star players are skipping bowl games to protect their NFL Draft stock.
As it stands now, coaches must make a decision on how much a player can contribute before placing him in a game. Boise State wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck, for example, played eight games and made five catches as a true freshman in 2013. With the four-game rule, the Broncos might have been able to spread his action among fewer games — or pulled him back after four games, when it became clear he wasn't going to make a significant impact.
Late in the season, the decisions are even more difficult. The Broncos were shorthanded at tailback in the Las Vegas Bowl last December and played Alexander Mattison at less than full strength (he had three carries). If they didn't have to worry about losing a season of his eligibility, they would have played true freshman Drake Beasley. And who knows, if he had played, maybe Beasley wouldn't have washed out of the program this spring.
One of the reasons Harsin supports the AFCA proposal is the impact he's seen playing as a true freshman have on his players.
"It's more difficult, because you have a lot more going on, but they just do better and they do better academically," Harsin said. "... It's a shock at times, but they're focused."
The idea of extending careers has been discussed at Boise State for decades. Former Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier proposed five-year eligibility for all sports in 1983, with support from the Big Sky Conference, to better align playing careers with the typical academic career. The AFCA pushed the idea in 2007.
Three Pac-12 coaches told the Arizona Daily Star they'd favor full five-year eligibility. Two of them — Washington's Chris Petersen and California's Justin Wilcox — are former Boise State coaches.
The four-game plan is more palatable to the masses because the majority of players are either going to play a full true freshman season or play so little that they have a minor impact.
And it would get coaches and players out of the agonizing, late-season decisions about burning redshirts.
Last season, Idaho pulled the redshirt from quarterback Colton Richardson in the 11th game of a 4-8 season because of injuries to the two quarterbacks in front of him. Richardson came off the bench in that game and started the season finale.
"Every coach in the country can give you many, many examples of young people that were forced into these types of issues," Berry said. "... We feel like these young people have a very limited opportunity to play college football and to lose a whole season over three snaps in a game doesn't make a lot of sense to us."
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com or follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.