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CFB Explainer: Redshirtin'

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A reader from Northwestern asks: What's the deal with eligibility rules? Do you have to be explicitly labeled as a redshirt, or if you don't play in any games then it counted as a redshirt year? Didn't Jason White get like five extra years because of his gimpy knees? So why didn't Ben Mauk get one? His arm was broken in half. If you play for a year, and then are academically ineligible the next year, does that basically count as a redshirt?
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"Redshirt" is a really informal term institutionalized by coaches and media, according to a compliance guy I talked to at a certain mega school in Texas. There is no official designation before, during or after a season; there's no paperwork. The NCAA rule is essentially "five to play four": once a player enrolls, he has five years to use four years of eligibility. If he doesn't step on the field, it can count as a redshirt, but the Association's only role in that part of the process is to define what counts as a season of eligibility and when four such seasons (or five calendar years, whichever comes first) have passed.

Let's just pretend 2007 never happened.
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Academically ineligible? That's a redshirt. Transfer? That's a redshirt. Mitch Mustain, who was not redshirted as a true freshman at Arkansas, is listed as a sophomore in USC's Spring prospectus and still has three years of eligibility within the five-year window that opened in 2006. Emmanuel Moody should be a redshirt sophomore this fall at Florida; Ryan Mallett should have three years at Arkansas. Most transfers lose a year of eligibility in the process because they've already burned their redshirt (this is usually part of the complusion to transfer) and can't use another one.

So what counts as a season of eligibility? On the NCAA's eligibility FAQ page, it sounds pretty cut and dry:

You should know that NCAA rules indicate that any competition, regardless of time, during a season counts as one of your seasons of competition in that sport. It does not matter how long you were involved in a particular competition (for example, one play in a football game, one point in a volleyball match); you will be charged with one season of competition.
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The exception to that hard line is injury, if it occurs under certain conditions:
An extra year of eligibility can also be granted via a "hardship waiver" if a student-athlete suffers an incapacitating injury or illness in the course of a season. The injury must occur during the first half of the season and the student-athlete, in Divisions I and II, must not have participated in more than two contests or 20% of the school's completed contests, whichever is greater.
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Returning to the examples of Jason White and Ben Mauk, both of whom redshirted as true freshmen and both of whom suffered season-ending injuries early in their fourth seasons, the only difference is that Mauk's career included a transfer. In addition to his redshirt, White was seriously injured not once but twice, in 2001 (redshirt sophomore) and 2002 (redshirt junior). He was granted a sixth year in 2004 because the 2002 injury occured in Oklahoma's second game, within the guidelines for a medical hardship. Though he only played five seasons to White's six, Mauk was granted an extra year, too - after breaking his arm in Wake Forest's season opener in 2006 (redshirt junior) and losing his job to Riley Skinner, Mauk decided to transfer to Cincinnati for his fifth year rather than sit behind Skinner at Wake. The NCAA helped him by waiving the mandatory one-year sit for transfers. Had Mauk not been granted a medical hardship to get past that rule, he would not have been eligible at UC last season and his college career would have been over. From the NCAA's perspective, Mauk was granted the equivalent of a sixth year, and his request for another is one too many trips to the well.

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If you have any kind of question for CFB Explainer - strategic, historical, rules-oriented or otherwise - send it along to sundaymorningqb-at-yah00, etc. Don't be afraid to get complicated.