Understanding Urban Meyer's Use of the Mid-Career Redshirt

By Vico on May 16, 2014 at 11:00a
Bri'onte Dunn

One of the more unique football stories entering the 2010 season was at linebacker. Ohio State had two starters returning at weakside linebacker and middle linebacker in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. It lost strongside linebacker Austin Spitler, an unsung hero of the 2009 Rose Bowl championship campaign, to graduation. Who replaced him for a season in which Ohio State entertained playing for a national championship at the season's end was a preaseason talking point.

The battle that emerged pit juniors Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat against each other for the position. Both were well-regarded linebacker signees from that infamous "Block O" 2008 recruiting class. However, the position battle came with a twist. The loser of the preseason battle would redshirt. This was Etienne Sabino, who maintained a redshirt through that 2010 season.

It was unique that a player in the midpoint of his college career could redshirt while healthy and capable of being a reliable presence in the two-deep at the worst. The custom is redshirts go to players with season-long injuries or, more accurately, first-year players whose development lags behind other true freshman capable of having an immediate effect on the football team.

Already, Urban Meyer redshirted guys like Michael Thomas and Bri'onte Dunn in the second year of their Ohio State career. It is conceivable that Jacoby Boren could redshirt his third year at Ohio State as well. What was a sui generis talking point for the 2010 season is becoming commonplace for Urban Meyer's program.

Why redshirt guys like Dunn and Thomas midway through their careers? The easiest answer comes with reference to the situation for Sabino and Sweat in 2010. The coaching staff at the time felt both were capable of being two-year starters as upperclassmen, though only one would command that type of playing time on the 2010 football team. When Homan and Rolle graduated, the loser of that position battle between Sabino and Sweat would get one of those spots for two years. A mid-career redshirt says as much about the wealth of talent at the position as it does the development of the player.

Likewise, Dunn and Thomas were in crowded depth charts, Dunn especially. Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall were seniors and proven commodities in a mostly one-back offense. Ezekiel Elliott looked the part of a true freshman phenom and Warren Ball redshirted his first year in the program in 2012. Dunn gains nothing from having little playing time in this situation and Ohio State gains nothing from him wasting a year of eligibility against the likes of Florida A&M and Purdue.

However, Meyer's use of the mid-career redshirt suggests a different message. In discussing Dunn's spring and redshirt for the previous year, position coach Stan Drayton said Dunn lost some of his "hunger" after the 2012 season. It was a season in which Dunn had 133 yards and two touchdowns in limited duty as a true freshman. 

Dunn's development stunted shortly thereafter. An ankle injury was partly to blame but other factors emerged. Awareness and execution in practice fell below benchmarks. Dunn also appeared unable to contribute to special teams, making it possible for a coaching staff to redshirt him when it had a wealth of other options.

A similar comment could be made about Michael Thomas. Thomas had three receptions for 22 yards in his first year at Ohio State though his development did not mature from there. Thomas has physical tools at wide receiver that Ohio State could have used in 2013 but Thomas could not separate himself from the pack. With multi-year starters like Corey Brown, Devin Smith, and Evan Spencer already secure in their positions, Thomas redshirted in 2013.

The good news is the redshirts may have had the intended effect of motivating both players. Drayton has praised Dunn for being much crisper this point in 2014 than he was in 2013. Thomas has also been posting videos of himself on Twitter looking every bit the nephew of Keyshawn Johnson he is.

One question nags, especially for this 11W writer who tries to project first-year redshirts on members of the incoming recruiting class. Is a mid-career (here: second year) redshirt an acknowledgement of a mistake by the coaching staff in putting a player on the field as a true freshman? It does seem to communicate that a true freshman campaign with spot playing time was not an investment that materialized in the desired sophomore transition.

Barring an injury waiver, players have five years to play four seasons. There is no real loss for a player or coaching staff in the mid-career redshirt. That said, a mid-career redshirt as a signal of an inadequate early career development has another implication for how Ohio State fans follow the program under Urban Meyer. 

Meyer has boasted that "we don't redshirt here at Ohio State." Fans and incoming players may be confusing the message of "we don't redshirt" as a suggestion of immediate playing time at Ohio State as a trial by fire. It is less a guarantee and more of a message to incoming recruits to be game-ready when they enroll at Ohio State. Mid-career redshirts like those for Dunn and Thomas may clarify the meaning behind that message even if the spot playing time received before the redshirt may muddy it.

Meyer's often cited "we don't redshirt" quote more accurately means "we don't want to redshirt" and "don't enroll expecting to redshirt". Those who receive the mid-career redshirts by Urban Meyer at Ohio State can be understood as not playing to their potential unlike the situation in 2010 for Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat.


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JohnnyKozmo's picture

Why is tOSU so behind on the times, I've been using these since NCAA '01.  Helps to build the depth chart so you don't have to rely on true freshman unless they are studs.

Pain don't hurt-Dalton

+9 HS
allinosu's picture

NCAA rules state clearly that red shirting is for the benefit for the player, never for the institution. Using it as a tool by the institution SEEMS a little improper. That said I'm sure the rule is stretched to the limit by everybody. I'm OK with it as long as the player absolutely agrees.

-4 HS
OSU_1992_UFM's picture


Spring football is like non-alcoholic beer.  It looks like what you want, but only intensifies your desire for the real thing--Earle

-6 HS
buckeyedexter's picture

If you have 2 players that could be starters, why not redshirt one so he'll have his time to shine.  It's better than getting limited playing time; better for the school and player.

+3 HS
livinthedream's picture

OR is UFM's statement "we don't redshirt" a message to new recruits that may be looking at depth charts and thinking they might not see the field their first year?  Here he's telling them you will (can) play from day one - with the right talent and hard work of course.

+3 HS
yrro's picture

I've thought that "we don't redshirt" line has to be something that is used against Urban on the recruiting trail, since he obviously *does* redshirt a lot of guys. Even he admitted that they redshirted more than they should have last season.

Honestly, with the talent they have coming in, it doesn't seem like redshirting anyone but quarterbacks and O-line is worth it. What are the chances that someone blossoms *just* enough that they want them around for a fifth year over one of their replacements, but not enough that they'd leave for the draft? It seems like we get some ok role players that way, but at least the last few years no one really jumps out. Would losing Pitt Brown last year have really made things that much worse?

+2 HS
hetuck's picture

Jacoby Boren was forced into freshman action because of the poor o-line recruiting by Bollman. He wasn't ready as a freshman, but responded to the team need. Offensive linemen benefit the most from a redshirt year. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

+3 HS
Buckeye5000's picture

First I am not trying to defend Bollman in any way, shape, or form. But just because Bollman (or any other coach) coached that position group means he recruited them. The decision on the players that are recruited are made by the coaching staff, and head coach, as a whole and another coach on the staff might have been in charge of recruiting certain O-lineman. Recruiting is split up into regions of the country and are not determined by which coach is in charge of a position group...i.e. Bollman doesn't recruit offensive lineman unless they are in his geographical area. He will be brought in to met the recruit but might not be his recruiting responsibility.


Simply put an O-line coach might not be the head recruiter of  any of the O-lineman he has on the roster. It is broken down into regions of the country, not position.

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Horvath22's picture

Right on, Hetuck.

lwitters's picture

Thinking/hoping we won't see more than 1/3 of this incoming class redshirt.

cinserious's picture

Dunn's development stunted shortly thereafter. An ankle injury was partly to blame but other factors emerged. Awareness and execution in practice fell below benchmarks.

Does this mean he's back on the pot?



One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.