Redshirt refers to a college player that has chosen to sit out a season and not participate in any games. During their redshirt season, they may still practice, travel, and participate in all other team events, but cannot play in games.
Like many college athletes, I had to choose whether or not redshirting was the best option for me. I was a basketball player where the physical differences between high school and college aren’t as stark, and chose to forego the option to redshirt. But after spending my first year pinned to the bench, part of me wishes I’d taken the other option.
In this article, we’ll be examining the reasons why a player may choose to redshirt during their collegiate career and how it can be advantageous not just for the player, but for the team and program too.
- A player is allowed one redshirt season during their college career in which they can play in no more than four games.
- This gives young players the chance to mature physically and get comfortable in the college atmosphere without sacrificing a year or eligibility.
- A medical redshirt season can be applied for if a player suffers a season-ending injury.
Where Does Redshirt Reference Come From?
During a college football game or the NFL draft, you may hear an analyst refer to a player as a “redshirt freshman, a redshirt sophomore, etc.” This means that the player has already used their redshirt year.
Meanwhile, you’ll also hear references to a player being a “true freshman.” This means that the player hasn’t used their redshirt season yet. In many cases, an analyst may gush about how well a player is performing as a “true freshman” as the number of those that are ready for the college level straight out of high school are few and far between.
Why Would a Player Redshirt?
In many cases, players redshirt during their freshman year. Some may occasionally redshirt later, but this is the exception.
Younger players are more likely to redshirt because they’re less physically developed, and may need more time to prepare for the transition from high school to college. Instead of playing a season at 19, redshirting allows them to play when they’re older, usually 23 or 24 when they’re more physically developed, comfortable in the college atmosphere, and more likely to be near the top of the depth chart.
Even if a player is ready for the college level, they may choose to redshirt if an older player is “blocking” them from seeing the field. 
Players can choose to do this regardless of what position they play, but is most advantageous at positions where only one player is on the field at a time.
Let’s take the quarterback for example. Even high-end players that are bound for the NFL may choose to redshirt. Jameis Winston was a highly sought-after recruit and was the #1 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school. 
But Florida State already had an NFL-caliber quarterback in senior E.J. Manual. Instead of wasting a year of eligibility, Winston chose to redshirt instead of backing up the senior. 
A season under Manual’s tutelage seemed to help Winston. He burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, winning the Heisman trophy and guiding the Seminoles to an NCAA title. 
Can a Player Participate in Any Games While Redshirting?
The NCAA made a rule change in 2018 to allow players more flexibility in determining their redshirt status. Previously, players could not participate in any games and still maintain their redshirt eligibility. Now players can play in up to four games during the season and have the season still qualify as a redshirt. 
This provides flexibility not just for players, but coaches and programs too. Players will feel less inclined to fight through injuries and risk further damage to themselves and their careers. If a player is hurt in one of the first games of the year, they know that they have the option to redshirt and get a fully healthy season.
Coaches can utilize the additional flexibility by getting a look at younger players early in the season. Many top-end college programs play subpar competition early in the season. These games provide perfect opportunities to evaluate back-ups and see how close they are to contributing. If it’s clear they need more development time, the coach can recommend the player redshirt instead of wasting an entire season riding the bench.
Players can also apply for a “medical redshirt” year, even if they’ve already used their redshirt option. In these cases, the player must suffer a season-ending injury. But just because a player is injured doesn’t guarantee that the NCAA will accept their request.
To qualify for a medical redshirt in most circumstances, the injury must occur in the first half of the season, and the player may not play in more than 30% of their team’s total games. 
This leads to some rare circumstances where a player may get to spend six years on their collegiate team.
In most cases, redshirting is an advantageous choice for both the player and the team. I have to imagine it’s a mental struggle for young players to sit out a season when they’re anxious to prove themselves at the next level. But the payoff is tremendous, getting to play an extra season at the back end of your college career with more chances to contribute.
What are some of the redshirt success stories from your college team? I know Jameis Winston’s NFL career hasn’t been as impressive as many thought, but can you think of any NFL superstars that chose to redshirt? Let us know in the comments below.