When Houston Cougars’ QB D’Eriq King announced his decision to redshirt for the remainder of his senior year, it caught the college football world by surprise. After rumours circulated that the Cougars’ leading passer would enter his name in the transfer portal, King’s ultimate decision split the college football world. The fourth year senior chose to redshirt after starting the first four games of the 2019 season for Houston, the quarterback will sit out the remainder of the season to be eligible for another year at the school. 

The choice to redshirt is not an oddity in the sport. Often associated with freshmen and underclassmen, taking a redshirt can be beneficial to both player and team. Having time to implement a system, get stronger in the weight room and see the game from the sideline can be beneficial for some student-athletes. Yet, in the case of King and teammate WR Keith Corbin — also redshirting for the remainder of the 2019 season — sitting out the remainder of your final season can only be described as odd at best. 

“I came here to play football for the University of Houston and that is not changing,” King said. “After carefully thinking through this process with my family and Coach (Dana) Holgorsen, I have decided the opportunity to redshirt this season gives me the best chance to develop as a player, earn my degree and set me up for the best success in the future. I’m looking forward to being a part of the success of this program going forward.”

The immediate beneficiary of this decision is Houston. New head coach Dana Holgerson inherited a roster that has potential, but lacks depth and talent. The Cougars are 2–3 to date, winning 46–25 over North Texas last weekend. While not announcing that this current season is a rebuild, the program has taken measures to stockpile for the 2020 season. Several incoming transfers from varying Power Five programs will be eligible to play in 2020 after sitting out the 2019 season. Houston could be a legitimate contender in the American Athletic Conference with the return of their prolific QB. King has passed for 4,925 yards, 50 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has also rushed for 1,421 yards and 28 TDs during his collegiate career.

The move to put King on the shelf has stirred a debate surrounding the integrity of the sport. On one side, you have those that argue the move will set a precedent of sacrificing/tanking a season. Sitting out your best players for the entirety of the season doesn’t do much to help team morale. Especially for the players who will be playing out the rest of the schedule. The remainder of the roster is left feeling somewhat alienated as they play the season out. How can a coach sit in a recruit’s home and convince them to commit to a program that is not willing to put their best foot forward on a weekly basis? You’re supposed to build students up for the future in college. Putting them in timeout doesn’t accomplish that task.  

On the other side of the debate, you have those who feel that redshirting seniors is in the best interest of the program and the sport. Under the NCAA’s redshirt policy, players are allowed to play in four games and remain a candidate to be tagged with the label. The same can’t be said for new coaches who inherit a roster of players they never recruited. The job is to fix the football program and that often takes longer than a season. What’s best for the program long-term isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the individual players. With the popularity of the transfer portal, those who are dissatisfied with their situation have the option to seek refuge elsewhere. 

Houston is the latest in a trend of college football programs trying to squeeze every advantage out of their roster. University of Miami head coach Manny Diaz had initially balked at the idea of one of his senior linebackers being redshirted. The Hurricanes have four linebackers who are seniors, all projected to be future selections in the NFL Draft. After denying the idea, the team announced that LB Zac McCloud would be sat for the rest of the year. Unlike King, McCloud’s return in 2020 would be to lead a Hurricanes’ linebacking corp littered with sophomores and freshmen.  

Holding back a key player for one more year is not unheard of, yet is seldom seen in college sports. An opportunity to become a professional — whether in the sporting world or otherwise — often trumps the idea of hanging around campus for another year. There are exceptional circumstances that make returning for a victory lap a logical solution, though. Gaining more game experience to improve your profile as a draft prospect is one. Perhaps there are tons of players at the same position as you. Would it hurt to sit out the year, and opt to go pro a year later? 

In an age where the transfer portal has evened the playing field between student-athletes and the NCAA, the practice of redshirting seniors could be the counter to attrition from a roster. There’s no guarantee that D’Eriq King won’t end up transferring to another program or declare for the NFL Draft. King is being asked to be patient as the program struggles around him. The same couldn’t be said if the roles were reversed. With the balance of power still heavily tilted towards institutions, tagging seniors with a redshirt is a tactic that will frustrate players moving forward. While the NCAA has amended the transfer rules to curb ‘free agency’ in college football, the redshirt rule is a tool that schools will lean on to appease underclassmen and stash talent for a later date. In the eyes of those programs, nothing tastes quite as good as savoured talent. 

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