With spring football kicking off around the nation, there are roster spots to be filled and position battles to be fought. This is also the time when the far-too-often forgotten players emerge—not the guys who played sparingly during the season on special teams, but rather the faces most fans never got to see:
The redshirt freshmen.
After the excitement of signing day, the redshirt is a strange existence. Folks wonder which freshman will clock field action during fall camp, but as the season rolls around, the focus shifts away from depth charts and squarely to the on-field competition.
For a season that often turns out to be extremely critical to players' development, the redshirt year is one spent in relative obscurity. Athletes who left high school as media darlings and signed with fanfare in February are afterthoughts for a season. Coming to terms with that is never easy, as former Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell pointed out.
"Mentally, it's very tough," Cockrell said. "You do go from being 'the guy' to, frankly, riding the bench every single game."
That's something most football players coming out of high school have not experienced much, if at all.
Many players have gone from being on top of the world, both on and off the field, to not even getting a shot to get out on the field during their first collegiate season.
When redshirting, before making gains in strength and improving their knowledge, players must first contend with a mental hurdle.
The 17- and 18-year-old newcomers have to find a way to accept sitting on the bench. They have to accept that they will not travel to games, and they have to understand that not only will they spend the year as a nonfactor, but they will likely work as the opponent on look teams.
It is not an easy transition. While traditional rhetoric mentions giving players the chance to adjust to college without the added pressure of playing in games, for young men who place football at the center of their lives, being relegated to bystanders on game day is less than ideal.
Part of catching up to the speed of the game is the physical readiness that must be improved during the redshirt year—or in the vernacular of many a strength and conditioning coach: edification. Once players cross the mental hurdle of sitting on the pine, they are turned over to the whims of the strength and conditioning staff.
That means guys such as Cockrell, who came into school somewhere between 150 and 160 pounds, get filtered into the hard-gainers ranks.
Pounds have to be added, and that means heavy lifting, in addition to the practice duties and absorbing as much football as possible. While the travel squad lifts to remain flexible and in condition, the scout squads and redshirt players push plates to try to get more college football ready as the season progresses.
Redshirt linemen fall on this end of the spectrum as well. The big athletes come in high-school-sized and are looking to grow into collegiate contributors. But there are also linemen who have bodies that need to be chiseled into college frames via cardio work and healthier eating.
At the core level, that is the life of a redshirted ballplayer.
First, it is mentally coming to grips with spending a year not contributing. Then, it is a lot of sleeping, lifting weights, going to class, going to practice and either watching games from the stands or standing on the sidelines knowing he will not play.
The next element of the redshirt season is where players separate themselves, some even becoming leaders from the rear on the roster.
Many guys are simply station-to-station redshirts, going from one activity to the next, hoping to stay out of trouble and bide their time in relative obscurity.
Other players use the season to push themselves.
Although physically everyone will see improvements, there is enough weight being thrown around and enough runs being conducted to ensure that mentally players largely control their improvements. Here is where the self-starter and the hungry athlete, even while sitting on the bench, can push toward success.
For instance, current Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, when asked about sitting out his first season in Raleigh, said players can use the redshirt year to get accustomed to the mental elements of the position as well as adjust to the speed.
Glennon also mentioned that, at the quarterback position, a redshirt year should be universal. "I really think every quarterback should benefit from going through a training camp, a spring practice and another training camp before having to take the field," he said.
That would mean more reps, more chances to catch up to the speed of the game and more opportunity to get mentally prepared.
As ESPN's Ryan McGee pointed out in his 2012 article hitting on the successes of Wake Forest, it's not only quarterbacks who benefit from taking a redshirt. Glennon echoed that point, stating, "You're going to be a lot better in your fifth year than you are your first year."
Players at every position can use the season to their advantage, both on and off the field. On the field, that means doing the little things right. Technique and fundamentals are not just motions to go through during individual drills for players redshirting and playing scout team.
Rather, as guys work on the look teams, they can improve the small elements that will be the basis for playing during the actual games.
Watching EJ Wilson and Cam Thomas practice in 2005, the pair's redshirt seasons at North Carolina, was a lesson in athletes staying motivated to succeed. The defensive end and defensive tackle worked on individual technique against the run and the pass, pushing one another to improve for the days when they would line up in Kenan Stadium.
Those who come out of the redshirt year improved and tracking for success push the idea of getting better every day. Wilson and Thomas both found their way to the NFL. Wilson was a fourth-round pick of Seattle before winding up in Tampa for a couple seasons. Thomas was a fifth-round selection who spent four seasons with the Chargers and recently signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The same sentiment is held by Cockrell, expected to be selected in May's draft. "I really didn't like it," Cockrell said with respect to sitting out, but his mindset was, "Even though I'm not playing this year, I'm going to take every day and get better."
Of course, Cockrell's not the only player who survived the redshirt year to be projected into the NFL. At Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, two likely first-round picks, spent their first year on campus sitting out together. Both Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston at Florida State, two of the top quarterbacks returning on the collegiate landscape, also benefited from a redshirt year.
Going through the redshirt season is not fun. Waking up every day to lift and practice but not reaping the rewards of seeing field action is no football player's dream. But with the right attitude, players emerge from the year in obscurity ready to make plays.
As Glennon pointed out, redshirting can't be all bad; the past two Heisman winners sat for a season before exploding on the scene.
Michael Felder is the lead national college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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