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Bob Andres/AJC
Georgia's Knowshon Moreno hurdles a Central Michigan defender during a game in 2008.

Imagine if redshirt rule had been in place for Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno in 2006

Chip Towers

ATHENS — Knowshon Moreno. That’s the name that pops in my mind when I contemplate this new NCAA redshirt rule.

I was offline and otherwise occupied last week when news initially broke that the NCAA had passed the rule. Since then, I’ve had a chance to read up on it and learn a little more. Essentially, it gives freshmen four games to play without losing the option of redshirting and thus still having another four years of eligibility for competition.

What are my thoughts on it? Mainly, wow.

I’m not at all surprised the NCAA adopted this rule or the one regarding transfers. The movement to provide student-athletes with more freedoms and liberties in general has intensified considerably in recent years and has been a long time in coming, frankly. But the extent to which coaches can utilize this new redshirt rule to the team’s advantage — to effectively try out first-year players, or deploy them at opportune times — surprised me.

Of course, the question I’ve heard more than any other since the new rule was adopted is what kind of effect will this have at Georgia? Where it could be particularly useful for the Bulldogs is getting an early look at some of these elite signees at positions where there otherwise doesn’t appear much room for impact.

And that’s where it takes me back to Moreno’s freshman year. Moreno was famously — or infamously, I should say — redshirted his freshman year at Georgia, even though it eventually became clear he was at least as good and probably better than most of the running backs that were being utilized that season. Making it worse was, after Moreno proved himself to be one of the most special talents in the country in  his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons with the Bulldogs, he decided to turn pro. That was quite understandable and justifiable considering he was the first running back taken and 12th pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Again, the spirit of this rule is not for the coaches to be able to test out the young talent that they have, necessarily. But this new legislation provides them with more flexibility to insert a player in a game later in the season. That would have been useful for Moreno, who initially was slow in mastering Georgia’s offense in preseason camp and was buried behind three very good tailbacks at the time: Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware.

That explains why there was no mention of Moreno in the “Fall Outlook” portion of Georgia’s 2006 Media Guide. Under the running backs section, it said the position “figures to be a strength for the Bulldogs” and mentioned that the top-3 rushers from the previous year returned in Brown, Ware and Lumpkin, respectively. There was a mention of a junior walk-on named Jason Johnson and fullbacks Brannan Southerland and Des Williams in the preview, but none of Moreno.

It’s also important to recall that while Moreno was a big-deal recruit from New Jersey, he wasn’t as big of a deal as a lot of the backs we’ve seen the Bulldogs ink lately. He was ranked the nation’s No. 10 back by Rivals (73rd player overall) and No. 9 by Scout. Georgia’s Zamir White is the consensus No. 1 back in the 2018 class and James Cook is considered the No 3 “all-purpose back” in America and No. 41 overall by 247Sports.

So it wasn’t until the Bulldogs got well into the season that they realized what they had in Moreno. In preseason camp, he was taking reps behind the three guys ahead of him. It was actually in scout-team work against the No. 1 defense that Moreno began to distinguish himself. It’s in that role where we got the first reports of Moreno hurdling a defender. That’s something we wouldn’t witness in a game until two years later.

And there was a perfect opportunity to execute a make-good of sorts on Moreno. Brown, who ended up being the starter on the 2006 team, suffered an ACL injury against Vanderbilt in the seventh game of the season.Georgia still had Lumpkin and Ware to turn to at that point. But imagine if the Bulldogs would’ve unleashed Moreno at that point. As it was, they lost that game and close games to No. 8 Florida (21-14) and Kentucky (24-20) in subsequent weeks.

We know now that there’s no doubt Moreno could’ve made a difference. Coach Mark Richt still refers to not playing Moreno that season as one of the greatest regrets of his career. In Richt’s defense, he didn’t want to give away a whole year of eligibility on Moreno to play what at the outset would’ve looked like a backup role.

Had this new rule been in place, that wouldn’t have been a concern. Richt could’ve deployed Moreno for as many as four games. If he wasn’t making an impact, he could’ve sent him to the sidelines. We know now that wouldn’t have happened.

Now, coaches have strategies they can employ when it comes to utilizing freshmen. They can plan to give them extensive work against non-FBS opponents, such as Georgia has in Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee State in two of the season’s first three weeks. Or, if there are late developing players or depth issues that materialize as the result of injuries or other attrition late in the year, there will be no reason for hesitancy in turning loose one of the Bulldogs’ previously non-utilized players.

It opens new possibilities when it comes to roster management. It’s like having a practice squad from which to execute a call-up whenever the need arises. Only, in Georgia’s case, there’s a good chance there’s a blue-chip prospect waiting in the wings.

The flip side of that, for coaches and teams at least, is a player can more readily transfer to another program if he doesn’t like the way he has been utilized. And schools can no longer restrict a player’s options in that regard. That’s certainly a fair exchange, I’d say. If that designation happens to be a major rival that competes in the same division of the same conference, so be it.

I understand coaches’ concerns that rampant transferring at the first sign of adversity or discontent could turn college football into the wild, wild west every offseason. But it has been that way in basketball for a while and the system hasn’t collapsed.

No, the redshirt rule in particular seems like a win-win on both the side of the student-athlete and of the institution. It hasn’t been often that we’ve been able to say that about any new NCAA legislation.

Georgia had 16 true freshmen take the field last season, but only one who could’ve benefited from this rule. William Poole, a defensive back, played sparingly in the Bulldogs’ first three games of the year, then not again until the Kentucky game in Week 13. Georgia also played him against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, but probably wouldn’t have had a full year of eligibility been the cost. As it was, the Bulldogs had already burned it.

That’s the difference now. At four games coaches will have to decide whether it’s worthwhile to keep utilizing a player. Conversely, there’s nothing holding back Georgia or any team from giving a freshman a look.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if there might be a Moreno or somebody like him at another position on Georgia’s roster this season. This almost always is the case.