GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Billy Napier didn’t want to risk keeping receiver Eugene Wilson on the bench.
A four-star recruit from nearby Tampa and the shiftiest player on the Gators’ roster, Napier had seen enough of Wilson during fall camp to realize the true freshman could help right away.
So Napier and his staff summoned Wilson to the field for an early punt return in Florida’s opener at then-No. 7 Utah. What happened next was a strange and costly error: Wilson forgot to switch jerseys and was penalized for wearing the same number as defensive teammate Jason Marshall. Utah retained possession and scored a few plays later, a significant swing in a 24-11 victory.
It’s the kind of youthful mistake Southeastern Conference coaches are enduring on a regular basis in hopes of keeping newcomers involved and out of the transfer portal.
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“The more players that you can keep engaged the better,” Napier said.
The SEC agreed and increased travel rosters from 70 to 74 players for league games this season, a change coaches pushed for at the league’s annual spring meetings in May.
Although some argue the expansion was designed simply to reward more guys for working hard in practice or the classroom, there’s little doubt it also helps retain youngsters who might be contemplating more playing time elsewhere.
To combat that, coaches have ended up slotting freshmen in specialty roles — maybe a special teams unit, nickel or dime defense, or off the bench for a series here and there. The moves could — and often do — backfire.
Substitution violations? Too many men on the field? Too few? Delay-of-game penalties? Timeouts? Mental errors? Misalignments? Miscommunications?
“You can blame some of this on the portal, philosophically,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You want to play more guys because you want to keep them in your program, so you create roles for guys. Well, you’ve got to sub them.
“Fifty years ago, you played 11 players and that was all you played. Defensively, we’re playing 30 and 40 guys. That creates confusion. I’m talking about within your own group. Offensively, too. More than ever this year, it’s been a concern for me because of burning timeouts and organizational things that you can’t afford to do.”
The Gators have routinely played with 10 men on special teams and were flagged for having 13 defenders on the field for a goal-line play against Kentucky. The violators are often inexperienced guys Napier is working to get on the field. He’s hardly alone.
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Alabama had a kickoff return for a touchdown called back last month at South Florida because of a holding penalty on redshirt freshman Jeremiah Alexander. LSU redshirt freshman Aaron Anderson muffed a punt in the Tigers’ season-opening loss to Florida State in Orlando. The list goes on and on, some more egregious than others.
“You want to be strategic in how you use your players,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said, adding that you have to take into consideration whether you want to play a freshman in four games and still redshirt them. “Maybe you play them early in a key game, maybe you don’t play them for four or five weeks but you keep them ready and engaged.
“You keep them up in your two-deep so they’re getting coached every day. They’re not on the scout team. Maybe a couple of other crucial games in the middle of the season and then you finish off the season with them.”
The recently modified NCAA transfer portal opens in early December for 30 days. A second, smaller window opens in late April. So how much guys play in November might have more of an impact on transfer decisions than how often they saw the field in August, September and October.
“I want to take people on trips who have the opportunity to play,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. “I want to be able to reward people who’ve earned the opportunity to go on the trip.
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“Certainly, if there’s a guy who’s a big-time player and you want to keep him engaged, kind of like teams in the past … Michael Vick, for example. When I was a junior at Virginia Tech, Michael Vick was going to redshirt his freshman year no matter what. But he went on all the away games because my dad and everybody at Virginia Tech knew he was the future.”
Redshirting big-time players nowadays is rare, maybe even risky.
In Gainesville, Wilson arrived on campus in time for fall camp and quickly proved he deserved to be on the field. Despite that season-opening hiccup, he’s been solid. He’s second on the team in catches (26) and receiving yards (251) despite missing two games because of an injury.
Napier worries little about Wilson sticking around now. Other freshmen could be another story.
“If they don’t want to be here, they don’t want to be here,” Napier said after praising his program’s player experience. “Will we have attrition? Absolutely. They’ll be some attrition. But I think that’s just reality. Some of it’s healthy.
“When you think about it, if a guy’s on the fence, he doesn’t need to be here. Right now, I can tell you this group of players, they’re in. They’ll be some attrition when we get to the winter. In the meantime, I think we have a pretty good product to offer.”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.