Heading into its game at Michigan on Oct. 13, the University of Wisconsin football team needed to find a desperate solution for the back end of its defense.
With D’Cota Dixon a late scratch due to a right leg injury and the Badgers’ other starting safety, Scott Nelson, suspended for the first half, absences forced UW to reach deep into its depth at the position.
Enter true freshman Reggie Pearson, who started the game, played significant snaps and performed well after siting out the first five games of the season. That marked one of just three times Pearson saw the field for the Badgers this year, and he’ll remain a freshman in 2019 thanks to a new NCAA rule that allows players to play in four games or fewer and still redshirt.
"I don’t know that I envisioned using (the rule) to get some starters in there,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "Reggie played a ton in that Michigan game."
After many unexpected turns, five UW true freshmen burned their redshirts this season, but eight others — Pearson, defensive back Travian Blaylock, wide receivers Taj Mustapha, Isaac Guerendo and Brady Schipper, cornerbacks Donte Burton and Alex Smith and tight end Cormac Sampson — took advantage of the rule by seeing action in four games or less.
Those eight took many different paths to staying under that four-game limit. Mustapha and Blaylock each played in the first four games of the season before being shut down. Others, like Schipper, Sampson and Guerendo, played spot snaps on special teams — getting their feet wet in a game experience without ever threatening to reach the threshold. Burton actually started against Purdue on Nov. 17, his fourth game, before sitting out the following week against Minnesota.
"We had games where we would have really been in trouble if you take away guys that you would have liked to redshirt,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "There may be situations at the end of the season now where you’re looking at it really wasn’t worth burning the redshirt (under the old rules) because it was a game or two games where you needed to get through.
"We were able to get guys some good, quality reps that are still going to redshirt. I like the rule. It’s still going to be a work in progress as far as how teams utilize it and what’s best for everybody, but I definitely think it helped us out this season."
Leonhard even found a regular starter at cornerback this season that may not have materialized without the new rule. Rachad Wildgoose played just one of UW’s first four games before things began clicking for him during the Badgers’ bye week. He went on to start the final seven games.
Under the old rule, where one snap burned a player’s eligibility, UW may not have found the value in turning to Wildgoose if he had yet to play a snap midway through the year.
"You’re able to play some guys early and get some experience and see how they handled it,” Leonhard said. "Early in the season, (Wildgoose) wasn’t quite ready and then all of a sudden he gets to a certain point where you feel like he’s learned from that experience and he’s become a better football player."
Similarly, inside linebacker Jack Sanborn sat out the first two games before injuries to Griffin Grady and Mike Maskalunas forced him into playing time against BYU in Week 3. Sanborn then served the rest of the season as the fourth guy at that position and enters the offseason as the favorite to earn a starting spot next to Chris Orr.
The Badgers certainly took advantage of the new rule, perhaps even more so than they anticipated, and Chryst said the next step is for those who benefitted from it to maintain the head start in their development.
“I think each year’s probably going to be different because your team’s different, that freshman-eligbie pool is different,” Chryst said. "I do think it’s a benefit to those kids, if we take advantage of that. You’ve got to build on it for it to be truly worthwhile."