The redshirt conundrum

An intriguing prospect for Miami, Stephen Morris is one Randy Shannon didn't want to play. Getty Images

OK, first things first. Yes, it's my birthday. And yes, it's Mike Gundy's birthday. So let's go on and get this out of the way and click here.

Last spring I was up at the WWL headquarters in Bristol, Conn., and coach Gundy was in town to do the ESPN car wash in advance of the season. I ended up in line behind him at the cafeteria and asked him about his infamous rant. He said when I turned forty I should come to Stillwater and he'd shout it at me. But alas, it is a Tuesday and I'm headed to Virginia Tech this week.

But I appreciate the offer, coach.

Speaking of Virginia Tech, we begin our Three Downs and Punt with a story that could end up being rather large for the Hokies' ACC title hopes.

First Down: The Redshirt Conundrum

Last fall I wrote an ESPN The Magazine feature on the art of redshirting. Knowing when and when not to redshirt a player is equal parts gut instinct, math and fortune-telling ability. It's not unlike being an orchestra conductor, knowing when to bring in the oboes at the right time but also knowing when to tell them to stick their instruments in their cases and go away until you really need them.

Use your redshirts correctly and you end up with a roster packed with wily five-year veterans. Burn them quickly and/or randomly and the wait can backfire.

"It's like these guys that you see that set up these giant rooms full of dominos," Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe explained to me when I was writing the story. "If everything goes to plan the end result is a beautiful thing. But if a domino gets broken or lost or someone knocks one down too early, it can be a mess. It's the kind of thing that keeps a coach up all night."

So it was with great interest that I monitored the facial expressions of Miami head coach Randy Shannon after star quarterback Jacory Harris was knocked out of Saturday's game at Virginia in the second quarter.

As a concussed Harris was helped off the field, Shannon was in fix-the-dominos mode, suddenly forced to not only coach the game but simultaneously monitor Harris' condition, juggle his lineup and -- as crazy as it seems -- run through the Hurricanes' upcoming schedule and attempt to mentally navigate his school's now rerouted road to the ACC championship game.

The primary root of his stress was the dilemma of what to do with true freshman quarterback Stephen Morris. The local Dade County product enrolled early at Miami, participated in spring practice and had looked good but admittedly raw through the summer. Internally, Morris had already been tagged as the future of the program, expected to wait his turn until Harris was done, likely at the end of the 2011 season.

Morris hadn't taken a live game snap all season, and that was by design. The plan was to redshirt him, adding a fifth year to his college career and letting him mature into his predestined role as leader of the team. With A.J. Highsmith and Spencer Whipple already on the roster, Morris was safely fourth on the depth chart, prime redshirt territory.

But when Harris went down on Saturday, Highsmith wasn't available because of a nagging hand and wrist injury. Whipple, son of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, checked into the game and threw two INTs in six attempts. The coaches conferred at halftime, trailing Virginia 14-0, and weighed what boiled down to a simple question. Should they sacrifice the long-term future for the short-term present or roll the dice with Whipple and potentially lose their shot at the ACC's Coastal division title?

When the Canes took the field in the second half, Morris was under center. After a brutally slow start (his first ten pass attempts resulted in six incompletions and two interceptions), the freshman led Miami to the verge of a comeback before falling short, 24-19.

Not only was Morris' redshirt burned but Miami was still pegged with their second conference loss. After seeing his flashes of brilliance in the fourth quarter (he threw for two TDs and ran for another) and in an odd twist, Hurricane supporters went from being angry about his playing to being angry that the staff hadn't played him earlier.


You have a plan in the back of your mind, and it's what you think is best for the team and for the young man you would like to sit out for a year. But we did what we thought was right at the time.


-- Miami coach Randy Shannon