Practice now, Play later: Redshirt athletes prepare for future

By Michael Schwartz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

They attend practice every day, endure every drill and participate in every strategy session, although they will not score any touchdowns, drain any jump shots or spike any volleyballs.

As redshirt athletes, they represent the future of Arizona athletics.

Players in all sports can save a year of eligibility to adjust to the college game, recover from a major injury or get acclimated to the academic rigors of the university by being redshirted, as teams use the redshirt option in different ways.

The Arizona football team frequently redshirts freshman athletes to get them mentally and physically ready for the added speed and strength they will see on the field, said defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.

"These guys are all-stars in their high schools, and they're all very good football players," Stoops said. "Sometimes, they're forced into action, but when you're really putting your program into solid ground, most of the time you'll redshirt the majority of your incoming class."

Stoops said that this year's redshirt freshman class will include quarterback Willie Tuitama, whom, a scouting service, touted as the No. 5 quarterback in last year's national recruiting class.

While Tuitama has been seemingly anointed Arizona's savior of the future without ever throwing a collegiate pass, his current role involves impersonating the opposition's quarterback as the signal caller for the scout team.

"I know that my time's coming up in the future," Tuitama said. "Right now I'm just trying to put in the work that it takes."

Because Tuitama attends every quarterback meeting, he said he would definitely be ready if an injury to redshirt sophomore starter Richard Kovalcheck left the team with junior Adam Austin as the only other scholarship quarterback.

But there's no rush to get the rookie on the field.

"There's so much (of a) mental part of it," Tuitama said. "As good as you are with talent, you have to know everything about your opponent and things like that."

Teams may also request a medical redshirt for an injured player, as the football team plans to do for senior defensive end Marcus Smith. He injured his ankle Sept. 10 against NAU and will miss the remainder of the season.

Smith's injury opened up a starting spot for true freshman Michael Shelton, who joins fellow true freshman wide receiver Michael Thomas in the starting lineup instead of on the sidelines.

The decision whether to redshirt a player involves a complex set of factors, Stoops said.

"(We decide) just by what they can handle, how they're performing mentally and physically, whether they're picking things up, how they play, and then, if there's a need," he said.

On the hardwood, Arizona men's basketball associate head coach Jim Rosborough said the Wildcats leave the redshirt decision up to the player and his parents.

"We don't ever really make the final decision," he said. "We let really the parents and the kid, along with the coaching staff, decide. We make sure we have all the input from all of them, because it's really their lives that are getting impacted."

Rosborough said junior center Kirk Walters and his parents agreed to redshirt him for his sophomore year and complied when the coaching staff pulled Walters out of his redshirt year 15 games into last season.

"We talked to his family and talked to Kirk," Rosborough said. "We felt we had a need and that he could contribute, so it really was the right thing. We certainly considered the team aspect of it, too, and the team aspect comes first. It was everybody's decision."

Walters said he used the time off last year to get stronger, learn tendencies and improve his game by playing every day against former Arizona center Channing Frye, who was picked No. 8 overall by the New York Knicks in June's NBA Draft.

Walters said he did not hesitate to be taken out of redshirt status despite losing half of his second season.

"If I can help the team out, that's what I'm going to do," said Walters, who earned co-improved player of the year honors last year after winning the award his freshman year by a vote of teammates.

Rosborough said his team will often redshirt a player not expected to play in the team's regular rotation even after his first year.

"It may be a case where somebody, for whatever reason, is a little bit behind or maybe not going to see a lot of playing time," he said. "That's typically what happens because maybe (because) we're loaded at one position, you feel like it would be better to hold them out, and then this person would have a better chance of playing a whole lot more in the years after the one we sit them out."

While the football and men's basketball teams often redshirt their players, Arizona women's tennis head coach Vicky Maes said her program usually does not use redshirts except for injuries.

"For a tennis player, to sit out a year would be really detrimental," she said. "It's different in football where you use the year to get stronger and better."

Maes said that because tennis is an individual sport, it's easier to play right away than in other sports.

"It's not like you are coming into a program and need to figure out a position," Maes said. "It's hard on the body, and to not have that competition is not something recommended."

While redshirt athletes range from freshmen who need to put on weight and learn the game, to players out of the playing rotation, the year away from action helps players improve both the physical and mental parts of their game.

As they sit to the side waiting for their chance, they know that one day they could be a big part of their programs.

"Most of them understand their position," Stoops said. "They understand that if they're good players, they're going to be very good players."