Jeff Gemmell didn’t know whether to be happy or disappointed when he was called into a coach’s office during his freshman season with the Charlotte 49ers.
Gemmell, then a true freshman linebacker, had been told in the preseason that he would redshirt the 2015 season — meaning he would sit out the year while maintaining his four full seasons of eligibility.
Instead of having the pressure of preparing for a game each week, Gemmell was playing on the 49ers’ scout teams, learning the program’s system and, just as importantly, getting adjusted to college life. As long as Gemmell didn’t appear in a game, he would have those four other seasons to play — a rule that would be changed earlier this year.
But when injuries began to crop up among the 49ers’ linebackers midway through the season, coaches told Gemmell to get ready to play that week against Old Dominion.
The thought of playing against the Monarchs appealed to the competitive side of Gemmell. He was, after all, finally getting a chance to play in a college football game. But he also heard from his practical side, understanding that if he participated in so much as one play, NCAA rules mandated that he would lose his redshirt status.
“I was excited about it but also nervous,” said Gemmell, now a junior who has developed into one of Conference USA’s top linebackers. “I was kind of freaked out, because I knew if I touched the field one time, my redshirt year was burned.”
As it turned out, Gemmell had nothing to be nervous about. 49ers coach Brad Lambert decided to hold Gemmell out of the ODU game, thus maintaining his redshirt status.
“I was overwhelmed and relieved at the same time,” Gemmell said. “Having to make those kinds of decisions can kind of mess you up.”
The type of dilemma that Gemmell faced is gone now. The NCAA passed a rule earlier this year allowing a player to participate in up to four games in a season without losing a year of eligibility.
Lambert, who has relied heavily on redshirts over his five seasons at Charlotte, is glad to have four games’ worth of leeway now in making those kinds of calls.
“I love it. I think it’s a great rule,” Lambert said. “It takes the pressure off you.”
Lambert said the new rule helps with player safety and discipline issues.
“If you have a guy get hurt, you’d have to worry about bringing a (redshirt) player in to take his place, and that might burn his redshirt year,” Lambert said. “It’s the same with (suspending) a player. You bring a guy in to take his place, and his year is burned because somebody had to be disciplined. That wasn’t fair.”
Lambert is letting the new rule work for him during preseason camp. While sophomore defensive lineman Dantrell Barkley recovers from a shoulder injury, true freshman Bryan Wallace is getting a chance to fill in. It’s unlikely that Barkley will be out for four games, so Wallace could potentially play for Barkley early in the season and not lose his redshirt status.
“(The rule) keeps everybody engaged,” Lambert said. “In the past, you’d make the decision to redshirt a guy, and he goes into another mode, like ‘Oh, well, I’m not playing this year,’ that kind of mode. Now everybody needs to stay ready.”
Gemmell said he’s a bit envious of the opportunities some of Charlotte’s true freshmen have this year. Backup linebacker Dillon Overholt has been playing on special teams in training camp and might be able to impress coaches early in the season.
“I’ve talked to the freshmen, and it’s so different,” Gemmell said. “My buddy Dillon is on kickoff teams and he doesn’t really know what the coaches have in mind. But they can see what he can do, give him a shot at it, then either see him develop out there or redshirt him.”