What Is a True Freshman? A Detailed Explanation

A Texas Longhorns football player dives to the end zone with the ball.

While watching a football game, you see one of your team’s wide receivers make a diving catch. The crowd goes wild and the TV broadcasters rave about the receiver being a “true freshman.” You’ve never heard of a “false freshman” before, so…

What is a true freshman?

A true freshman is a student-athlete in their first year of college. A true freshman may be on their team’s active roster and ready to play. Otherwise, a true freshman may redshirt, which prevents them from participating in games but saves a year of eligibility.

True freshmen have a wide range of possibilities. Some are stars from the start while others sit out a year to get more playing time later in their college careers. To learn more about true freshmen and how important they are to college sports, keep reading below!

What Is a Redshirt Freshman?

A redshirt freshman is a college athlete who isn’t in their first year of college, but still has four years of athletic eligibility remaining.

When a player redshirts, they’re still part of the team, but they are not eligible to participate in games during the season. 

Student-athletes take redshirt seasons to preserve their eligibility. When freshmen are redshirted, it’s often because they would otherwise not get much playing time.

Spending the first year practicing and going to school allows true freshmen to gain a strong footing in academics while they get bigger and stronger.

College is a big adjustment for young adults. Between an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old, there may be big differences in physical and emotional maturity. The extra year watching from the sidelines helps close that gap.

Injury is another reason freshmen may redshirt. If a freshman gets hurt early in the season, and they expect to miss lots of games, redshirting ensures they don’t lose a year of eligibility.

True Freshman vs Freshman

Quarterback in blue and white hands off the ball to his teammate.

The term “freshman” doesn’t describe a player’s academic experience; it only indicates that a player is competing in their first season of college sports. A freshman can either be a “true freshman” or a “redshirt freshman.”

Broadcasters, writers, coaches, and fans may point out that a player is a true freshman because they want to emphasize the athlete’s youth. In football, a true freshman performing well is especially impressive.

To put this into context, an example of this emphasis would sound something like, “Just last year, the kid was in high school – he may only be a true freshman, but he’s outplaying grown men!”

True Freshman vs Redshirt Freshman

The difference between a true freshman and a redshirt freshman lies in how much college experience the athlete has. A redshirt freshman went to school and was part of a college team before the current season.

It may technically be their “sophomore” year based on credit hours earned, but they’re still a freshman in athletics terms.

A true freshman is in their first year as a college student and first year as a member of a college sports team. If it’s early enough in the season (pending NCAA rules), a true freshman can redshirt.

Through redshirting, true freshmen forego their ability to play in games for the season, but they get to start the next year with four years of sports eligibility remaining.

Redshirt freshmen are unlikely to obtain another redshirt year. In rare cases, athletes maybe stay on a team for six years by receiving medical exemptions.

Why Is It Called Redshirting?

The term “redshirt” comes from the red practice jerseys that reserves wear when they scrimmage against the starters. The concept of a redshirt traces back to pre-World War II college football.

In 1938, Nebraska Cornhuskers lineman, Warren Alfson, became the first redshirted player. Alfson asked his coaches to let him focus on practice, but not play any games, for his sophomore year.

In exchange, Alfson would earn a fifth year of playing eligibility. The move paid off for Alfson. He became an All-American in 1939 and did it again in 1940.

As Warren Alfson showed, redshirting isn’t limited to true freshmen. Players of all classes can redshirt.

Reasons to Redshirt

Utah Utes quarterback gets tackled by three players in blue.

While redshirting originates from young players taking a year to develop their skills, there are multiple reasons to redshirt.

  • Development is a common reason for true freshmen to redshirt, although sophomores and juniors may redshirt for the extra year of practice as well.
  • Injuries, if severe enough, can take an athlete out for months. When this happens, an injured player may obtain a medical redshirt.
  • Transferring from one school to another may lead to a mandatory redshirt. Depending on the sport and the circumstances, the NCAA may require transfer athletes to sit out one year before competing for their new school.

One historic exemption to normal redshirt and eligibility rules occurred in Fall 2020. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption to the 2020-21 sports seasons, the NCAA provided a blanket rule to ease players’ transfer and participation decisions.

This allowed immediate eligibility for transfer students. Seniors were also given an additional year of eligibility no matter if they chose to play or sit out the current season.

NCAA Redshirt Rules

The NCAA has guidelines that favor players who were competing at the beginning of the season but got hurt early on. For most sports, redshirt rules are uniform.

A medical redshirt requires the following criteria (per AthleticsScholarships.net): 

  • The student-athlete’s injury occurred during their senior year of high school or their four seasons of college competition.
  • The injury must be season-ending.
  • The injury occurs before the second half of the season.
  • The student-athlete competed in no more than 30% of the team’s games or three contests (whichever number is greater).

In sports other than football, a non-medical redshirt only applies to student-athletes who didn’t participate in a contest all season. In basketball, for example, your team will play 30+ games.

If you play one minute of one game, you burn one season of eligibility and cannot claim a redshirt for the season.

Football has new guidelines that apply to injured athletes and those who aren’t getting much playing time. Based on this rule change, a Division 1 football player may play up to four games in a season without using a season of eligibility.

It may be any four games, including bowls. This is beneficial to coaches and players – the coaches get to keep more experienced players on their rosters while other players get more opportunities to play.

Has a True Freshman Ever Won the Heisman?

Photo of the USC Trojans hosting a game in the Rose Bowl.

A true freshman has never won the Heisman, but two redshirt freshmen have taken college football’s greatest trophy. Johnny Manziel (Quarterback, Texas A&M) did it first in 2012, followed by Jameis Winston (Quarterback, Florida State) in 2013.

While no true freshman has won the Heisman, there have been plenty of them who had legendary performances:

  • In 1996, Ron Dayne (Running Back, Wisconsin) ran for 2,109 yards (yds) and 21 touchdowns. Dayne ranked 2nd nationally in both categories. 
  • In 1999, Michael Vick (Quarterback, Virginia Tech) finished third in Heisman voting. Vick passed for 2,065 yds and rushed for 682 yds. Vick led Virginia Tech to the national championship game, where they lost to Florida State.
  • In 2004, Adrian Peterson (Running Back, Oklahoma) was a Heisman finalist, finishing second to USC’s Matt Leinart. Peterson ran for 1,937 yds and 15 touchdowns as a true freshman.

True freshmen have been key parts of National Championship teams. Of the many examples since 2000:

  • In 2002, Maurice Clarett was Ohio State’s most productive offensive weapon in their 2002 title run. The true freshman running back amassed 1,341 yds from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns.
  • In 2008, Jeff Demps was the most explosive athlete on a Florida offense that included Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. The true freshman running back averaged 7.8 yds per carry and 9.4 yds per catch.
  • In 2012, T.J. Yeldon (Running Back) and Amari Cooper (Wide Receiver) broke 1,000 rushing yds and 1,000 receiving yds, respectively, for Alabama’s National Championship squad.
  • In 2018, Trevor Lawrence led Clemson to a perfect 15-0 record. The true freshman quarterback threw 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions. In the championship game, Lawrence racked up 347 passing yds, 153 of which went to Justyn Ross – another true freshman.

Can a True Freshman Leave School to Play Professionally?

In major North American sports leagues, the rules for early draft entry vary by sport.

  • Basketball: Yes. The NBA established the “one-and-done” rule in 2006, which requires players to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the NBA Draft. Until 2006, graduating high school seniors could jump straight to the league. Since this rule was established, three true freshmen have won college basketball’s Naismith College Player of the Year award: Kevin Durant (2007), Anthony Davis (2012), and Zion Williamson (2019). Without the one-year rule, each of those men would likely have jumped to the NBA Draft out of high school.
  • Football: No. True freshmen cannot enter the NFL Draft. The NFL requires draft entrants to be at least three years removed from high school. Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett famously attempted to enter the NFL Draft after his true freshman season, but his lawsuits were dropped.
  • Baseball: For four-year college players, no. For junior college players, yes. Major League Baseball generally allows amateurs to enter the draft either A) straight out of high school or B) after at least three years of college. Junior Colleges are not four-year schools and don’t apply to this rule. The MLB allows JC players to enter the MLB draft regardless of their college experience.

No matter how ready to compete at high levels, true freshmen have entire college careers ahead of them. While some will shine right away, those sitting out have plenty of time to develop.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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