When the NCAA revamped its redshirt rules for college football — allowing players to participate in up to four games without using a year of eligibility — coaches turned cartwheels. They suddenly were armed with increased roster flexibility and went about devising plans to use it.

For Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, now comes the challenging part. Fleck has a 3-1 team that’s relying heavily on true freshmen, and he has played 16 of them, including eight who have played in all four games. Appearing in one more game will mean a year of eligibility used for those eight, and Fleck will have to mix and match how to use those freshmen who’ve played three or fewer games.

With that in mind, here’s where the Gophers’ true freshmen stand through one-fourth of the season:

Played all four games

• Zack Annexstad (QB), Rashod Bateman (WR) and Bryce Williams (RB): These three will remain key parts of the offense. Annexstad is the team’s undisputed starter who was solid in nonconference but faced heavy pressure in the loss at Maryland. Bateman is second on the team with 20 catches, while Williams leads the team with 283 rushing yards and had the No. 1 role for most of two games. With Rodney Smith out for the year, Williams will get plenty of work.

• Terell Smith, CB: He’s been a standout from the start. He leads the team with four pass breakups and ranks third with 22 tackles.

• Jordan Howden and Benny Sapp III, DBs: With Antoine Winfield Jr. lost for the season because of a foot injury, Howden, a walk-on, becomes key at safety. Sapp has played mainly special teams, but the speedster from Eden Prairie also will be needed.

• Thomas Rush, LB: Special teams performer and backup to Thomas Barber at middle linebacker. He’ll keep playing.

• Max Janes, TE: Walk-on has played as a backup and likely will continue in that role.

Played two or three games

• Mariano Sori-Marin (three games) and Braelen Oliver (two), LBs: Like Rush, these two add depth at linebacker, with Sori-Marin behind Kamal Martin and Oliver behind Barber. They’re strong candidates to keep playing.

• Jamaal Teague, DT (two): Adds depth and could be used sparingly to keep a year of eligibility.

Played one game

• Curtis Dunlap Jr., OG, and Daniel Faalele, OT: Fleck is high on the massive linemen from IMG Academy. They played in the opener, but don’t be surprised if they play only three more games and redshirt. Fleck is fond of saying, “Never sacrifice what you want now for what you really want in the future.” He’d like to see these big guys on the team as fifth-year seniors.

• Josh Aune, DB: He played the opener but hasn’t since. Aune could be a redshirt target, but Winfield’s injury complicates that.

• Brevyn Spann-Ford, TE: Played in the opener but hasn’t since.

• Mayan Ahanotu, DL: Likely a player for four games and then a redshirt.

Redshirt wild card

• Shannon Brooks, RB: Brooks, a senior who has more than 2,500 all-purpose yards, is working his way back from a torn ACL. Fleck said Brooks will play in four games this season, and only four so he can preserve a final year of eligibility in 2019.


Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib. E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.com