Every summer, what were once high school recruits report to college campuses across the country and while many of them know they'll play as true freshmen, many more wonder.
For those who redshirt in that first year, like UVa's Jack McDonald, the balance between the adjustment process and the potential positives of a redshirt is crucial.
McDonald, a former three-star offensive lineman from Dorchester (Mass.) Boston College High, was one of two UVa first-years to talk to CavsCorner just before the team's season finale.
Generally speaking, the hardest part of redshirting can come simply from being unable to play a game a player loves. To some extent, that was the case for the 6-foot-5 McDonald. Sitting out and watching from the sidelines, especially while the team went 2-10, was tough. But he says he took his job on the scout team seriously and trusted that the extra time to mature physically would be a big benefit.
"Once we came in, they told all of us pretty straight up what the plan was," McDonald recalled. "If we were ready to play, we were going to play. They were going to play the best five linemen either way and everyone was really working hard to earn that time. It just kind of worked out this way for me.
"I was a little lighter, down in the 270s, so I needed to put on some weight and I didn't want to waste a year, so it kind of worked out that way. As the season began, learning the plays and everything, it was a big change mentally."
McDonald said he knows that every player is in his own situation in terms of playing that first season.
"It just depends on each guy and how they adjust, their strength, their weight," he added. "It all plays a role. It's going to be different for each person I think."
One thing that may have made his transition easier was that he didn't go into fall camp carrying the expectation of playing.
"Obviously as a lineman I knew there was a good chance I'd be redshirting no matter what," he said. "My goal was to come in and do whatever I could do just in case I had the opportunity to play. I was working like I was going to play and I think every freshman has that approach or should have it. Once I knew I was redshirting, it wasn't a let down or anything. I knew what it meant for me long term. I knew it was a positive thing even though it's tough not being on the field."
Life for a player who is redshirting, as it turns out, is very similar to that of a player who is seeing time on the field.
"We pretty much do a lot of the same stuff," McDonald told CavsCorner. "We're in the team meetings, the position meetings, practice is the same except we run the scout team. So we're going against the first team defense, which obviously helped me a lot facing those really good, experienced defensive linemen every day. Then we're lifting with Coach E (Evan Marcus) and on Saturdays, I would come in with a few other freshmen to get an extra workout in with Coach E so that we can get ready for spring ball."
For many true freshmen, a redshirt year allows for time to not just mature physically but also to adjust to the rigors of college life. Is school easier at all for a player who is redshirting?
"My high school was pretty tough and they did a great job of preparing me for what it takes to succeed in college," McDonald said. "Coming in here for me, then, was an adjustment but I felt like I was prepared. We had several weeks to get used to it in the summer before the semester and season started. Once that came, it was kind of just being used to the routine you had already started."
Over the course of his first few months in Charlottesville, McDonald said he not only learned how to better deal with the demands of being a student at UVa but he also pushed himself in terms of his game. He said he was up to 282 pounds and hopes to be up to 290 by the time spring practice begins.
"We just maxed out recently and all my lifts have gone up a few kilos each," he added. "In high school, you're maintaining during the season but here, you're really taking steps forward. Also just being more familiar with the playbook too is important. During the bye weeks you get more work and that's always good and gives you a lot of confidence. My footwork has gotten better, too."
As the redshirts dressed for the Oregon and Virginia Tech games, they were alongside their 11 classmates who were on the field for the Wahoos. McDonald said there was no animosity towards guys who got to see playing time this season.
"Through summer school, our class got really close, being together every day and then once camp started it was the same way," he said. "We're all close. So when those guys are in the games playing, we're there doing everything we can to back them up and have their back. They're there helping to support us during practice, too. Everyone really does help everyone else out.
The season on the field didn't go the way the team had hoped and there are a lot of questions going into 2014. McDonald thinks he'll be better for having sat out this season, especially considering his drive has never been greater.
"I think coming from high school and playing a lot to sitting out was a real adjustment but you get used to it," he said. "You learn your role. It's important to help the defense get ready for games. I think at first the mental part was a big change but as the season went on, things slowed down and I started to recognize and understand things a lot better. I think as times goes on, it all gets a lot easier. I just can't wait to get out there and do my part."
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