Explaining The Covid Waiver

Dec 31, 2020

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I've seen a lot of confusion over what's commonly referred to as the "Covid Waiver". Some believe it's just for the senior class to get one more year, some think that players sticking around "steal" a spot from another possible recruit or transfer. So I thought I'd sit down and write out the general rules as I see them.

The reason I say "as I see them": you can interpret things different ways. Coaching staffs will go about all of this in different ways as well. So this is not "here's how every team will approach this one-time Covid waiver". This is simply a list of what is possible.

The best place to start is probably the boundaries. For FBS college football teams, you get 85 scholarships. Of those 85 scholarships, you can only apply 25 to a single recruiting class (that one is called the Houston Nutt Rule after Houston Nutt took over Ole Miss, dumped a bunch of players, and added 37 new recruits). You can sign up to 28 players, but by the time they enroll in early June, you can only bring in 25 guys.

There are also four year scholarships in the Big Ten (the rules are slightly different in other conferences). In the Big Ten, when you sign a Letter Of Intent, it means you get four years of that scholarship. A coach can't just tell you "son, things aren't working out, it's time for you to transfer". You have every right to stay at that school for four years. There are still "run-offs", but with four year scholarships, all a kid has to do is raise his hand and say "this coach tried to force me out before I got my four years" (as Nick North did with Tim Beckman and as Johnnie Vassar did with Chris Collins at Northwestern).

That doesn't mean there won't be transfers. And it doesn't mean players won't come to that decision with the coach involved. It's the end of the kid's third year, he hasn't played, he sits down with the coach, the coach tells him there's two guys in front of him on the depth chart, and they mutually decide it's time for the kid to try for playing time somewhere else. The four-year scholarship rule isn't "every kid stays all four years". It's just that a coach can't force a kid out without the kid's consent.

The fifth year, however, well, that's like the phrase "serves at the pleasure of the President". The President can just wake up one day and decide that it's time for the Postmaster General to go. Just like the head coach can wake up one day and decide that it's time for a fifth-year senior to go. The first four years, your spot on the roster is guaranteed. The fifth year, the head coach has to ask you back. You've received your four years and have your degree - a fifth year would be at the pleasure of the head coach.

So those are the general boundaries. You can't have more than 85 players. You can't have more than 25 players in each class (and the "class" includes transfers). And every player gets four full years, with the fifth year being the coach's choice. You get five years to play four on the field and then that's that.

Here's the change in 2020: this year doesn't count for anything. Jartavius Martin is a true junior defensive back. He played as a freshman and didn't redshirt, so after his first year he was 4-to-play-3. After his second year he entered this season as a 3-to-play-2. Now, after the Covid season that never happened, he enters next season as... a 3-to-play-2 player again. He could (not suggesting this, I'm just giving an example), sit out the 2021 season while he learns the new defense and then play two more years in 2022 and 2023. If this season counted, he would have had one more season - either use it in 2021 or 2022. Now, he can play both seasons.

A lot of the talk has been focused on the senior class - if they want, they can still play one more year! - but the real impact of the Covid Waiver is that every player is frozen in time (not just the seniors). Keith Randolph played in four games in 2019 so he got a redshirt year. He returned this season as a redshirt freshman and played his 4-to-play-4 season. Now next year he'll return as... a 4-to-play-4 player. Third year player, still a freshman. (It's the same in basketball, too. Yes, Trent and Da'Monte could return in 2021/22 if they wanted. But Giorgi could also play this season plus two more even though he's a junior.)

Because of that logjam, technically, some team could have 25 seniors all return AND bring in a recruiting class of 25. That would put them at 110 players for 2021, so the NCAA lifted the cap on scholarships next season. You can't go crazy, of course - you have to be back at 85 in 2022, so if you kept 25 seniors and brought in 25 freshmen, your 2022 recruiting class would be exactly zero players as you dropped back to 85 - but you can, for a year, go over the limit. And with the transfer rule likely to change in a few weeks (players won't have to sit out for a year after transferring anymore), it's going to be a crazy year.

OK, so now we can begin to talk about what all of this means. The best way to talk about it: the fallacies.

"I mean, with no scholarship limits for 2021, what's to stop Bret Bielema from adding these 14 freshmen plus 20 transfers and jucos this spring?"

The Houston Nutt rule is what stops him. We signed 14 freshmen. There are 25 spots for each class. So he can only add 11 more players.

(There's a way to add more than 25 - it's called backdating. If last year's class only used 20 of the 25 "spots", you can bring in early enrollees and have them "backdated" to last year's class. So if we had five spots (we don't) and used five early enrollees, technically 5 of the 14 freshmen could count towards the 2020 number and the 2021 number would sit at 9 with 16 more to be added.)

OK, more fallacies. Let's go with this one I saw on Twitter yesterday.

"Why bring Brandon Peters back? He's just taking up a spot. He had his chance - let someone else have a shot."

Except he's not taking up a spot. He's a freebie. It's why I've said that Bret Bielema should be fighting for every senior to return. They aren't taking anyone's spot. They get a scholarship for one more year and then they're done. That scholarship doesn't count towards any limits. It's adding a free player to the roster. Even if someone else wins the job and he sits the bench the entire season, absolutely bring him back. Free depth. And it's the only time the NCAA will allow "free depth" in the next 100 years (unless there's another pandemic or something).

The only real concern would be the old "he'd stunt the growth of the young quarterbacks", but that's a different problem. It's Year One for Bret Bielema, and he's going to need depth. This is free depth. Owen Carney opting to transfer is a huge blow. He'd be free depth for one more year and now he's gone. Losing a 2nd-team All Big Ten DE is just a massive, massive blow.

Yes, there will be a numbers issue down the line. Because every junior returns as a junior and every sophomore returns as a sophomore, there's a logjam as the new freshmen arrive on campus. When the cap goes back to 85 that logjam will be an issue (which is why I think there will be a push for a stepdown - something like 95 scholarships in 2022 and then back to 85 in 2023), but that issue doesn't exist in 2021. Keep as many seniors as you can, even if none of them play a single snap.

And that brings me to another fallacy:

"Bret Bielema is probably sorting through his roster right now, trying to figure out which players to keep and which won't work in his system."

Yes, that's happening, but Covid gives you an entire year to sort that out. This might get confusing but stay with me here.

I used Jartavius Martin as my example above. I noted how he could, even though he's supposed to be a "senior" next year, be here three more years because he A) never used his redshirt and B) didn't lose a year of eligibility in 2020. He could redshirt, play, play, and leave after 2023. But he could also redshirt and then be told there's not a spot for him and to go play those two season somewhere else. Why? Because he'll have had his four full years on scholarship, would have his degree, and those two seasons would be completely up to the head coach.

Or take Luke Ford. Played sparingly at Georgia. Sat a year after transferring here. Played this season but it didn't count towards eligibility. So he'll be a fourth-year sophomore next season. Could play in 2021, 2022, and 2023. OR, Bret Bielema could decide he's not a fit, tell him he's had his four years on scholarship, and ask him after next season to go find another place to play those final two seasons.

See what I'm getting at? This doubles the number of kids a coach could ask to leave. Again, I'm not suggesting he would ask any of these players to leave. I'm saying that when you combine "you get four years on scholarship but that fifth year is up to the head coach and he can just tell you to scram if he wants to" with "Covid means most players are now '6 to play 5' as long as one of those seasons was 2020", you're going to have a lot of fourth-year players who have two years of eligibility left the next few seasons. And all of those players could technically be asked to leave.

That means that Bret Bielema is likely not sorting through his roster right now. I'm guessing he's asking everyone to return. Next year, with no scholarship limit, is an open tryout for his football team. And after the season, 2017 recruits with eligibility left (like Deon Pate) and 2018 recruits with two years of eligibility left (like Kerby Joseph) would either be asked to leave or asked to return.

One more time: I'm not suggesting that Bielema would clean house and tell everyone "you've had your four years, now scram". I'm saying that there's some flexibility here. In a normal year he'd be going over his roster right now and saying things like "I wish that kid wasn't tying up a scholarship for four years but I'm stuck with him" as well as "I wish I got three more years out of that kid because I could build around him". Now, there's a little more flexibility for both things to happen. Basically, you have six classes to work with, not five.

Some kids will leave before their four years are up because the new schemes just aren't a fit. Some kids will stay and end up playing football at Illinois across six seasons. The math will get weird. I don't know how the roster will shake out or what players will leave, but technically, the tight ends next fall behind Daniel Barker could be 7th-year senior Daniel Imatorbhebhe and fourth-year sophomore Luke Ford. That sentence alone should tell you how weird the Covid Waiver thing will be.

And that's my whole point here. The Covid Waiver is a pretty good deal for Bret Bielema. No, he cannot just go out and add 35 new players since the cap of 85 players is lifted next season - you only get 25 new players every year and we just signed 14 of those 25. And no, he couldn't clear room for those 35 new players by dumping 35 existing players - all of those guys get a full-ride scholarship for four years and would have to decide to transfer on their own.

But he can take a year with something like 94 scholarship players and evaluate what he has. And then after next season, maybe some fourth-year juniors with two years of eligibility remaining are asked to leave to make room for new recruits. And maybe 11 transfers are added this spring. Or maybe it's two transfers and nine jucos (junior college football will happen in the spring). Or maybe it's just a bunch of high school kids signed in February. Could be that he holds a few scholarships for breakout players during Illinois' spring high school season. Perhaps he doesn't even want to mess with going over 85 scholarships and he only brings back a few seniors.

I could go on and on and on. This rule change opens (and closes) a lot of doors. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Now go get Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs to return....


Brave Illini on December 31, 2020 @ 10:03 AM

Just a point of clarification. Should we be thinking of the number of football scholarships rather than players? If, for example, the coaches do not plan to play Joe next season, and Joe is on scholarship, can they dismiss Joe from the team, while he retains his scholarship if decides to stay in school? Or must Joe remain a (non-playing) member of the team because he has a 4-year football scholarship?

Robert on December 31, 2020 @ 10:26 AM

Joe must remain a (non-playing) member of the team for four years.

Now, there’s such a thing as the “freeze out” where a guy at Ole Miss (or wherever) is 4th string behind two walkons at every practice and finally decides “screw this I’m out of here”. But if he wants to stay, no one can ask him to leave. If they do, he can report it.

tmiller33 on December 31, 2020 @ 12:28 PM

So say we have 94 coming back can he recruit 11 more grad transfer seniors to fill that out does that count against the 25 per class limit? If not seems smart to me to go after a bunch of 1 to play grad transfers who won’t take up a spot for 2022.

Robert on December 31, 2020 @ 01:39 PM

That’s the debate. For the sake of argument, let’s say the number was 23 last year and we can bring in 27 (with 2 of the 5 early enrollees backdated). That would mean there are 13 more spots in the 2021 class before we hit 25.

If those were all filed with 1-to-play-1 seniors, then yes, great scenario for 2021. A lot of experienced players who will fall off the grid after one season and help us get back to 85.

But for the strength of the program, wouldn’t some sophomore transfers help more? Sure, they don’t fall off the grid, so they’d technically “steal” one of the 2022 freshman scholarships, but wouldn’t some 3rd-year safety looking to leave LSU be better for Bielema than that 2022 freshman safety?

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on January 2, 2021 @ 10:54 AM

Just glad we have a new staff to navigate this. Cant imagine Lovies stsaff giving enough of a care to even figure it out.. .

Markschnake1 on January 9, 2021 @ 08:09 AM

How does the scholarship count work with basketball? Is it the same waiver in 2022 with basketball vs football? I could see a world where Williams and Trent stay, but will that be a one year flex out to 15 scholarships? (I realize this likely moot as we are having some issues filling these seats this year).

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