Eligibility Extended

Aug 23, 2020

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The NCAA decision has come down: all fall sports athletes get a waiver regardless of whether they play in the fall, spring, or don't play at all. Put simply, everyone gets another year on their clock. Even the SEC players who might play a full season this fall. Even the Big Ten players who might have a season in the spring. Every player can return for 2021 with the same eligibility. Jake Hansen is a fifth-year senior right now and can return in 2021 as a 6th-year senior.

There are obviously a billion different things to think about here. I (obviously) want to write about them all. I will begin doing that right now.

The Ruling

Here are the specifics from the NCAA Release. This covers all fall sports, so football, volleyball, soccer, etc.

  • Regardless of what happens during the 2020/21 school year, it doesn't count. Not just for seniors, but for all scholarship players. Essentially, everyone goes from "you have 5 years to play 4 seasons" to "you have 6 years to play 5 seasons", with that fifth season of "playing" being whatever happens during the 2020/21 school year. Even the incoming freshmen. James Frenchie could technically be an Illini wide receiver during the 2025 season.
  • Because that means there will be players from six recruiting classes on the roster in the fall of 2021, the limit of 85 scholarship has been lifted. The NCAA does cap recruiting classes at 25 players, so there's still a max here of 110 players (it's not like some coach could say "unlimited scholarships? We're adding 40 transfers right now."), but there won't be a requirement to keep the rosters at 85 next fall.
  • That limit is only for the 2021/22 school year. I suppose they could revisit this in a year and say "OK, this is difficult - we'll let you have 95 scholarships in 2022 but then you have to be at 85 by 2023", but as of right now, you could have 110 scholarship players in 2021 but would need to be back at 85 by the fall of 2022. Much more on that below.
  • Of note, there's no requirement that the schools provide those scholarships, only that the players have the extra eligibility. For, say, Bowling Green, going to 110 scholarships - right after seeing your guarantee games canceled in 2020 and losing millions of dollars - would be financially difficult. So you might see a Bowling Green bring back 13 of their 18 seniors but only 6 of those guys would get scholarships. We saw this with spring athletes who were granted the same extension after their seasons were canceled. Illinois brought back 15 seniors across several sports (golf, tennis, baseball, softball, etc). Wisconsin brought back zero, announcing that it wasn't economically feasible.

This all sends my brain spinning, obviously. On one hand, yes, if there's a spring season, it won't feel like a real football season so we'd just play the season we were expecting this fall in the fall of 2021 instead. It's like everyone skipped this year.

On the other hand, say there's an 8-game schedule in the spring and Illinois surprises the whole world with this senior-laden team going 7-1 and winning the Big Ten West. Well, now that's not it for these seniors. They'd get another shot next fall to make another run at it.

So much to cover here. Not really sure where to start. This might be in random order but I'm just going to collect all of my thoughts in one long post.

The 2021 Cliff

Let's start there. That was my very first thought. "Wait - is the 2021 cliff now gone?". Well, no, right? It's just a 2022 cliff now. This whole thing just pushes everything off by a year.

If you're not familiar with the 2021 cliff, it's a result of playing 22 true freshmen during the 2017 season. That obviously set things up for a senior-heavy team in 2022. At one point it was going to be as many as 31 scholarship seniors for the 2020 season, but attrition brought that number down to 24. Still, that's a lot of seniors. If you count kicker and punter, there were going to be 15 senior starters this fall. Which would have meant 9 returning starters for 2021. Which would have been bottom 10% in all of college football. That's a cliff.

So that cliff just projects forward to 2022, right? For the most part, yes. We don't know which players will return - if Alex Palczewski has a great spring season and gets serious draft buzz, off he goes to the NFL Draft and there's a new right tackle in the fall of 2021 (even though Palcho could technically return for that season). But on the flipside, Palcho, who was 17 when he arrived for his first training camp, might really benefit from having a fourth (this spring) and fifth (next fall) season before the 2022 draft.

Maybe the better example there is Isaiah Gay. Gay is younger than Kofi Cockburn (crazy, right?). Kofi, a sophomore, turns 21 on September 1st. Isaiah, a senior, turns 21 on September 17th. So for someone like Gay - a freshman who had to play right away, even at age 17 - this is a big benefit. He basically gets his redshirt year back (even while playing this spring) and can then play the 2021 season.

I'm already off track, because this was about the cliff. The biggest question - does this help with the cliff? In some ways it does. As mentioned above, for the most part, this just moves 2021 to 2022. But if it's a situation where there's 15 senior starters this fall and then 10 senior starters in 2021, yes, that helps bridge the gap. An example of what I mean:

There's a spring season. It's eight games. It's not much, but it's something. After that season, Alex Palczewski, Milo Eifler, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Nate Hobbs all get serious NFL buzz and decide to take a shot at the draft. Kendrick Green, a fourth-year junior, also decide that it's time to make the leap. So let's speculate on the 2021 illini starters:

Doug Kramer, Blake Jeresaty, and Vederian Lowe return to the 2021 offensive line. They're joined by Verdis Brown and Jordyn Slaughter in the starting lineup. Then, in 2022, Kramer, Jeresaty, and Lowe depart replaced by a couple second-year linemen (Brody Wisecarver at tackle and Josh Kreutz at center) plus Kevin Tyler from the 2020 class who could still be considered a redshirt freshman even though it's two years from now.

See how weird this gets?

So in terms of a "cliff", this is fairly beneficial. If the current seniors depart in two shifts (some after this spring, some after next fall), that does help a bit. As does the age of the 2022 roster. A few paragraphs to explain that one:

First off, as you probably know, I'm a "college football games are won by third, fourth, and fifth-year players". Not at Alabama - they're all the "play three seasons and then go to the NFL" type - but for the majority of programs, it's get old, stay old. High school recruiting is key here - always be filling the roster with guys who you can train for a few years and then they're ready to dominate in years 3, 4, and (sometimes) 5.

The worry about a rebuild like what Lovie Smith has been doing (play nearly everyone from the very first recruiting class) is that once that class is gone, you kinda have to start the whole thing over again. Even historic rebuilds like Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin fell back to 4 wins after that first full class graduated. A lot of the time, there's a second phase to a major rebuild, often immediately after the first full recruiting class graduates.

And when you look at the current roster, the majority of the help for the "second phase" looks like it will come from the current class of freshmen - both the redshirt freshmen (Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, Shammond Cooper, Keith Randolph, Seth Coleman, etc.) and the true freshmen (Reggie Love, James Frenchie, Jer'Zhan Newton, Deuce Spann, etc.). In 2021, a lot was going to be placed on third-year players like Beason and Cooper and second-year players like Love and Newton to fill in all of the spots vacated by the 24 departed seniors. At this point at least, it doesn't appear that the 2018 class will provide as much as 2019 (and possibly 2020).

With those seniors now sticking around for 2021, it's 2022 when fourth-year players like Beason and Cooper and third-year players like Love and Newton will be stepping into those roles. Age-wise at least, the "next phase" will be led by 21 and 20 year-olds, not 20 and 19 year-olds, and that's helpful. There are a lot more factors than just "have 21 year-old players", of course - I'm just saying that this can be helpful in surviving the cliff.

So in those two categories - both turnover (perhaps replacing 10 starters instead of 15) and age (turning to 4th and 3rd-year players instead of 3rd and 2nd-year players) - it will help. It's the same case everywhere, of course, meaning Minnesota gets Tanner Morgan for one more year and Nebraska gets one more year to develop Frost's first few classes, so it's not like this is some huge "advantage Illinois". Everyone gets an age boost here. But for a roster with a clear cliff between 2020 and 2021 (Illinois would have had the most turnover in the Big Ten and would be top five in "lost production" in the Power Five), this is quite helpful. One extra year to make the transition.

110 to 85

As mentioned above, not every program will go to 110 scholarship players. I doubt any program will. Especially since they'll need to be at 85 the next year. Just pick any random college football program. I'll pick... Georgia Tech. Give me a second to go review their roster.

Georgia Tech has 17 seniors and currently their 2021 class has 19 recruits. There's a lot of unknowns here (how many seniors actually return, what the final recruiting class count climbs to, etc), so these will be rough numbers (I mean, they're planning on attrition anyway if they have 19 verbals and 17 seniors), so let's assume it would have been a class of 22 which would brings them to (spitballing here) 83 scholarship players. And let's assume 14 of those 17 seniors return for a second final season in 2021.

That means they're at 97 scholarship players for 2021 now. And they'll have 14 seniors. (This is where my brain says "wait, they'll really have like 30 seniors because their juniors will be seniors in 2021 as well, right?" but no, those juniors will technically be juniors again.) So they'd watch those 14 seniors graduate, drop down to 83, and could bring in a 2022 recruiting class of {checks math again} 2 recruits.

See where this is going?

Let's look at the Illinois numbers. Currently at 82 scholarship players with 24 seniors. Let's say there's some attrition after the spring season and 17 of those 24 seniors return for a second senior season in 2021. That means the 2021 roster before any recruits are added is at 75 scholarship players.

Now let's add recruits. The class is currently at 16 commits and was going to be at least 25, possibly as many as 28 with three early enrollee backdates. They'll obviously be adjusting that now, so let's say that number lands at 24. 16 recruits as of today, I'm assuming they add eight more (either high school recruits or transfers) before the 2021 season. That would put Illinois at 99 scholarship players for 2021. Then those 17 seniors then graduate, dropping us to 82 scholarship players, the 2022 cap is back at 85 scholarships and it would be... 3 total scholarships open for the 2022 class.

That's the craziness of this ruling. Again, as mentioned above, maybe they pass legislation between now and 2022 that allows for 95 scholarships in 2022 or whatever and then 90 in 2023 and then back to 85 in 2024 (or whatever). But if not, this is going to get very interesting. A few thoughts:

  • Obviously, no coach is going to want a roster of 110 in 2021, then 25 seniors graduate, you're back down to 85, and there's no recruits in the 2022 class. So I doubt many schools will climb above 100. Planning for this will start next year with which seniors come back. As Nicole Auerbach clarified, the NCAA is guaranteeing eligibility, not scholarship money (they can't force that on the schools). So there will be seniors given the option to return... as walkons. The tweet linked there says that institutions can "reduce" aid, so perhaps some seniors (who are all grad students by that point) could get half-scholarships? They've never done that for football before, so I'm guessing that statement is for partial-scholarship sports, but maybe they'd do it for football in these crazy times. I'll be interested in reading more about this as more info comes out.
  • This absolutely affects 2021 high school recruits as well as 2022 recruits. If schools were thinking about bringing in 25 recruits in 2021, they might reduce that number to 18 now (you basically have to balance your 2021 and 2022 rides). Remember, everyone gets a year added, so juniors who were going to graduate after 2021 (and leave a scholarship open for 2022 recruits) will now be sticking around until 2022.
  • Many schools with solid recruiting pipelines will likely treat this as "sure, we'll bring back a few of these seniors, but we don't want to disrupt our process". I could see Ohio State saying "we COULD bring back 14 of our seniors, but maybe we let them take their extra eligibility elsewhere and go find yet another three-years-and-then-the-draft player".
  • You might also see teams go full purge. 21 seniors coming back? Who cares? Push the roster to 106 and even sign a 2022 class of 25. Then you look at your entire roster, which would be over by 25, and say "let's find the 25 players who are the least likely to help us and kindly ask them to find another school". It's pre-Houston Nutt Rule SEC all over again.

I don't math very well but I think this is where this all lands. Every year, schools get their 85 scholarship players from five classes - redshirt seniors down to true freshmen. You could technically never redshirt a single player and split your scholarships between four classes, but with the 5 to play 4 rule, it's five classes.

This past season, the Illini got their roster from the 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 recruiting classes. Next fall, they'll have six classes available (players who would have been redshirt seniors this fall, like Doug Kramer and James McCourt, can now play the 2021 season, six years after they arrived). So with players from the 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 classes, the NCAA has said they won't hold the cap at 85.

But then in 2022, if it goes directly back to 85, that's still players from six classes. Deon Pate was part of the 2017 recruiting class, and he redshirted, and he'd still have eligibility in 2022. So all rosters in the fall of 2022 would use players from six classes - 2017 (if they redshirted) through 2022. And THAT means less scholarships available for the 2022 recruits.

Now, for Illinois, with that year specifically, there'd only be four 2017 recruits eligible (because nearly every 2017 freshman played). The list: Kendrick Green (who has already said he's thinking about the NFL this spring), Deon Pate, Jamal Woods (redshirted after an injury in 2018), and Mike Epstein (redshirted after an injury in 2019). But that's a side point. What I'm trying to say here:

There's 2,000-some FBS seniors who were going to be vacating their scholarships (to be scooped up by 2021 recruits). Now those seniors are sticking around (and the recruits are still arriving) so the NCAA is allowing for rosters to expand beyond 85. But since it goes back to 85 the next year, and since it's just that class of seniors finally graduating, there's a logjam. The second-senior-year players will all then leave, which brings everyone back down around 85, but the juniors (who would have been seniors vacating their scholarships for 2022 recruits) are all still there. So where do the scholarships for the 2022 class come from?


This is where my brain has gone with this as I write a post like this. I've been "wait, this means Brandon Peters is our quarterback for two more seasons" all day today. I get that a spring season would be seen as a one-off kinda sorta season, so really there's just one more "season" for Peters in the fall of 2021, but still, I'm having trouble processing everything.

Time for another run of bullet points:

  • Daniel Imatorbhebhe could now play seven seasons of college football. He enrolled early at Florida but then transferred after his spring semester when his brother committed to USC. He sat out the 2015 season at USC, then played two seasons (2016 and 2017), then missed two seasons to injury (2018 and 2019). He received a medical waiver for a sixth year (since he had missed two full seasons to injury) and now he transfers to Illinois and can technically play that sixth year in the 2020 season (in early 2021) and then the fall season in 2021 for his seventh year. He enrolled at Florida in January of 2015 and could technically play in a bowl game on January 1st, 2022.
  • Who knows if Palcho sticks around for a shortened season in early 2021 and a regular season in the fall of 2021 but if he does, his "total starts" number will never be beaten. He was already on pace to break the Illini record of 48 starts (Nathan Scheelhaase, Ryan McDonald, and Tim Simpson). Palcho is at 36 starts and with 12 games plus a possible bowl game in 2020, he would have been the first Illini player to get to 49. Now he'll could conceivably get to.. 55? Say the Big Ten plays 8 games in January and February and then returns for a full season in the fall of 2021 (plus a possible bowl). That would mean Palcho would have a chance to start 57 games.
  • Mike Epstein has had horrific luck with injuries. The same foot injury ends his first two seasons prematurely, and then a torn ACL ends his third season after one half of football. And now he gets three more years. See now I wish he had been the leading rusher against Kent State in 2018 (it was AJ Bush) because Epstein was the leading rusher in the 2017 opener and the 2019 opener. Epstein could have had a shot at a crazy stat like "leading rusher for Illinois in six consecutive season openers".
  • I have about a thousand thoughts about transfers like Brian Hightower. This rule basically says "the 2020 season doesn't exist, so whatever you were entering the 2020 season, you'll be the same entering the 2021 season". So if you're 2-years-to-play-2 like Jamal Woods, you can play this spring and still return next fall as a 2-to-play-2. So what about a sit-out transfer like Hightower? Can 2020 (er, spring 2021) count as his sit-out season? Thinking about it, I guess the ideal scenario is a waiver for Hightower. He plays this "season" but it doesn't count so he still gets two more years.
  • So then think about the entire freshman class. No such thing as redshirts this spring, right? Let's just look at Reggie Love. I could see a scenario where he plays 8 games this spring (the season doesn't "count"), 4 games in 2021 (can still take a redshirt if you only play four games), and then four more seasons of 12-13 games.

Now I'm getting that feeling of "I have to be getting some of this wrong". At least 5 times today I've had this "wait, this has to only mean that the seniors get another year of eligibility", but then I go back through the release and see that it's a blanket waiver covering everyone.

And after typing this out, I probably have even more questions. If the 2020 season doesn't "count", does it "count" as Brevyn Jones' sit-out season as a transfer? If we do bring back 20 seniors for the 2021 season (plus the juniors being sophomores and the sophomores being freshmen), are we basically done recruiting for 2021 and 2022? Are we about to see some all-time Creaning as every FBS college football program clears 20+ spots for recruits? Or will it be as simple as "programs will just treat their sophomores as sophomores (and not the freshmen they'll technically be) and only a select few will see the benefit of the extra years"?

I have to think the NCAA will revisit this next year. Here's a quote from Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley last week before the decision came down:

"It's a tough, tough scenario. Part of you sits there and says, man, I want to give relief to everybody. And then there's also the realist in you that you understand your decisions have repercussions. And if you do that, what is the impact on college football rosters? What's the impact on the future? All of a sudden, if you give all these guys extended time, does that cut the number of young guys you can sign and therefore cut the number of opportunities that high school players would get?"

It just feels like someone is going to run a study on this and come up with some number like "there were 2,639 Division I scholarships available for incoming freshmen in 2020 but there are only 1,844 available for 2022" and the NCAA will step in and increase the 2022 limit from 85 to 95 (or whatever number might balance out the scholarship availability). The way I see it, the only two outcomes here are coaches sending players away before their eligibility is exhausted ~or~ the 85 cap going higher in 2022 (and maybe 2023 as well).

I think I've finally exhausted my thoughts. I just re-read what I wrote and the one thing I think I'm probably overestimating is the ability of the schools to fund so many extra scholarships. Akron might say "look, seniors, we'd love to have you come back, but we can't afford it. You can all return if you want, but you'd have to do that as walkons" and that's that. Then Akron doesn't have a scholarship problem. They simply operate as if the NCAA never ruled about this and allow those players to take that extra year of eligibility elsewhere.

The NCAA views this in terms of eligibility, not scholarships, so in their minds, that Akron tight end who wouldn't have a scholarship for 2021 could transfer to some Division II school in Ohio, get a tiny partial scholarship, and play out his eligibility. Football (85 full-ride scholarships) is the outlier here. Golfers are used to partial scholarships, and Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto both agreed to come back for a second senior season after last year's season was cut short, and I'm guessing Mike Small worked out some partial scholarship deal so that he could add two more to next year's roster. When the NCAA makes a blanket ruling like this, they're thinking of the Texas State field hockey player and the Villanova soccer player, not just football. And almost all of those situations are "we set the eligibility - the schools have to figure out the scholarships" for the NCAA.

I do know one thing - it will be fascinating to watch. The flow of high school recruits is constant, and college football programs drain 20% of the bucket every year so that it doesn't overflow. Now we're going to go two years before we can drain the bucket. The NCAA is allowing for a bigger bucket, but only for one year.

What happens next?


ktcesw on August 23, 2020 @ 05:04 AM

This is a problem only if the NCAA makes everyone come back to 85 scholarships. I am aging myself here but, I can remember when schools had 140 scholarship football players. I think 110 and then cutting it back to 105 makes a whole lot more sense. Afterwards, just keep it at 105. 85 has never been enough at that level. Schools and coaches can give out scholarships at that numerical level or, not.

jdl on August 23, 2020 @ 01:30 PM

A big reason the limit went from 110 to 85 is Title IX and that isn't going away. So no way it stays over 85 for any length of time. I could see maybe another year of buffer, but nothing permanent.

NC_OrangeKrush on August 23, 2020 @ 01:27 PM

All I can see... is transfer portal mayhem awaits...

Robert, you could do another article only on transfers the next 2+ years...

bradidas on August 24, 2020 @ 09:05 AM

This was my first thought too. So many guys will have eligibility remaining but no scholarship remaining at schools that can't afford 85+ scholarships and schools that want to turn over their roster. The portal will be absolutely huge.

uofi08 on August 24, 2020 @ 07:46 AM

Couple initial thoughts:

  1. I don't see how they don't make 2022 some sort of ramp down season. Gotta up the limit to like 90 or something or it's going to be a mess.

  2. I think you're over estimating the amount of players that will be back, not just for Illinois but for many of the teams with cancelled/delayed seasons. The NFL draft is still going to happen this spring, it's still going to be 7 rounds, with UDFA signings and NFL camps. Those rosters can't be filled with only SEC, ACC, Big 12, and can't miss B1G and PAC players. And the players that are NFL hopefuls would hit a huge rookie wall if they went from Spring football, to draft training, to NFL. There's lots of draft spots up for grabs. Players like Palco and Green have 3 and 2 seasons of tape already, respectively. If they think they'll test well physically, I don't see how that level of player plays in the spring unless they absolutely want to. Professionally it makes no sense to put your body through that. Also, what about the Senior Bowl, combine, and other all star games? If you're playing a spring season, are you just skipping out on those prime events for NFL scouts? Even players like Bhe Bhe, Eifler, Hansen, and Peters. They all have NFL aspirations. They would be healthier going into the process if they just trained instead of playing 1/2 to 3/4 of a season mere months before the draft.

Hoppy on August 24, 2020 @ 12:59 PM

Here is another wrinkle that came to my mind.

In essence, the classes currently on the roster will get 6 years to play 5. But will the 2021 recruiting class get this? Or the 2022? One of those 2 classes will go back to 5 years to play 4 right?

Which is another thing for coaches to think about. They will have 2 senior classes graduate in one year right?

So if they try to balance things out to where they can have a full 2022 class, they may be hurting themselves horribly when the 2021 and 2022 (or 2020/2021 depending on when they return to 5/4) classes run out of eligibility at the same time.

I haven't looked into any of the rules or this announcement, but did they reference this? Or is having a tiny 2022 class the mitigation to this risk? At the expense of the 2022 prep class...

Robert on August 25, 2020 @ 12:51 PM

In essence, the classes currently on the roster will get 6 years to play 5. But will the 2021 recruiting class get this? Or the 2022? One of those 2 classes will go back to 5 years to play 4 right?

Correct. I kind of clumsily covered that above. The 2020 class is essentially 6 to play 5 and the 2021 class is 5 to play 4 so they're the same class. Brody Wisecarver and Blaise Sparks will be "true freshmen" together.

Now, the NCAA could come along and grant relief from that. They might realize it's screwing the 2022 and 2023 high school classes. But from everything I've read, as of right now, it will be the 2020/2021 megaclass. Even if Reggie Love plays this spring, he's still a true freshman in the fall of 2021.

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