The NCAA’s decision to grant every fall sport athlete on 2020 rosters an extra year of eligibility, along with an extra year in which to complete it, has brought up many questions concerning the management of team personnel in the years to come.
The chief concern is this: Although every player on a current fall sports team gets the extra year, the maximum number of scholarship players on the team is only waived for the 2021 season. So, while fall sports teams can theoretically have as many players then want on scholarship in the 2021, they must be back under their caps in 2022. In football, the maximum goes back to 85 in that year.
That sets up the spectre of schools being well over the limit next year, and perhaps being forced to cut back on scholarship offers to high school or junior college students and inbound transfers in following years in order to get back under the cap. It could also limit the number of scholarships awarded to walk-ons who have earned their way onto the field. Or schools could try to balance out the up-and-down potential by keeping their scholarship numbers more manageable in 2021, with an eye toward 2022 and beyond.
Schools will also have to look at this issue from a budgetary standpoint. In a time when Division I football playing schools are looking at budget shortfalls of $25-$50 million and more, an unlimited scholarship budget next year is just as untenable as a bloated administrative roster or new capital expenditures.
With that in mind, we look at West Virginia’s current football scholarship picture.
At present, WVU has some 80 players on scholarship. Included are 17 seniors in what they thought was their final season of eligibility in 2020. Now, they can all potentially come back for another year in 2021.
WVU could theoretically add the maximum 25 new scholarship players for 2021 and retain all 17 seniors for a total of 105 scholarship players.
Of course, that’s not going to happen for several reasons. First, not all of the 17 seniors will return. Some will take their shots at the NFL. Others will likely decide that four or five years of college football is enough, and move on to their lives after the game. Second, there’s natural attrition every year. Players leave for a variety of reasons, so there are always several underclassmen who don’t return for the following season.
Third, for the reasons mentioned above, going so far above the normal scholarship limit of 85 isn’t a smart way to plan for the future. WVU will need to recruit new faces in the 2022 class, and if it had so many players on scholarship in 2021, it would have to either encourage a number of players to leave, or otherwise bring in a much smaller class to get back to the 85 limit. Shattering the scholarship limit next year would not be a wise move, as it would throw classes out of balance, which can cause problems in those years when the junior and senior classes are much smaller than normal.
A look ahead at the recruiting classes of 2021 and beyond is in order, and those are topics that the WVU player personnel department are working on. WVU currently has 19 known scholarship players in its junior class on the current roster. Now, however, they won’t have to depart after the 2021 season – that can be pushed back to 2022. Some will depart on their original schedule, but not all will.
So, instead of opening 19 new spots for the class of 2022, these players can be playing their senior years in that season, and that’s where a logjam could result. If even half of these players elect to return, WVU could be looking at signing a class of, say, 10-15, rather than the full 25, in 2022. The same problem spins out to the sophomore scholarship class (16) and the freshman group (28).
There are several different ways this can be addressed. The first would be to sign fewer players in each recruiting class over each of the next couple of years, and spread the impact out. WVU might also be less involved in the transfer market, although that has been a good source in the early stages of the Neal Brown era.
Awarding fewer scholarships to walk-ons is another option, although eliminating that entirely would be a bad move from a morale standpoint, not to mention detract from the ability to recruit quality walk-ons to campus. Finally, there’s the attrition rate this year and next, which will also lower the total. A combination of all of these moves will be involved in order to keep the numbers in order.
Turning back to the 17 scholarship seniors on the 2020 roster, how many might be expected to take advantage of the extra year in 2021? That’s a decision that won’t have to be made just yet, but at some point coaches will need to know in order to shape their plans for 2021 and beyond. While all could return, there’s a functional limit to the number of players that can be given full attention and enough practice time.
Again, there are different factors in play in figuring out who might depart after this year. Several, like Darius Stills, will almost assuredly move on for a shot at the pros, and he’ll probably have company from at least a few more. Others, without pro league dreams, might decide that five years and a college degree or two is enough. And some clearly will have decisions to make.