A scan of the University of Utah’s 2020 spring football roster will show the Utes have 17 players with senior eligibility.
Of the 17, there are projected starters on both sides of the ball, guys like defensive end Maxs Tupai and center Orlando Umana. Quarterback Jake Bentley also has one season to play after showing up in Salt Lake City in January as a graduate transfer from the University of South Carolina.
The Pac-12 will not play football in the fall, while holding a season in the spring is, at least for the moment, wishful thinking. So, what happens to the eligibility of fall-sport athletes affected? For Utah, that question refers to football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and women’s cross country athletes.
“What I can tell you is the Pac-12 position is clear,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said on a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We want it to look like what happened to the spring athletes, whereby they were able to come back. If you’re a senior, we refer to them here as our super seniors, we expect the same type of outcome. Frankly, I would be surprised if it were anything but that outcome.”
Harlan and ADs across the country went down this road in late March, two weeks after COVID-19 pandemic concerns fueled the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness, as well as the remainder of winter championships and all spring championships.
In quelling eligibility concerns, the NCAA Division I Council approved a blanket waiver for spring-sport athletes to get an extra year of eligibility, but with the stipulation that schools had the option to offer the same, lesser or no financial aid to those getting an extra year of eligibility. At Utah, seniors affected were offered the same level of aid for the extra year as a dozen spring-sport athletes opted to return in 2020-21.
As Harlan hoped, affected athletes will be taken care of. The Division I Council later Wednesday recommended an extension of the five-year eligibility period and an additional season of competition if an athlete participates in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed. The Division I Council’s recommendations are considered minimum protections, while individual schools are free to offer additional protections.
The Division I Council will meet again Aug. 19, while the Division I Board of Directors is expected to rubber stamp the recommendations no later than Aug. 21.
“It’s a little frustrating that we can’t say to our students that’s what it is, but we’ll wait for the NCAA’s final word on that,” said Harlan, who serves on the Division I Football Oversight Committee. “We’ll wait and see, but my anticipation is, if kids want to come back, extend their clock, all of those things, that will happen.”
Assuming the Board of Directors approves the Council’s recommendations and eligibility concerns are assuaged, things will not necessarily get easier. Instead, more questions will arise pertaining to multiple topics.
For starters, will the NCAA allow an increase in football scholarship limits, at least temporarily? FBS programs are currently allowed a maximum of 85 full scholarships. If Utah players are gaining an extra year of eligibility, Kyle Whittingham is surely looking at a scholarship bottleneck once incoming 2021 recruits are factored in. Returning LDS missionaries are also something Whittingham must factor into his scholarship situation annually.
In an interview Thursday afternoon on ESPN700, Harlan told Bill Riley he does expect the scholarship limit of 85 to be raised temporarily.
Harlan acknowledged Wednesday that a spring football season may muddle matters of eligibility. How many games would a spring season entail? Of that number, how many would a student-athlete have to play for the season to count against the eligibility clock? Could one option be to take a shortened spring season and combine it with a shortened fall 2021 season for one year of eligibility?
To that end, if one or multiple seasons are shortened, would players explore taking a redshirt instead spending the year of eligibility on a season that may be perceived as less than sufficient by some? A normal season is 12 games, plus any conference championship games or bowls that may be played.
“With the spring possibilities, obviously that could bring with it some more elements of how to figure that out in terms of their eligibility, but that’s somewhere down the line,” said Harlan, who noted that everyone’s scholarships are safe in the middle of the uncertainty. “For now, though, we’re trying to get that landed so we know exactly what our kids will get, but I anticipate it will look just like the spring.”
One other down-the-line matter for a potential spring season would be who’s in and who’s out if the NFL Draft remains in its normal late-April time slot. Most of the attention there would focus on the top-tier prospects like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, but those types of decisions would trickle down to all corners of college football.
“No doubt, and I think that’s on the mind of a lot of seniors, draft-eligible players,” Bentley told beat reporters in May. “I think for me, I’m playing football no matter what. That’s kind of the way I think about it. I don’t care if we play in the middle of March. I’m playing football, I’m a football player and that’s what I plan to do.”