The NCAA has frozen the eligibility clock for fall athletes, so how is Utah supposed to manage its football roster?

The NCAA has come under scrutiny this month for the way FBS conferences have handled trying to get a football season played, but one piece of critical legislation earlier this month shows the college sports governing body is trying to do its part.

On Aug. 19, the NCAA Division I Council recommended that fall sport student-athletes can compete in any amount of competitions this year and it will not count as a season of eligibility. Under NCAA rules, four or more football games played counts as a season of eligibility. The Division I Council recommendation was approved by the NCAA Board of Governors two days later.

Simply put, regardless of whether or not Big Ten and Pac-12 football players play a down of football this winter or spring, no one loses eligibility. If SEC, ACC, and Big 12 athletes play entire seasons this fall, they do not lose eligibility. Every athlete on any fall sport roster across the country gets a pass.

“I think that was a great decision by the NCAA to allow that,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “I know there was not much appetite from the players to play in the spring if it was going to be an abbreviated season and would count towards their eligibility. When they made the determination that it would not count against your eligibility, that made it a whole different ball game for our guys, It’s an everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose-type thing for a senior.”

The NCAA’s move to freeze the eligibility clock for fall athletes was lauded as prudent, not to mention necessary amidst uncertainty in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Big Ten and Pac-12 will not play football this fall, nor will the MAC or Mountain West. The other six FBS conferences have plans to play shortened seasons, but there is no promise of getting through them without a COVID-related interruption.

Still, if the NCAA is freezing the eligibility clock, that could create scholarship and depth bottlenecks, at least temporarily. To that, how is Whittingham, or any other head coach for that matter, supposed to manage a roster?

Putting the puzzle pieces together

As Whittingham understands the NCAA’s decision, he will have the normally-allowed FBS maximum of 85 scholarships available to him for the fall of 2021. However, seniors will not go toward the scholarship count, meaning the 85 will be comprised of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Utah, for the record, had 17 seniors listed on its 2020 spring roster.

When the 2021 season ends, however many seniors Whittingham has at the time will depart, but theoretically, he is still at 85 because the 85 is all freshmen, sophomores and juniors.

At that point, the problem becomes what to do about high school recruits from the class of 2022.

“To clear space for the ’22 recruits, that’s going to be interesting and I don’t know how it’s going to go down,” Whittingham said. “They’re talking about, guys may move on, guys may transfer if they don’t feel like they’re in your plans, but where are they going to transfer to if everyone is in the same boat?”

Where a transfer ultimately goes is not Whittingham’s problem, but that question does lead to the notion that at some point down the road, the NCAA is going to need to revisit this. If and when the NCAA does take another look, upping the scholarship limit from 85, at least temporarily, could be one option.

As far as seniors right now, at Utah or otherwise, attrition could come in the form of playing this fall or spring, then leaving for the NFL draft without playing in 2021. That would not apply to all seniors, but it could apply to some.

“If you’re a senior, you play an abbreviated spring schedule and you put some really good things on tape, and you think your stock is as high as it’s going to get, you go ahead and enter the draft,” Whittingham said. “If you feel like maybe you still have work to do and there’s still things you want to get better at, then you’d have the option to come back in the fall.”

Is too much depth a concern?

When Utah had spring practice canceled in early March, it was in the middle of a quarterback competition between South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley and redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising.

Regardless of who quarterbacked the Utes in 2020, what came beyond that was already in focus. Bentley would be out of the mix, leaving Rising as a redshirt junior with four-star class of 2021 Mission Viejo (Calif.) quarterback Peter Costelli entering the fray.

With the NCAA’s decision, Utah may now get two seasons out of Bentley, an abbreviated winter/spring, plus the fall of 2021. That could be construed as good news, but then what? Rising will still not have taken a meaningful snap since his senior year of high school in 2017, while Costelli is the cornerstone of this latest Utes recruiting class.

“To be honest, I’m really not worried about it,” Costelli told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’ll be excited to learn under the seniors, learn under the older guys. One step at a time. I’m going to focus on the high school season and play my best if we actually get to play.”

Costelli’s original plan was to graduate from Mission Viejo early and enroll at Utah this winter. The Pac-12 is no longer playing football this fall, while the state of California will not play high school football until January. Costelli now plans to play his senior season at Mission Viejo before enrolling at Utah next summer.

Beyond Costelli, Utah has a 2021 commitment from a nationally-ranked running back, three-star prospect Ricky Parks. The Tampa native was already going to have to wait his turn in a crowded positional group, but then consider the fact the room is young with junior Devin Brumfield and sophomore Jordan Wilmore at the front of the line.

Might Snow College transfer Tevita Fotu, the top junior college defensive tackle in the nation, step right into that spot with the Utes? It could get tougher with the eligibility clock frozen and both tackle spots containing senior options in Viane Moala and Hauati Pututau.

“I think if a QB is there for the spring and learning the offense, he has a real chance to compete for the job, even if he didn’t do well in the spring,” Costelli’s high school coach, Chad Johnson, told The Tribune. “We’re obviously dealing with a much different situation than normal in the Pac-12, and I’m very, very happy to have Peter back with us. We’re extremely hopeful we actually get to play in January, and I know he’s excited to be playing his senior season with us.”