Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham knows post-pandemic, class of 2022 recruiting will be difficult

A bottleneck is coming, with the football scholarship limit staying at 85. Attrition will address some of the overcrowding, but not all.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah running back Ty Jordan (22) runs the ball for the Utes, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

Unless the NCAA has a grand plan it has yet to reveal, the college football world is going to have a severe problem when it comes to post-pandemic recruiting.

That notion is not lost on Kyle Whittingham in the wake of the University of Utah signing its highest-rated recruiting class ever last week.

“Everything’s been thrown out of whack,” Whittingham said late last week. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer or a great way to handle it, but everyone is handling it as best they can from an NCAA administrative standpoint.”

The crux of the matter, not to mention Whittingham’s concern, is that there is going to be a roster bottleneck when trying to recruit the high school class of 2022.

In a normal season, FBS programs are allowed to have 85 players on scholarship. With COVID-19 prevalent this season, the NCAA passed late-August legislation that said fall sport student-athletes could compete in any amount of competitions this year and it will not count as a season of eligibility.

That means that any player that had senior eligibility is able to come back for another season in 2021. In the postgame haze of Saturday’s season-ending win over Washington State, Whittingham pegged the number of seniors with decisions to make at 14, but according to Utah’s 2020 roster, there were 17 players with senior eligibility. Not all 17 Utes are expected back, but the ones that do return will not count against the 85-scholarship limit, thanks to a one-year NCAA waiver for 2021.

With everyone’s eligibility frozen and no one advancing a year of eligibility in 2020, “super seniors” as Whittingham referred to them on Saturday will come off the books in 2021, but everyone else, from true freshmen to redshirt juniors, will be able to return in 2022. That is going to limit how many 2022 recruits can be signed across the country, let alone at Utah.

“Who knows what’s going to happen with the ’22 class,” said Whittingham, whose only class of 2022 verbal commitment to this point is from three-star Chiawana (Wash.) High School quarterback JP Zamora. “With the way it’s set up, and everything being frozen this year, and the seniors not counting next year, and nobody advancing a year of eligibility, there’s going to be a logjam next year as things are set right now for the ’22 class as far as scholarships for the new guys because you’re already going to be at 85 because nobody advanced.”

There are two other factors to consider here as part of the bigger picture.

One, some of these roster management issues will be solved naturally via attrition. Underclassmen will continue to transfer out of programs across the country, other underclassmen will declare for the NFL Draft. From a Utah perspective, Whittingham saw veteran running backs Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore announce their respective transfers within two hours of each other on Dec. 14. The Utes also have at least one legitimate NFL Draft decision to be made, redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was a finalist for the Butkus Award.

Two, the NCAA Division I Council is expected to pass legislation on a one-time transfer exemption that will allow student-athletes in all sports to transfer schools once without the usual penalty of having to sit out one season.

Division I football players generally flood the NCAA Transfer Portal anyway, but the expected passing of the one-time exemption has only accelerated that process. More players than usual entering the portal, plus the impending lack of scholarships for 2022 high school recruits is only going to make roster management harder moving forward.

“Unless they have a solution different than what they’re talking about now, the ’22 class is going to be impacted in a major way,” Whittingham said.