Due to the coronavirus pandemic, nine scholarship football players joined Washington State this winter without having any face-to-face interaction with the Cougars’ coaching staff. Physical measurements from online recruiting profiles and virtual evaluations were slyly double-checked when the new student-athletes arrived on campus.
“It’s those breaths of fresh air,” Washington State coach Nick Rolovich said. “We haven’t had any negative surprises.”
There were 1,827 players from the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision in the transfer portal as of this past week, Delaware coach Danny Rocco said, with that number set to leap over 2,000 after another exodus of players into the portal after the completion of spring practices.
There were 124 FBS quarterbacks in the portal as of Monday, according to the database compiled by 247Sports.com, or about one quarterback per FBS program.
Coaches at Ball State waited until after the MAC championship game in December to speak with the team’s 22 seniors about taking up the NCAA’s offer of an extra season of eligibility because of the coronavirus, not wanting to distract players amid one of the most successful seasons in program history. With 16 seniors set to return, Ball State has engaged in delicate conversations with incoming recruits about playing time and roster space while juggling the financial ramifications of taking on additional scholarships.
The simultaneous mixing of these factors — incoming prospects, the unknowns created by the explosive growth of the transfer portal and the ability for 2020 seniors to play another year — has deeply complicated how programs and coaches approach roster management heading into Wednesday’s national signing day, potentially triggering long-term fallout that could trickle into 2022 and beyond.
“You’re not just planning for one season,” said Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. “Trying to plan for who is going to be on your roster in the fall of ’21 and ’22, I don’t know, man. It’s beyond my mental capabilities. I’m doing my best and I’m looking at it pretty much daily.”
That includes the arrival of new student-athletes recruited almost entirely over Zoom and FaceTime, and the questions and concerns that arise when prospects who have never stepped foot on campus arrive for offseason conditioning without developing the same relationships with coaches and teammates as during a normal recruiting cycle.
From the program’s perspective, the inability to conduct in-person evaluations has created a laundry list of unknowns related to physical size, ability and mindset.
“Think of the gamble you’re taking by bringing a high school kid in without knowing how good he is, how fast he is or how coachable he really is,” said University of Texas at San Antonio coach Jeff Traylor.
“I’m not trying to make excuses. It could work against me, right? I just don’t think we know. It might work for me, it might work against me. I’m choosing to keep my glass half-full and hoping we got some guys that might’ve been Power Five. In three years, we’re going to all know.”
Combined, the changes to recruiting and scholarship allotment made to meet the demands of COVID-19 have made this the most challenging period for scholarship management in college football history.
“I think probably the most difficult thing for all of our coaches right now is roster management,” said Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “What we’re getting ready to see this spring will be the most tumultuous spring in our memory as coaches or players.”
The returning seniors, known as “super seniors,” will push FBS programs over the normal cap of 85 scholarships in a given year, which the NCAA temporarily waived to accommodate the expansion. For some Group of Five programs, which draw in far less revenue than teams in the major conferences, the increased number of scholarships has impacted the number of incoming recruits able to enroll this summer.
For example, Ball State may end up assigning some 2021 recruits a gray shirt, which is when a program defers a prospect’s enrollment until the start of the second semester, after the end of the coming season.
With financial concerns over sponsoring above 100 scholarships and how that might impact other sports on campus, Ball State coach Mike Neu is “trying to do the best I can to stay as close to (85 scholarships) as possible,” he said.
UTSA may also use blue shirts, which occurs when a recruit who has not officially visited the school, arranged in-person contact with a coach or received an official scholarship offer is placed on scholarship once they arrive on campus. That prospect counts toward the following recruiting class, providing some roster flexibility.
“I think roster management is probably the most important part of my job as the head coach,” said Traylor. “It’s a daily conversation this time of year, but I’d say it’s a weekly conversation during the season.”
While embraced by players and coaches, the NCAA waiver has led to two additional concerns related to scholarship management.
Programs taking back a large group of seniors, such as Ball State, could then lose upwards of 30 or more players after the end of the 2021 season — the super seniors, the more traditional senior class and players opting for the transfer portal or the NFL. With programs facing conference-mandated caps on how many recruits can sign during a given cycle, losing the equivalent of two senior classes in one go could set teams behind the 85-scholarship curve for one or more seasons.
“From a numbers standpoint, we can’t replace 36. We can’t replace 30,” Neu said. “I’m hoping that perhaps there’s some adjustments made, whether it’s on the NCAA level or what, to be able to make the adjustments necessary to fill your roster. That’s what I’m concerned about right now.”
The huge number of players currently in the portal has caused many programs to shy away from adding any recruits on Wednesday’s signing day in favor of leaving scholarships open for transfers after the end of spring drills. Some programs, particularly those on the West Coast, are still evaluating high school seniors from states set to play football in the spring, including California, Washington and Oregon.
“You always say recruiting is an everyday thing,” said Rolovich. “Well, signing people is going to be an everyday thing.”
And with no answer as of yet from the NCAA on whether the 85-scholarship limit will return after this coming year, coaching staffs are unable to plan ahead with any real certainty and begin digging into the makeup of rosters for the 2022 season.
“We’re about to enter a time period that none of us have ever really navigated before,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’re entering some really interesting times that are going to affect the roster management part, no question about it.”
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