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WINSTON SALEM, N.C. – There has been a longing for normalcy in the college football world for the past 16 months. With the calendar flipping to June, football recruiting reopening with vigor and the idea of full stadiums in the fall barreling toward reality, there’s a sense that the familiar rhythms of college football will be returning.
As the masks disappear from the sideline and the sport buzzes toward the muscle memory of the past, there’s an undercurrent of reality that normal won’t look much like we remember. With Name, Image and Likeness seemingly on the cusp of transformational change and the transfer portal indelibly altering the recruiting landscape, the sport will look and feel much different.
Quietly looming in the backdrop is a roster management issue that coaches project will handcuff the college and high school recruiting space the next three years. With the NCAA deciding in August to grant an extra year of eligibility to all Division I fall athletes, the unintended consequences of that decision have college football coaches irate and perplexed on how to move forward.
“It's great that they were Santa Claus and said that you all get an extra year, but other than 2021 they gave us no way to handle it,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told Yahoo Sports. He added: “Here's my analogy, they've done a really, really good job of opening that output valve, but they haven't touched the input valve.”
Numbers challenges of roster management; 'How do you recruit?'
To illustrate the issue college coaches across the country are facing, Clawson stands in front of the recruiting board amid Wake Forest’s gleaming new football facilities. His professorial glasses are poised on his nose for a tutorial.
Wake Forest will have 94 players on scholarship in 2021, nine above the normal 85-scholarship threshold thanks to the extra year of eligibility granted for the so-called Super Seniors. The tension Clawson and other coaches are facing comes after this season, when the 85-man limit returns. Clawson has 16 players highlighted in yellow on the board who would be in their final year of eligibility if the 2020 season had counted toward their eligibility.
It’s impossible to know how many of those players return, which makes building future recruiting classes an untenable puzzle.
“How do you recruit?” Clawson asks. “In theory you have no scholarships, and so what's going to happen is the schools that are unethical are going to recruit a whole freshman class and then cut those kids loose if they have seniors that want to come back, and the people who are ethical when these kids don't come back, they're going to be playing with 72 scholarships, potentially. The roster management is really tricky.”
Schools can only bring in 25 players on the initial “counter” every year, which means there are going to be many more qualified recruits than there are spots. That absence of opportunity is only magnified by the increasing reliance on the transfer portal at many schools. Clawson proposes further scholarship relief past 2021, where teams are allowed to accommodate Super Seniors, but that notion hasn’t gained traction. (Football oversight committee chair Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director, said there’s a “mixed bag” of opinions on whether change is needed.)
Here's how transfer portal logjam will impact high school recruits
A telling illustration of how muddled college football’s roster future has become came recently at a team dinner for the University of North Carolina. Tar Heels coach Mack Brown addressed his team and then declared that seniors could eat first. No one knew who should get up and get in line. “The NCAA screwed up roster management so bad with everybody getting an extra year,” Brown said with a laugh. “We don’t even know who is a senior anymore."
Brown has made a career off of being a prolific and likable recruiter. So it’s no surprise he’s concerned for high school kids and coaches.
“The high school kids are getting screwed, and that's not fair,” Brown said. “It's not fair to them. And some people are taking the portal kids instead of the high school kids. Some people are cherrypicking FCS kids to get them, so they're all watching the [FCS] playoffs and saying, 'Who do we want?' Then they recruit the guy, and we're talking like there's no tampering.”
Coaches have forecasted a mess for months, as South Florida coach Jeff Scott predicted to Yahoo Sports in December that there will be up to 1,000 kids stranded in the transfer portal with no educational options. The NCAA told Yahoo Sports on Monday that 1,534 scholarship players have entered the transfer portal, which is 64% of the total of 2,407 FBS players to enter. The NCAA warned it's tricky to determine how many could be stranded, as compliance offices don't mark the player at a new school until the first day of classes. Also, a transfer to a junior college, for example, would not be identified. While official numbers won't be available until the fall, the concern over the logjam is real.
“I have to believe that it’s going to be the biggest travesty that the NCAA has done for kids,” said Jason Negro, the veteran coach at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California. “There’s going to be so many kids stuck in there, and I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact that the clogged portal has had for another year or two.”
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano points out this isn’t a one-year blip that coaches are looking at. With the rosters sideways for at least three more seasons and the portal forever changing roster building, it’s going to have a seismic impact on high school recruiting. “It’s not only the 2022 high school class, but it’s also the 2023 class and 2024 class,” Schiano said. “There’s no relief. Each year, there’s still a class with extended eligibility. This will be an additional three-year issue.”
How significant will the trickle down be? Rivals.com recruiting analyst Woody Wommack estimates there are 75% fewer players committed now compared to a year ago at this time. Scholarships are so precious that coaches are being judicious, as Negro observed that his players don’t have as many offers as usual at this point.
“Coaches know they can’t waste any spots,” Wommack said. “Anyone who is committed is likely going to have to work out in front of their coaches over the next month. Some kids are going to be surprised when they show up for a fun official visit and get handed a pair of cleats.”
North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said that when the Wolfpack has offered players recently, the question he and his staff get the most is a simple one: “Is this a committable offer or a non-committable offer?”
He predicts during the flurry of visits that will happen in June that many players will be surprised that coaches don’t allow them to commit. The trickle down from that will be a flood of calls from high school coaches in July.
Doeren said that the “logjam” is so significant with roster management that, in theory, if all eligible players returned to N.C. State he could end up taking no players in the high school class of 2022. He made it clear that won’t be the case, but empathized what the recruits are facing. “It’s almost like the Class of 2022 should reclassify as high school athletes,” he said.
Doeren underscored the prevailing feeling among coaches that they didn’t ask for this extra year for the players and now have been given no flexibility to fix the roster logistics. And now hard decisions are imminent between welcoming back players who’ve contributed to the program for years or replenishing the roster with new players.
“We either have to call the high school kid back that committed and say, 'We can't take you cause Johnny's coming back,' or we gotta tell Johnny, who's been here four years and been a great guy for us, that we can't take you because we signed Jimmy at the high school down the street,” Doeren said. “And this isn't anything we wanted as coaches, this was something the NCAA did to try and allow us to have a season, really. So I don't know.”
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