NCAA denies appeal for Illinois TE who transferred to be closer to sick grandfather

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The NCAA upheld its denial of the hardship waiver for Illinois tight end <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/294772/" data-ylk="slk:Luke Ford">Luke Ford</a>. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)
The NCAA upheld its denial of the hardship waiver for Illinois tight end Luke Ford. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

A tough offseason for Illinois continued on Friday.

The school announced that the appeal it filed on behalf of Luke Ford, a talented tight end transfer from Georgia, was denied by the NCAA Division I Appeals Committee. The decision, which is “final and binding” per NCAA guidelines, means Ford will not be eligible to play for the Illini in 2019. After a redshirt season, Ford can return to action in 2020.

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Ford, the top tight end recruit in the 2018 class, transferred from Georgia to Illinois in order to be closer to his grandfather. An initial request for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA in April. In a press release, Illinois said the NCAA’s appeal decision was “based on guidelines used during the original decision.”

According to multiple outlets, Ford’s initial waiver was turned down because Illinois’ campus in Champaign is more than 100 miles from Ford’s hometown of Cartersville, Illinois (there are no D-I schools within 100 miles of Cartersville), and Ford’s grandfather is not a member of his “nuclear” family. Those are both requirements for the NCAA to grant hardship waivers.

"He's leaving the Taj Mahal of facilities [at Georgia] just so his grandpa gets a chance to see him play in person, before it's too late," his father Tim Ford told ESPN in April.

With all of the waivers the NCAA has granted in the last few years — players like Shea Patterson, Justin Fields and Tate Martell, who leaned on the loosely-defined “mitigating circumstances” wording added to the NCAA rulebook in April 2018, come to mind — Illinois thought it had a good shot to get Ford on the field in 2019. Both head coach Lovie Smith and athletic director Josh Whitman said as much earlier this year. But the NCAA leaned on its requirements for a hardship waiver, and ultimately ruled against Ford’s case.

A brutal offseason for Illinois

It’s the latest blow in what has been a brutal offseason for Illinois. The Illini have had two graduate transfer receivers — Jeff Thomas via Miami and AD Miller via Oklahoma — commit to the program only to rescind on the commitment and return to their original school.

M.J. Rivers, the only quarterback on the roster with starting experience, decided to transfer last month. Later on, there were reports that USC quarterback Matt Fink would transfer to Illinois. But he too decided to stay at his original school, announcing this week he was sticking with the Trojans.

Illinois took a few steps forward last fall, going 4-8 with two Big Ten wins. But the program is just 9-27 (4-23 Big Ten) in Smith’s tenure. With some of those transfer additions on the field, the Illini projected to be much more competitive in 2019.

Another transfer ruling coming soon from the NCAA?

Back in April, the denial of Ford’s waiver got quite a bit of attention, especially when it was coupled with the case of Brock Hoffman. Hoffman, an offensive lineman from Coastal Carolina, transferred to Virginia Tech and also applied for immediate eligibility. Like Ford, his waiver was denied by the NCAA.

In Hoffman’s case, he said he transferred in order to be closer to his mother, who had a brain tumor removed. Similar to Ford, he said part of the reason the waiver was denied because his house is “five miles outside” a 100-mile radius from Virginia Tech. Hoffman also said the NCAA stated that his mother’s condition had improved.

Virginia Tech, like Illinois did with Ford, filed an appeal. We could find out his fate soon.

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