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2021 NFL draft: Can Big Ten opt-outs opt back in? A beefy punter could set the precedent

Eric Edholm
·6 min read
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One of the more below-the-radar NFL draft stories might suddenly be quite newsworthy.

With the Big Ten returning to action, there is a question about whether players who announced they were opting out for the season — and particularly those who declared for the 2021 NFL draft — can now be eligible to play this fall.

We don’t know the answer yet, and predicting how the NCAA might handle eligibility questions is often a fool’s errand. But it’s possible that a well-built Pac-12 punter could offer some hope to Big Ten prospects exploring the possibility of playing again this season.

Arizona State punter Michael Turk hired an agent, put up a huge number on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine and still could play college football this fall. (AJ Mast/AP Images for NFL, File)
Arizona State punter Michael Turk hired an agent, put up a huge number on the bench press at the NFL scouting combine and still could play college football this fall. (AJ Mast/AP Images for NFL, File)

The curious case of Michael Turk

In January, news of Arizona State punter Michael Turk declaring for the 2020 NFL draft hit the wire. Here’s why it was was notable: Special-teams performers seldom enter the draft as underclassmen, and even more rarely as redshirt sophomores. And Turk is the nephew of former NFL punter Matt Turk and former NFL long snapper Dan Turk, making him a member of a fairly household family name in the special-teams universe.

Turk hired an agent and even attended the scouting combine in February. The incredibly strong punter then made more news there by putting up a shocking 25 reps on the bench press, a record for punters and a better total than many tight ends and wide receivers notched at the event.

But the most fascinating news involving Turk was yet to come.

Turk went undrafted in April. He did not sign with a team after the draft. And in what was viewed as something of a Hail Mary, Turk asked Arizona State for help with applying for a special waiver to return to school.

No chance, right? This is, after all, the draconian NCAA we’re talking about.

Well, Turk stunningly was allowed back to ASU — and was even granted both of his final two years of eligibility. One Sun Devils spokesman this summer referred to the NCAA decision as “an unprecedented one.”

Turk reportedly was granted his eligibility on the basis of COVID-19 restrictions hindering his ability to fully showcase his skills as a prospect, given that pro days and private workouts were canceled because of the pandemic.

If the Pac-12 follows the Big Ten’s playbook, Turk could be one of hundreds of college players hitting the field this fall that no one expected until very recently.

And that Turk precedent could play out as a road map for some Big Ten players seeking to regain eligibility, even those who might have hired agents.

Ohio State offensive lineman Wyatt Davis (52) could try to play college football this fall after initially saying he would opt out and prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri).
Ohio State offensive lineman Wyatt Davis (52) could try to play college football this fall after initially saying he would opt out and prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri).

One Big Ten opt-out player already wants back in

Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis announced last week that he planned to opt out of the 2020 season and declare for the 2021 NFL draft, telling Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel that it was “heartbreaking” that his conference wouldn’t have football this fall.

A lot has changed since then.

Now that the Big Ten plans to play this fall, Davis issued a statement saying he wants to return to Ohio State.

Could Turk’s case be the precedent that players such as Davis need? There are academic and financial issues.

For those players who opted out and did not hire an agent, their path back to eligibility is more clear-cut, assuming they did not withdraw from classes or cannot readily re-enroll at their respective schools.

Even for those who might have retained representation, Turk’s case offers a glimmer of hope that others also can regain their eligibility to play this fall.

Turk hired an agent, but an Arizona State administrator told The Athletic that he does not believe Turk accepted any benefits.

At the very least, that appears to be the threshold for Big Ten prospects to return to action. If they can prove they did not accept any money after announcing their intentions, their chances of getting to play this fall would be far greater.

It’s unclear whether those who hired agents will be eligible. Their likely defense for such a waiver would be that the Big Ten appeared to say definitively that fall football was not going to happen.

Now that that’s changed, do the players have grounds to be let back in? We don’t know, but we expect that to be the way some players try to test the system.

Which other Big Ten prospects could try to return?

Twenty-one Big Ten players have reportedly opted out this season. Of those, eight said they planned to enter the 2021 draft.

Those eight prospects are: Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Purdue WR Rondale Moore, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas, Michigan tackle Jalen Mayfield, Ohio State CB Shaun Wade and Davis.

Sports Illustrated reported that five of the eight have signed with agents — Bateman (signed with agent Blake Baratz), Mayfield (CAA), Parsons (David Mulugheta), Slater (CAA) and Thomas (Drew Rosenhaus).

Also, Michigan WR Nico Collins — a potential top-40 pick — reportedly has hired an agent, despite not yet publicly announcing his intentions.

According to sources, many of them, including Parsons and Slater, still plan to go through with their opt-outs and continue preparing for the spring draft.

It’s not yet known if Moore or Davis have officially signed with an agency and/or filed paperwork with the NFLPA. All three of those players might have a clear path to returning to school, if they so choose, as Davis has now stated.

Wade said Thursday night that he plans to join Davis in returning to Ohio State.

Some of these players clearly could still have something to gain, NFL draft-wise, by returning. They’d join the list of several other prospects in the conference who stood to lose the most with a canceled season.

Still, there’s also the chance they could hurt their stock with a poor season. Those decisions will be individual in nature, and they’ll vary significantly on a case-by-case basis.

But there’s at least a belief that some talented prospects whom most college fans assumed would never suit up again for their school could soon be hitting the field once more.

It’s the latest wild plot twist in a year chock full of them in college football.

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