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Washington’s Scholarship Crunch

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How has the mulligan year of eligibility affected the outlook for the 2022 recruiting class and beyond?

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This past week the University of Washington football program signed 15 players into the 2020 recruiting class. With that move they are now projected to have 52 true or redshirt freshmen on the roster next season. That’s only possible of course because of the screwy 2020 season and the resulting rules put in place to try to navigate playing college football during a pandemic.

We know that all current players essentially receive a mulligan for the 2020 season in terms of their eligibility but there still hasn’t been a clear ruling as to how future years will be handled. The most logical solution is that teams this next year will get 85 scholarships plus the number of seniors on their roster extra for the 2021 season. Beyond that though is an open question. Will teams then have to condense back down to 85 for the 2022 season? Or will teams be allowed to have say 90 scholarships in 2022? Or what about 95 in 2022 then 90 in 2023 before going back down to 85 in 2024?

The answers to those questions will dictate exactly how many scholarships the Huskies will have available in future years. For the course of this analysis I’m going to assume that Washington has to get back down to 85 players by the start of the 2022 season. That’s the most conservative approach and the coaching staff has to likely assume that’s the case until they get word that there are potentially more spots available. Doing otherwise is like not studying for your final exam because you’re hoping for a snow day when the projected low is 35 degrees.

So where do things stand right now?

From the roster at the end of the Stanford game the Huskies with their 15 new commits would have 99 players on the roster for 2021 including 13 seniors. That means Washington would only need to have one non-senior depart in order to get back down to the proper number of scholarships (85+13=98). However, we know of several additional moves now so let’s see the impact those have.

Definitely Leaving (4)

CB Elijah Molden (senior)- Draft, CB Keith Taylor (senior)- Draft, WR Jordan Chin (senior)- Transfer, QB Jacob Sirmon- Transfer

Before the season ended we got confirmation from Jimmy Lake that starting corners Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor had accepted Senior Bowl invites and would not be returning for an extra season. Molden should be a 1st or 2nd round pick while Taylor is probably a Day 3 pick. It makes sense that both are moving on.

EDIT: Molden this afternoon made it officially official:

Sirmon and Chin have both announced they’re entering the transfer portal. We’ve also gotten confirmation from Sirmon that he’s headed to Central Michigan where he’ll try to earn a starting spot. Chin has his degree already as a 5th year senior and will head elsewhere as a grad transfer for his final year of eligibility.

With those players removed it puts us at 95 players total and 10 of whom are seniors which means that without any further subtractions the Huskies are already set for the 2021 season. But there will almost certainly be more attrition.

The Opt Outs (3)

TE Jacob Kizer (senior), Isaiah Gilchrist (senior), WR Taj Davis

These 3 players all opted out from the 2020 season. As part of the eligibility rules, players concerned about COVID-19 had the option to opt out of the season and be guaranteed the opportunity to return on scholarship for 2021. That means we could see any or none of them come back next season. Kizer has had back issues in the past and will likely have his degree so it wouldn’t shock me if he decided to call it a career. Gilchrist hasn’t had injury problems but never made it into the rotation in his first 4 years at Washington and also should have his degree. Taj Davis appears to be towards if not at the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart but would still have 4 years of eligibility left if he comes back.

I’m going to assume for these purposes that Kizer and Gilchrist graduate and move on while Davis decides to come back. That puts us at 93 players total 8 of whom are seniors and again we’re at exactly enough scholarships.

Early Entry to the Draft? (3)

TE Cade Otton, OL Jaxson Kirkland, OLB Zion Tupuola-Fetui

Spoiler alert: I listed these in order from most to least likely to leave. Cade Otton was one of the most underrated players on the team in 2019 as he did the dirty work at tight end while Hunter Bryant got the receiving yardage and glory. This year Otton led the team in yards and catches even if only in 4 games. He’s a great blocker and a receiving threat and he will certainly get drafted if he leaves. Bye, Cade. We’ll miss you.

I think it’s much less clear for the other two. Kirkland was the other candidate before the season that seemed like a reasonable option to leave but it’s not totally clear if he did enough to justify that. There’s only 4 games of tape now with him at left tackle and he was good but not spectacular. PFF has its flaws but they’re a good resource for offensive line play since the conventional stats aren’t out there. He graded out this year 8th among Pac-12 offensive tackles although 1st in pass blocking. I don’t think Kirkland got himself into the territory he wanted but if he’s content with being a 4th round pick or so then he may still make the leap.

Finally, ZTF had the most dominant 3-game stretch we’ve seen from a Husky pass rusher since the start of the Sark era. There’s no denying that happened. It was also the only 3 games of positive tape that he has. There were a couple of flashes in his redshirt freshman season but he has played just a combined 384 defensive snaps. Maybe someone takes a flyer if he put up monstrous combine numbers but realistically he needs another at least half-season of above average game tape to get there.

I’m going to say that Otton is out and Kirkland and ZTF come back although I feel like Kirkland is a bit of a coin flip. That puts us at 92 players and 8 seniors.

Potential Transfers (5)

S Brandon McKinney (senior), RB Richard Newton, WR Austin Osborne, WR Marquis Spiker, DL Draco Bynum

I don’t really like to speculate about transfers but in this case I’m using pretty defined criteria. This list only includes players who appear to have been passed on the depth chart by younger guys and have been in the program for at least 3 years now. Newton is the only one that saw playing time this season but seemingly got put in the dawg house the last 2 games of the year after punctuating the win over Arizona with a TD run that was the longest of his career. The other 4 all were completely out of the rotation although Spiker appeared to have been banged up this fall so it’s unclear if he might’ve been able to compete for time if fully healthy.

It also has to be mentioned that any of the seniors could decide to either take their degree and move on from football or use the opportunity to grad transfer for their last year like Jordan Chin did. OL Luke Wattenberg has already announced he’s coming back and the rest of the seniors with one exception were all major rotation pieces who don’t seem like they are likely to get a look in the NFL so I’m assuming their coming back. The exception was QB Kevin Thomson who is himself a grad transfer and therefore I’m assuming unlikely to grad transfer somewhere else again in his 90 bajillionth year of eligibility.

Let’s say that McKinney, one of the receivers, and D. Bynum go elsewhere and that puts us at 89 players and 7 seniors.

(A quick note that at the moment I am not including TE Jack Yary in my counts. He’s on the team roster but is not currently enrolled and has had a shall we say unconventional recruitment. Until we see him on the field in a Husky uniform I’m going to be doubtful he gets everything together).

What It Means for 2022

Given those numbers it seems like Washington could maybe have afforded to take another 3 players in the class of 2021 and still have been all right. But that’s where the conundrum of 2022 comes in. If you scan just a couple paragraphs above you will be reminded that this attrition would leave the Huskies with just 7 seniors. And if the team has to get back down to 85 scholarships it means that they really open up just 3 spots for 2022 based on the graduation of the 2021 class.

Okay, but what about those juniors? If they maybe redshirted and then got an extra year of eligibility thrown in it means they’ll have been in the program 4-5 years and could easily decide to graduate and leave early either as a grad transfer or through the draft. Sure. All...6 of them.

Kirkland seems a lock to leave after next year since he easily could this year. Terrell Bynum with a fully healthy year could follow that path. Henry Bainivalu played pretty well this year and definitely has NFL ambitions. Now you’re left with Ty Jones, Alex Cook, and Corey Luciano. Maybe Jones or Cook break out as NFL prospects next year but I think the conservative thing is to assume they all come back.

So now what about those sophomores? Even though it was only 4 games this still counted towards the 3 year NFL eligibility clock even if it didn’t count for NCAA eligibility. We already mentioned ZTF above as someone that could easily leave after 2021. Trent McDuffie is another obvious candidate and it wouldn’t be absurd to see Kyler Gordon or Puka Nacua have huge seasons and vault to the NFL as well.

Great. Let’s say they all move on. Now we have 9 total spots for the class of 2022. There will definitely be some transfers even if we can’t identify them all right now. It seems probable at least one of the redshirt freshmen inside linebackers depart as early as after spring practices if it’s clear they’re nowhere near playing time. The same might be able to be said along the defensive line, offensive line, and defensive backs where there’s a lot of competition. How about we assume one transfer from each of those spots? Now we have 13 spots for 2022. That’s even smaller than this past class and doesn’t give the Huskies much wiggle room.

When 52 of your scholarships are taken up by freshmen as they are expected to be next season then you are going to need to have a lot of attrition within that class in order to properly space things out in the future. UW isn’t alone in this predicament. Every school is going to have a glut from the combined 2019 and 2020 classes which is going to lead to small classes until then and massive classes in probably 2024 and 2025. Players are going to transfer in search of playing time only to realize that it’s a game of musical chairs and there are substantially fewer seats than they were expected.

Get ready for either another small recruiting class in 2022 or an exodus of young talent via the transfer portal. Because you’re not going to get a recruiting class with enough total players to qualify in the top-15 of the national rankings unless you get the latter.