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Implications for UW Football of an Eligibility Mulligan in 2020

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What happens to UW’s roster in this strange new world?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Oregon at Washington Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This past Friday the NCAA made an announcement that no player eligibility will be expended whether football is played this fall, in the spring, or isn’t played at all. The decision is both at once obviously practical but has a number of potentially negative downstream ramifications. It’s not a stretch to say that it may be a full half-decade or longer that we are seeing the impact of this decision. Let’s go into what it means for college football at large as well as specifically for the Washington Huskies.

The only way this decision makes no sense is if the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 get through an entire fall slate completely unhindered by COVID-19 leading the Pac-12 and Big 10 to play a full winter/spring schedule. In that scenario every major conference player would get to play 10+ games (as long as they’re healthy) and still have it take no effect on their eligibility. However, it appears the NCAA agrees with just about everyone living outside the Southeast in believing that’s unlikely.

Instead the more likely scenarios are either the number of outbreaks on college campuses occurring lead the remaining conferences to also shut things down or they start a season with consistent interruptions. Let’s say we get a partial fall season in the SEC, ACC, and Big-12 where the average team plays 5 games. It would be incredibly unfair to the players if they played 100% of possible games but still had to lose a full year over 5 games. Similarly, it would be unfortunate to see players getting charged for an extra season if we get a limited conference-only schedule in the spring.

If there’s not a fall or a spring season then obviously this decision doesn’t change anything. Everyone would have played 0 games and therefore kept their eligibility anyways. Technically, players who had already used a redshirt wouldn’t have lost a year but there was no scenario where the NCAA would’ve said “too bad” to everyone who doesn’t have a redshirt available. Even the NCAA couldn’t screw that one up.

Impact on the Huskies

The expectation is that the scholarship cap for each team will be increased by the number of seniors that stay on the roster. This causes an interesting dynamic for Washington which already had such a small senior class and an even smaller junior class. The Huskies would have, if the season started in 2 weeks, 13 seniors and 9 juniors on the roster.

Realistically, 6 of those players have a shot at the NFL draft even without playing another down of college football: Levi Onwuzurike, Elijah Molden, and Keith Taylor among the seniors and Jaxson Kirkland, Joe Tryon, and Cade Otton from the juniors. Each of those guys has a decision to make over the coming months. They could decide to say at any point that they are dropping out of classes and team workouts to engage in private workouts for the NFL Draft. However, that decision means they are foregoing any shot to improve their draft stock by putting out quality tape against other football competition.

Things get into a gray area for a guy like Levi Onwuzurike who has already graduated with his undergraduate degree. Based on NCAA regulations he’s allowed to come back and play out a fall season. Whether there’s a spring season or not, Onwuzurike could come back next fall and still be a senior given these rule changes. Unless Levi enrolls in graduate school at UW though it seems difficult to call him a student athlete if he’s still able to play football over a year since the last time he was enrolled in a class. However, as we know well by now the NCAA uses that term when convenient and diminishes its meaning when it’s not.

The college system however is predicated on players leaving school and making room for the new incoming freshmen. Some will leave but some will use the extra year and stay. Now you have a group of sophomores and juniors who were expecting to step into the limelight and starting roles who once again have to wait to break out. Many of them will stick it out. But many more will transfer or seek another avenue for playing time (though they’ll find the same log jam everywhere else).

And the situation doesn’t resolve itself after a single year. The can will be continuously kicked down the road until a full cycle rotates through. We’re looking at 5+ years before the effects are fully diminished.

The state of Washington’s roster possibly hurts them in the short-term but may be a boon in the long-term. Let’s look at the scenario where there is no Pac-12 football until next fall. Guys who were destined for the NFL Draft have likely already bolted but the depth seniors probably stay and use up that extra year of eligibility. For the Huskies that means players like Sean McGrew, Brandon McKinney, and Jordan Chin. In a year where some teams will have 100+ scholarship players on the roster, it will instead likely be pretty much the exact same Washington starting lineup we would already have expected for 2021.

If other teams are able to retain large chunks of a full-sized senior class then they may be able to gain a huge advantage for a 2021 season. However, there will be bubbling discontent from everyone below them who thought that 2021 was their moment. Washington doesn’t really have to worry about that. Maybe an offensive lineman doesn’t get their opportunity because Luke Wattenberg decides to come back for a 6th year and Jaxson Kirkland returns as well. But half of the projected starters on the Husky roster fora season this fall were already slotted to be current sophomores and freshmen.

The biggest sources of discontent likely come from the quarterbacks. Without a spring 2021 football season all of them will have lost the chance to take the job before 5-star Sam Huard enters the fray. At least one of them could transfer but without any game film on tape and with every other roster also frozen it’s tough to see them feel comfortable stepping into a starting role anywhere else without dropping outside the power conferences.

The logjam at inside linebacker also just gets more crowded with Bruener and McDonald joining the room and there being 9 scholarship inside linebacker underclassmen with at least a full year in the program next fall. The incoming defensive backs face a rough upward climb on the depth chart except that guys like Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon could easily wind up leaving early.

Prediction

Regardless of whether or not there’s a spring season of any size we have likely seen the last of Molden, Onwuzurike, and Tryon in a Husky uniform. I also think that at least one of Taylor, Otton, and Kirkland decide they’re willing to test their luck in the NFL rather than face another full year before getting drafted. If the draft gets postponed to allow for a spring season which actually happens then the odds go up dramatically of those guys all leaving.

There will also be additional seniors that depart. If someone like Kamari Pleasant or Jordan Chin already has their degree do they stick around to likely ride the bench for another year instead of trying to enter the job market and provide for themselves and their families? For several of those players it seems likely the answer is no.

That would put the Huskies in a position where they have something around the order of 8 seniors and 6 juniors. The actual size of the roster wouldn’t be that much different than normal but the supreme fight for playing time among the underclassmen would be brutal.

And you can be certain that opposing coaches will negatively recruit against the Dawgs by pointing out the likelihood that incoming recruits face a 3-year brick wall in front of them when trying to see the field with the loaded last few classes. Things will be crowded everywhere but the biggest downside for UW will almost certainly come from keeping the youngest players on the team happy who lose a sought after opportunity to rise from the bottom rung on the depth chart totem pole.

Everyone’s got problems. But things could certainly be worse if that’s how things ultimately play out.