Numbers Game: Difficult For FBS Programs To Maintain 85 Scholarships
The scholarship limit for NCAA FBS college football teams is a total of 85, but it is more and more difficult for programs to maintain that level.
West Virginia will likely have in the neighborhood of 75-80 scholarship football players to start the 2020 season, and the Mountaineers aren’t all that different from other FBS programs.
The issue that makes it difficult to get to and maintain the 85-scholarship total is that a team can sign no more than 25 scholarship players per year. And that 25 number is a “hard cap,” meaning if a player signs a National Letter of Intent but doesn’t make it into school for some reason, that scholarship usually still counts towards the annual class limit of 25, though not necessarily towards the total number of 85.
Thus if a signee doesn’t academically qualify to enroll, he still counts against the 25 making it vital not to take too many risks on academically shaky prospects.
Add to that the number of underclassmen on a roster who depart a program for whatever reason – transfer, grades, discipline, etc. – and it’s difficult maintain a roster with a full complement of 85 scholarship student-athletes.
“To get to 85 after you’ve fallen behind is hard, because of the (annual) hard cap,” stated WVU director of player personnel Brian Bennett, who also held that same title for four years (2015-18) with head coach Neal Brown at Troy.
“It’s harder now, because of the ease of transferring,” added Bennett. “You have to recruit your own roster every day. We’re around our own kids and recruiting our own roster every day. That’s what we want to do. It’s what we want our program to be. We have a close relationship with the kids in this program, which is the way it should be. We’re going to keep doing that.”
WVU has had eight scholarship underclassmen who participated in all or part of the 2019 season already announce they were entering the transfer portal – safety JoVanni Stewart, wide receiver Tevin Bush, safety Kwantel Raines, wide receiver Ricky Johns, quarterback Jack Allison, tight end Jovani Haskins, running back Martell Pettaway and offensive lineman Josh Sills. There’s always a chance there could be more.
The loss of those potential returnees, plus any further attrition, makes it very difficult to get close to 85 scholarship players, even when taking the yearly maximum.
One way of adding to the scholarship numbers is by awarding grants-in-aid to walk-ons, though a walk-on who has been with a program less than two years and gets a scholarship must fit into the 25 limit for a particular class. A walk-on who receives a scholarship from their second year one does not have to count against an annual limit, though obviously they do count against the 85 total.
Brown will likely look into awarding a few scholarships to walk-ons heading into the 2020 season.
Another way of adding to the total scholarship number is by blue shirting a player. In simplistic terms, a blue shirt is a prospect who was “not recruited” in NCAA terms, meaning he did not take an official visit to the school (such players can still take and unofficial, though) and the coaches didn’t make a home visit to that individual. If the prospect fits those parameters, he can be put on scholarship once practice starts and that scholarship will count towards the next class and not the past one. For instance, WVU added transfers George Campbell, Alonzo Addae, Jarret Doege, Reuben Jones and Josh Growden this past summer. It had room to count two back to the class of 2019, but three had to count ahead to 2020 – what three isn’t really important as it’s basically a matter of bookkeeping – so it was able to get more than 25 new scholarship players on the roster by the start of last season. On the back end, though, West Virginia used up three scholarships from its class of ’20.
So while you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul in some ways, it does allow for a team to award more than 25 scholarships for a particular class.
“We’re going to continue finding creative ways to get (to 85),” stated Bennett. “I think you saw last year how creative we were, and we’ll keep doing that. We’ll sign good players, and eventually we’ll get there. We had to do it at Troy, and we were really thin when we got there.”
There are a various proposals floating about to change the NCAA rules, particularly in relation to the hard cap of 25 scholarships per year.
Kansas director of athletic Jeff Long, whose football program has been hit by attrition over the years, has suggested allowing 50 scholarships to be awarded over a two-year period. The math still works out to 25 per year, but a program could split those up in various ways – 35-15, 30-20, however they want.
Some have suggested to up the yearly total to 30, and then there are others who have said there should be some ratio to add to the annual limit based on the number of transfers leaving – say, for instance, one additional scholarship for each two who leave.
Bennett’s heard all those and more, but isn’t necessarily one that wants huge alteration.
“I don’t know that the rules necessarily need to change,” the Mobile, Alabama, native said. “I don’t know of a better way, is probably how I should say it. The people at the NCAA who are making the rules have done this for a lot longer than I have, so I’ll trust their judgment. I don’t know of a better way to do it. I’m sure there are some creative ways to this. At times it does make my job hard, but if it wasn’t hard, they wouldn’t pay me to do it.”
Roster management is always a huge issue, whether it is at the FBS, FCS, Division II or Division III level.
Bennett, who made the leap with Brown from Troy of the Sun Belt Conference to Big 12 member West Virginia last January, explained that while some things are different at a major college program, many are the same.
“The difference between Power 5 and Group of 5 isn’t as big a deal to me as some people make it out to be,” Bennett said. “I think if you work and build relationships, you can recruit good football players no matter what the level. Now there’s no doubt we’re in the Big 12 and the stakes are high. It’s one of the premier conferences in college football. We compete against really good football teams, but we’re also a really good team.
“We have to be unique here,” he continued. “We’re a small population state, so we have to recruit a lot of different places. When you do that, you have to beat a lot of home-state teams. To do that, you have to out-relationship people and outwork people. But that’s what we do. That’s what Coach Brown is known for and it’s what we’re going to continue to do; we’re going to outwork people and out-relationship people.”
No matter what the era, what the sport or what the level, landing quality talent is always a huge key to success. And now, finding room under the scholarship limitations for those players is also incredibly important.