Increased depth, early playing time for freshmen on deck for Arkansas
The NCAA Board of Directors voted last Friday to grant an extra season of eligibility for all fall sport student-athletes, regardless of how much of a season they play in this fall or in the spring.
Seniors will get to stay an extra year without submitting an extra waiver and eligibility clocks will halt for everyone, from true freshmen on up. There are currently 21 Razorback seniors who could take advantage of an extra year, including 18 scholarship seniors and nine projected starters.
While guys like Feleipe Franks and Rakeem Boyd will likely depart for the NFL after the 2020 season, others like Myron Cunningham, Ty Clary, Grant Morgan, Dorian Gerald and Xavier Kelly may want to stay to boost their stock–or just to help the team.
"We have some seniors on our team we’re going to try to get to stay, I’ll tell you that," head coach Sam Pittman said Tuesday. "The NCAA is thinking about the kids first. I think it’s probably a good deal and it’ll give a chance for some guys who may not be high on a draft board the opportunity to come back and play again. With the shortened season, I’m sure they did that for everybody, you know, for some of the teams that aren’t playing too. I think it’s fair for everyone."
It's a great initiative by the NCAA to help out student-athletes impacted by COVID19, whether a season gets played or not. It's even more helpful for a program like Arkansas, which has a general lack of depth with too many walk-ons on scholarship.
There is one glaring downside to the decision by the higher ups. Incoming members from the 2021 class will not only compete with those in the three years above them, but also the seniors that they thought would be gone next season. Redshirt freshmen or sophomores could lose opportunities to play and get closer and closer towards the transfer portal.
Senior defensive end Dorian Gerald noted the downside of the decision when he heard the news:
"It's cool... but I don’t want to come back," Gerald said. "If need be, but that’s not the plan. Because I know the incoming freshmen, the high school guys, they need a shot, too."
Coach Pittman says he plans on getting the young guns on the field sooner regardless. With his experience of sending offensive linemen to the league, 15 to be exact, he says he wants to see who's got it going on early–seniority does not matter.
"I (used to be) concerned about redshirting guys and developing guys and all that, but I’ve had so many guys leave in three years, you know, that I think we’re going to err on the side of playing them, you know," Pittman said.
"Once you get to that fourth game you’re going, ‘Hey, you know,’ but I’m going to err on if I’m halfway close as a young guy to a guy that’s a little bit older, I’m going to err on playing the young guy because I think he’ll pass the older guy. We know what he’s been able to do. But I’m kind of the guy that wants to play whoever I think can help us, regardless of age, so I don’t know if it’ll really make a big difference or not."
The battle going on between sophomore Ricky Stromberg and senior Ty Clary is an example of that philosophy early in Pittman's tenure in Fayetteville. Clary has started 23 games straight for the Hogs, at left guard and center, but Stromberg is a fast-rising star and he was just one of two true freshman offensive linemen to start in the SEC last season. If Pittman, and Brad Davis, play it right, Stromberg could be the first three-and-out in his head coaching tenure.
There's always going to be a heavy competition for playing time and if you sign with an SEC program, you can expect competition at the highest levels. The cream will rise to the top.
All that said, how many seniors end up staying for another year may depend on the institution's financial situation. The NCAA currently does not mandate programs to match the scholarship aid seniors are receiving if they opt to play again in 2021. Though Arkansas football is in the top 20 programs in the nation in revenue, a shortened 2020 season has already impacted staff salaries for this fiscal year.