NCAA football should embrace super seniors permanently to help coaches


Theo Jackson is in the NFL today, and he has his super-senior season to thank.

Jackson, the former Tennessee Vols safety, played a second senior season last fall after the NCAA determined that 2020 would not count against an athlete’s eligibility, because of the pandemic. Jackson finished his college career with a bang, and the Tennessee Titans drafted him in the sixth round in April.

Throughout college football, the super-senior year proved a win-win for players and coaches.

Super seniors did not count against a team’s limit of 85 scholarship players last season, allowing veterans one more year to improve their stock and help their college program without hamstringing the team’s scholarship count.

The NCAA should make this change permanent: Award a super-senior year of eligibility without counting super seniors among a team’s 85-scholarship limit.

No such permanent shift has been embraced, however. Instead, 2021 was a one-year grace period. Super seniors will count against a team’s 85-scholarship limit beginning this season. After athletes who played in 2020 finish their careers, the super-senior season will be phased out.

That’s a shame.

Making super seniors an enduring change would help combat the sport’s player attrition problem. If they didn’t count against a program’s overall scholarship limit, a coach wouldn’t have to choose between retaining super seniors or signing a full recruiting class. He’d be encouraged to do both.

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College coaches are grumbling about their inability to assemble a full roster during an era when athletes may transfer more freely than ever.

But instead of incentivizing roster retention, the NCAA reportedly is considering nixing its rule that limits programs to signing 25 newcomers each year. If this signing limit is lifted, programs could sign as many newcomers as they want each year, as long as they don’t exceed 85 total scholarship players overall.

Removing the signing cap would be a boon for the best programs, which would be positioned to gobble up a higher percentage of the incoming talent each year. Further, removing the signing cap would increase the likelihood for additional transfers.

Instead of eliminating the signing cap to address college football’s attrition woes, a better option would be making the super-senior year of eligibility permanent and not counting those players against a team’s 85-scholarship limit

NCAA rules allow athletes a five-year window to play four seasons. In effect, athletes get one redshirt year, during which they may play in up to four games, plus four full years of competition.

Under my super-senior proposal, athletes would have a six-year window to play five seasons. That would grant athletes a senior season, plus a super-senior season – and those super seniors should not count against the 85-scholarship limit.

That super-senior season would reward veterans who grind toward improvement – players like Jackson and his Vols teammate, defensive lineman Matthew Butler, who parlayed super-senior success into NFL Draft selection.

Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. and Georgia defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt were among the super seniors who flourished. Wyatt became a first-round draft pick, while Robinson went in the third round.

Of course, not all players would stick around to play a super-senior season. Some would continue to declare for the NFL draft after Year 3 or 4 of college ball. Others may simply choose to not play a second senior season.

For those who want to stick around another year, I don’t see the harm. In fact, true freshmen could benefit from having some 24-year-old super seniors to model themselves after.

If the NCAA were to permanently embrace super-senior eligibility, it wouldn’t just help elite programs. To the contrary, top programs are likelier to lose players to the NFL after their third or fourth year. So, adopting a super-senior rule would most reward programs that retain and develop veterans who weren’t NFL-ready earlier in their career.

Players like Jackson, who gradually improved throughout a Tennessee career that spanned three different coaches.

If Jackson’s college career had finished after his initial senior season, he likely would not have been drafted. By returning to UT for another season, the Vols and Jackson mutually benefited.

The super senior became a super success story, and the NCAA should welcome more of those.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

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