What NCAA decision on football eligibility means for Tennessee Vols seniors, recruiting

The NCAA decided last week that the 2020 season won’t count against the eligibility clock of fall sports athletes, because of uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That means this essentially is a free season for football players who compete this fall or players who compete in the spring for schools that play a spring season.

Seniors can return for another season in 2021 and not count against a team’s 85-scholarship limit. Freshmen will remain freshmen, and so on.

Here’s what the ruling means for Tennessee.

Welcome back Jarrett Guarantano?

Say what you will about Jarrett Guarantano’s inconsistent career as Tennessee’s quarterback, but there’s no quit in him.

A fifth-year senior, Guarantano is positioned to build on his total of 25 career starts this season.

Would Tennessee want him back 2021? Would Guarantano be interested?

Guarantano is joined by sophomores Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout and freshman Harrison Bailey as Tennessee’s scholarship quarterbacks. Bailey, a four-star recruit from Marietta, Georgia, is the highest-rated quarterback to sign with Tennessee since Guarantano signed in the 2016 class.

Four-star dual-threat quarterback Kaidon Salter is committed to Tennessee’s 2021 class. The Vols might be ready for a change at quarterback next season. If Guarantano returned, it could cause other Vols quarterbacks to eye other options. And Guarantano might feel like he’d have nothing left to prove after this season and prefer to test his professional prospects.

Tennessee’s 2021 squad could be loaded with veterans

The NCAA’s decision allows seniors to return in 2021. It doesn’t mandate that schools give them the opportunity to do so. Although seniors who return won’t count against the scholarship limit, the school still will have to foot financial aid at a time when athletic departments seek to rein in expenses.

Still, Tennessee would gladly welcome back some of its seniors, if they’re interested in returning. Like Brent Cimaglia, for example.

Few kickers are selected in the NFL Draft. Cimaglia will either be a late-round draft pick or sign as an undrafted free agent, regardless of whether he returns in 2021.

From that perspective, Cimaglia might figure, why wait? But perhaps Tennessee can persuade him to delay his pro prospects for another season. He’s a proven commodity who made 23 of 27 field goals last season. He is the lone scholarship kicker on the roster, and the Vols don’t have one in the 2021 class, although JT Carver is committed as a preferred walk-on.

Seniors like offensive lineman Trey Smith, running back Ty Chandler and wide receiver Josh Palmer probably would be wise to head to the pros after this season. But the Vols have 21 scholarship seniors. If even half that total returns, it would create a veteran-laden roster.

Vols center Brandon Kennedy is a rare sixth-year senior, having received an additional year of eligibility because he had two seasons derailed by injury.

How about making history with a seventh season? It seems unlikely, but perhaps Tennessee could persuade Kennedy to just keep accumulating degrees on the company dime while he anchors the middle of the line.

What about the scholarship limit?

With seniors who return not counting against the 85-scholarship limit, that means Tennessee can construct its 2021 recruiting class like it normally would.

But the NCAA said nothing of increasing the scholarship limit in future seasons, and with everyone’s eligibility paused for 2020, that could create hurdles for teams to stay within the limit, if not for 2021, then in future seasons.

Teams are allowed to sign up to 25 players in each recruiting class.

Let’s say the Vols sign 25 in 2021 and 25 in 2022. Assuming no player departures, that would mean 50 of the 85 scholarship spots for the 2022 squad would be claimed by freshmen and sophomores, leaving just 35 spots for players from the 2017-20 recruiting classes, all of whom could conceivably still be in the program by 2022.

Returning seniors can offset 2021 recruiting deficiencies

The Vols’ contingent of six scholarship senior defensive linemen includes includes Darel Middleton, Aubrey Solomon, Matthew Butler and LaTrell Bumphus, who are either starters or key reserves.

Tennessee has four defensive linemen committed to the 2021 class, with four-star end Dylan Brooks joining a trio of three-star prospects.

If UT doesn’t secure the recruiting haul of defensive linemen it desires, then it could lean on this year’s seniors to hold down the fort for another season.

No need to worry about redshirting freshmen 

In a normal season, freshmen can play in up to four games and consider it a redshirt season. No need to worry about that now. 

Tennessee should feel free to deploy freshmen as much as necessary, even if it’s just to round out special teams units.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com 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. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.



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