Theo Jackson is a Tennessee titan today, and he has his super senior season to thank.
Jackson, the former safety man for the Tennessee Vols, played a second senior season last fall after the NCAA determined that 2020 would not count against an athlete’s eligibility due to the pandemic. Jackson ended his college career with a bang and the Titans picked him up in the sixth round in April.
Throughout college football, the super senior year has been a win-win for players and coaches alike.
Super seniors didn’t count against a team’s 85 grantee limit last season, giving veterans another year to bolster their inventory and support their collegiate program without impacting the team’s grant count.
The NCAA should make this change permanent: grant a super senior year of eligibility without counting super seniors toward a team’s 85 scholarship limits.
However, such a permanent postponement was not assumed. Instead, 2021 was a one-year grace period. Super seniors will count towards a team’s 85 scholarship limit starting this season. After athletes who played in 2020 retire, the super senior season will be phased out.
That’s a shame.
Making super seniors a permanent change would help combat the sport’s player attrition problem. If they were not counted towards a program’s overall scholarship limit, a coach would not have to choose between retaining super seniors or signing a full recruit class. He would be encouraged to do both.
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College coaches grumble about their inability to put together a full roster at a time when athletes can rotate more freely than ever.
But rather than incentivize roster retention, the NCAA is reportedly considering rescinding its rule that limits programs to signing on 25 freshmen per year. If this signing limit is lifted, the programs will be free to sign as many newcomers as they wish each year, as long as they do not exceed 85 total grantees.
Removing the signing limit would be a boon for the best programs, which would be able to gobble up a higher percentage of incoming talent each year. In addition, lifting the signing limit would increase the likelihood of further transmissions.
Rather than do away with the signing cap to address college football’s attrition issues, a better option would be to make the super senior year of eligibility permanent and not count those players toward a team’s 85 scholarship limit
NCAA rules allow athletes a five-year window to play four seasons. In fact, athletes get one redshirt year where they can compete 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 one senior season plus one super senior season — and those super seniors shouldn’t count toward the 85 scholarship limit.
This super senior season would reward veterans looking to improve — players like Jackson and his Vols teammate, defenseman Matthew Butler, who brought super senior wins to NFL draft picks.
Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. and Georgia defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt were among the super seniors who thrived. Wyatt became a first-round draft pick while Robinson went into the third round.
Of course, not all players would stay to play a super senior season. Some would continue to sign up for the NFL draft past the 3rd or 4th year of college ball. Others may simply choose not to play a second senior season.
For those who want to stay another year I see no harm. In fact, true newbies could benefit from having some 24-year-old super seniors to orient themselves to.
If the NCAA made super-senior eligibility permanent, it wouldn’t just help elite programs. In contrast, top programs are more likely to lose players to the NFL after their third or fourth year. So the introduction of a super senior rule would reward most programs that retain and develop veterans who weren’t NFL-ready early in their careers.
Players like Jackson, who gradually improved during a career in Tennessee that spanned three different coaches.
If Jackson’s college career had ended after his first season as a senior, he likely would not have been drafted. By returning to UT for another season, the Vols and Jackson benefited each other.
The super senior became a super success story, and the NCAA should welcome more of the same.
Blake Toppmeyer is the SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you like Blake’s reporting, consider it a digital subscription so you can access everything.