Big news from the NCAA Division I Council on Monday will have big ramifications on student-athletes participating in spring sports. With every athlete granted an additional year of eligibility, seniors can now return to campus and finish what they started before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped their season away.
“I think that our spring sports student-athletes are fortunate that the council voted the way they did that they’ll be able to essentially get another year back,” East Carolina University Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said. “I think that’s a positive. There’s a financial consequence to that as well and so we’re trying to figure out how we fund that. I’m happy that those student-athletes that choose to come back will be able to come back and compete for the Pirates.”
While Gilbert estimates the council’s decision could cost the department upwards of $350,000 if all seniors return in 2021, the Pirates’ baseball team and head coach Cliff Godwin must adapt to the changing landscape and rules.
As part of the decision handed down on Monday, seniors in baseball programs across the country will not count toward that teams’ roster limits. In addition, they will not count against the 11.7 scholarships available or the 27-man scholarship limits and can receive no more aid than they were given in 2020.
Good news for teams and players around the country, ECU baseball will not be able to take advantage of extending scholarships to returning seniors without it counting against them.
“I can’t give Tyler Smith, Nick Barber, Matt Bridges, Cam Colmore any scholarship money next year because it would actually count against our 11.7 because the NCAA is just reverting back to the last year they were on money,” Godwin said.
Restricted to having only 27 players on a 35-man roster on scholarship during any given year, all four of ECU’s seniors had already been allotted their full scholarship money earlier in their careers and will not be able to be given aid without it counting against the program’s scholarship number in 2021.
NCAA rules allow for scholarships to be “front loaded,” meaning the athlete can receive all the aid in three years, as long as they average 25% scholarship over four seasons. Knowing they will likely not be on scholarship, guys like Bridges and Colmore have signaled they will be returning for a sixth year in Greenville, North Carolina. Both of them are enrolled in the MBA program at ECU according to Godwin, while Smith is also looking into graduate programs.
“Fortunately, Tyler Smith, Matt Bridges, Cam Colmore and their families understand that and they’re coming back,” Godwin said. “Nick Barber is an out-of-state student. He’s pretty much financially supporting himself for school with our scholarship help, but this past year, he was not on scholarship because we had doubled him up in his career at some point.”
Barber, who is a native of Apopka, Florida, graduated in three years and can finish the master’s program in December, according to Godwin. For that reason, and with the program likely not in a position to offer him aid in 2021, Barber is still undecided about his future in purple and gold.
Kind of in that same boat are the draft eligible Pirates like junior left-handed pitcher/first baseman Alec Burleson, junior right-handed pitcher Gavin Williams and junior outfielder Bryson Worrell. In late-March, Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association struck a deal that would give the league the right to limit the upcoming draft to five rounds.
Still able to be pushed to 10 rounds, however, the draft length plays a huge role in which underclassmen return for ECU in 2021. Currently, ECU sports three players in the top-250 college prospects as ranked by D1Baseball. Williams is the top Pirate at No. 62 while Burleson and Worrell are Nos. 138 and 142, respectively.
Factoring in high school players selected, both Burleson and Worrell figure to be below the five round cutoff, with Williams still likely to be taken in the fourth or fifth round.
“I would say Gavin Williams and Alec Burleson and Bryson Worrell would have the ability to go in those top-five rounds, but you don’t know,” Godwin said. “That’s where it makes our job tougher, just from the standpoint that we won’t know until probably July-ish because they’re going to move the draft back, of who’s coming back from maybe not going in the professional draft.”
With an extra year of eligibility given to all players, juniors will maintain their leverage when negotiating signing bonuses with big league clubs in 2022. Without that relief, juniors not taken in the upcoming draft would have been forced to sign for $20,000 as an undrafted free agent or return for their senior year and lose all negotiating power with a signing team.
“There’s no clarity until the draft happens,” Godwin said. “It’s just an inexact science and there’s a lot of variables that go into it. They get their junior years back, theoretically they still have leverage.”
Aside from the seniors and draft eligible players, incoming freshmen and the guys with smaller roles on the team will now be forced into a roster crunch situation. Under the new rules, ECU will be permitted to carry 35 non-seniors on their roster in 2021. For the non-seniors who return next year and the 15 incoming freshmen who have already signed, there simply may not be enough room to accommodate everyone.
Factor in potential junior college transfers, and the probability for some tough conversations within Pirates’ coaching staff grows exponentially.
“There will be a roster crunch,” Godwin said. “There will be guys that I have to have really honest conversations with. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened this early in their career if they would have continued to develop, maybe they make it. It’s not the fun part of my job.”
As Godwin alluded to, no clarity can come until after the MLB draft. Right now, that is slated for sometime in July, but with the shifting sands of the coronavirus pandemic, things could change suddenly. On the other side of the draft, programs and coaches will have a better understanding of what their clubs will look like in 2021 as the push to pack as much talent as possible into 35 roster spots will begin to gear up.