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Column: What happens to Ohio State’s 2021 early enrollees if the season is moved to the spring?

I have no idea what the NCAA will do with 2021 early enrollees in that case, but it’s still fun to think about.

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way at the top; I have no idea what’s going to happen with the upcoming college football season, and frankly, neither do you. In fact, I’d venture to guess that at this point the very NCAA, conference, and university officials that will be making the decision as to what’s going to happen with the upcoming college football season don’t even have the foggiest idea as to what is going to happen with the upcoming college football season. At best, all that we have are some educated (or not-so educated) guesses; but you know what, that might be exactly what we need right now anyway.

Since there’s no way to confidently predict what the future holds, you can either view speculating about what’s in store for the college football season as a pointless waste of time, or you can look at it as a welcome, yet frivolous distraction from our world that is otherwise currently crumbling around us. I choose the latter, for both the sake of my mental state and the rest of this column.

So, one thing that I have been thinking a lot about lately is what would happen to the Class of 2021 early enrollees if the college football season gets moved from this fall to next spring; say sometime in February through early June, or something like that?

Ohio State currently has a historically loaded recruiting class that is practically lapping the field when it comes to blue-chip commitments. If we look at what happened with their fifth-rated 2020 class for comparison, this past January (which, believe it or not, was not 22 years ago), 13 new Buckeyes enrolled early and started their OSU careers during the pandemic-shortened winter semester. If a similar number from the 2021 class graduates early, what happens to them when they show up in Columbus in January and the rest of the team is preparing to start a season?

For obvious scholarship-limitation reasons, there’s no way that they would be immediately eligible to play, so do they just chill and work out with Mickey Marotti on their own while acclimating to college life? Doubtful.

The normal, non-pandemic NCAA rules allow student athletes to participate in 15 spring football practice sessions; eight of which can involve live contact, and three of those eight can involve more than 50 percent live contact. But if the football season happens in the spring, that would mean that there would be no spring football, or at least not as we know it.

Obviously, those limitations wouldn’t apply to the scholarship and walk-on players who would be in the middle of a season during the normal spring practice window, but would the traditional limitations hold true for the early enrollees? If so, head coach Ryan Day would have the option to pepper into practices the potential likes of Jack Sawyer, TreVeyon Henderson, Kyle McCord, Marvin Harrison Jr., and the rest of the 2021 studs.

Depending on the positions of the eventual early enrollees, perhaps they could be staggered throughout the course of the season to serve as stand-ins for specific opposing players on OSU’s scout team. Or, Day and company could let them work out with Coach Mick for most of the season and then deploy those practice days at the end of the regular season and during bowl practices, when their bodies are most ready for the collegiate game.

This would also be the closest time period to when their actual freshman season would start. If the NCAA returned to their normal schedule for the fall of 2021, depending on the spring bowl calendar, it could be less than two months before fall camp starts in August. What would be best for the development of these players and the postseason potential of the team? Obviously that is impossible to say right now, but it is an interesting wrinkle to throw into this whole postponement discussion; I mean, bring on the hypotheticals, what else do we have to do right now?

The other question that would have to be answered in this scenario is whether or not they would be allowed to sit in on film sessions and position-group meetings throughout the season or not. Would there be a limit on the number of team activities that they could participate in beyond the allowable 15 practices? I mean, you would have to assume that these early enrollees would not get nearly the attention, coaching, and evaluation during an active season that they can’t play in that they would in a traditional spring practice period. So, perhaps that could be counterbalanced by allowing them to have full access to team activities, while maintaining their limited on-field participation.

These are obviously rhetorical questions at this point, but they would be questions that need to be answered if the season does get postponed by a few months. Currently, the discussion around the season seems to be fairly optimistic that it can still happen as previously scheduled. Me? I have my doubts, as we have yet to see the impact of states and municipalities re-opening following social distancing isolation, and we don’t yet know if the expected fall spike will force the country back into a second quarantine period. And, for all of the things that I hate about the NCAA (and there are many), I cannot say that they are normally a collection of risk-takers.

And while I would love to pretend that I say that to mean that I don’t think that they will want to run the risk of spreading the virus and potentially endangering the health of student-athletes, staff, and spectators, what I really mean is that I don’t see them wanting to take a risk with their money.

If they allow the season to go on as scheduled, and there is then a second spike in infections and deaths, in the best case scenario, that would mean a dramatic drop in fans attending games on campuses; but in the worst case scenario, it would lead to a second sports stoppage effectively ending the season.

Both situations would put the NCAA member institutions in a position that they would have pissed away their biggest money-making opportunity of the academic year, putting their entire balance sheets in grave danger.

While I am neither a public health, nor higher education expert — and I refuse to play one in the pages of Land-Grant Holy Land — I don’t foresee the NCAA starting football in September unless they are practically guaranteed to be able to play the season in full with all of their Division I teams onboard. Can you imagine the craziness if four Big Ten, three ACC, five SEC, three Pac-12, six Big-12, and 26 Group of Five schools decide not to play football in the fall?

It would lead to scheduling chaos, the canceling of bowl games, enormous eligibility questions, unprecedented numbers of transfer waiver applications, and loads of lost revenue from TV contracts. So again, I just don’t see college football happening in the fall unless the powers that be are relatively certain that we can have a season that looks almost entirely like the ones that we know and love, and right now, I just don’t think that anyone has any idea if that is actually possible or not.

So, that brings us back to the theoretical problem of what to do with the early enrollees. While I wouldn’t imagine that this would be the most likely scenario, what would happen if the NCAA allowed these players to be treated as walk-ons for the duration of the season; granted walk-ons that can’t play in games, but walk-ons in every other NCAA meaningful way?

They would still get all of the university benefits of being scholarship athletes, but they wouldn’t actually count as scholarship athletes for the season. They would probably still get to partake in the OSU training table meals and academic services, but for our purposes, let’s focus on what would happen from a practice perspective.

With none of the spring practice limitations on participation in place, Day could be able to put together perhaps one of the best scout teams in OSU (or college football) history. Currently, OSU’s 2021 class has 14 blue-chip prospects committed (3 five-stars, 11 four-stars) with more expected. Now, obviously some of those could decommit, and they wouldn’t necessarily all be early enrollees, but if the majority of them were, not only would these rising-freshmen benefit from going up against the seasoned vets on Ohio State’s first and second teams, but I would venture to guess that Ohio State’s first and second teams would benefit from going up against these talented rising-freshmen as well.

Don’t forget that the scout team would likely also have the benefit of some of the heralded 2020 recruits as well, making that collection of talent really exciting. Now, I don’t think that the 2021 early enrollees being able to practice against OSU’s starters is going to be the difference between a College Football Playoff berth and a 6-6 season or anything, but it might give the team a little bit of an extra edge that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

However, I do think that it could have a tremendous benefit for the current 2021 recruits. Basically, they would be trading a 15-session spring practice for a red-shirt season that would end just months before their first actual season of eligibility begins. Between Ohio State’s loaded incoming class and its always stacked roster, this could be a tremendous opportunity to jumpstart the careers of these young players with an opportunity that hasn’t really been seen since the days when players weren’t eligible to play until their sophomore seasons.

Would it be the difference for one or more of the recruits between a freshman campaign with minimal contributions and a fall where they are productive, difference-making first-year players? Who knows? There are too many variables in play to answer that question, but I certainly think that it could have a substantial impact on the team and players’ short and longer-term futures.

And that’s what this exercise is really all about, isn’t it? There’s no real way to know the answers to any of the questions posed at this point, but it’s fun to think about them anyway.

Undoubtedly, your life has been dramatically impacted over the past two months by things far beyond your control. But whether you are fortunate enough to still be working from home; or you are risking your life and health as an essential, front line worker; or you are one of this country’s millions hoping to return to work when this is all over, there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to escape the frustration, boredom, and despair of the real world by indulging in the silliness of sports hypotheticals for a few minutes now and then.

In times of personal and national trauma, sports have always been a respite from reality. While sports can’t currently comfort us in the ways that we are used to, their ability to distract and inspire can still be just as powerful if we allow ourselves to accept and enjoy a world in which there are no definite answers... yet.