Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Football-Less Fall Throws Wrench in NJCAA Recruiting

August 18, 2020

The NJCAA voted Monday afternoon to approve delaying football and other fall contact sports at the junior college level to the spring semester.

“Our greatest focus is and always has been providing the best opportunities for our student-athletes,” said NJCAA President Dr. Christopher Parker in a release. “Through a unified effort from our Presidential Advisory Council, the Board of Regents, and leadership staff, our most recent plan of action provides a path that keeps our student-athletes competing at the highest level with proper safety measures in place. As we move forward as an association, we will continue to provide opportunities for our student-athletes, coaches, and all those involved with the NJCAA to be safe and successful.”

Teams would play up to eight games in the spring, The Athletic’s Max Olson reported on Sunday, with preseason practices beginning on March 1 and the regular season running March through May. The NJCAA has 54 member schools that sponsor football.

According to the president of the NJCAA Football Coaches Association, Joe Forchtner, junior colleges will be able to practice this fall for a period of 60 consecutive days at any point between Aug. 15 and Nov. 15. During that time, they can also hold three outside scrimmages, though staging those would require working with local health officials.

“Kind of the way that we’re doing it, is basically we’re treating the fall semester like an offseason,” Forchtner, who is also the head coach for New Mexico Military Institute, said in an interview with Hail Varsity. “Whereas right now we’d be getting ready for the season and everything would be install and preseason strength and conditioning and things like that. Now, everything kinda shifts to an offseason mode where the focus is going to be on offseason strength and conditioning and more of a spring practice type of schedule.”

The NJCAA sent out a detailed plan of action to its coaches outlining fall plans and how it’ll take steps toward football in the spring. As coaches understand it, there won’t be any limits to what they can do with practice time during those 60 days. If a coach wants to practice all 60 days, they can.

Obviously not everyone is going to do that, but it’s a far cry from the eight hours a week allotted in a normal offseason.

“When our guys show up for classes on Aug. 10, in our minds and on my calendar it’s going to be Jan. 21,” said Butler Community College (Kan.) head coach Tim Schaffner. “It’d be just like spring ball, which would be great in a sense because we missed out on all those workouts and those practices last spring. It would catch us up a little bit.”

Schaffner doesn’t anticipate scrimmaging anyone from Butler’s conference, the KJCCC, but if other levels of football are also canceled, they might try and set something up with a NAIA program or another nearby school.

This is somewhat uncharted water for the NJCAA and its members.

“A lot’s going to be dependent on what the four-year schools do—FBS, FCS, D2, D3, NAIA,” Schaffner said. “That’s why we were really surprised that the NJCAA took the lead on this deal, usually we wait for the trickle-down, we’re not the trendsetter because sometimes we’re at the mercy of the rules from the NCAA. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Privately there remains a large number of unanswered questions with regards to how the NJCAA’s decision will impact recruiting at the D1 level. Talks amongst the Board of Regents and other members of NJCAA leadership were described as being still in the “infancy” stage.

“There’s going to be a lot of second or third-order effects that maybe weren’t thought of up front,” Forchtner said.

Chief among them, what happens to eligibility if the FBS level puts on a season while the remaining divisions sit until January?

“I don’t know,” Forchtner said plainly. “That’s probably the biggest unanswered question, is how it’s going to affect recruiting. A lot of it depends on what the NCAA does. I’ve heard that maybe FCS, D2, and D3 are going to move but FBS is going to stay, I don’t know if that’s true or not. We don’t really know. I can’t imagine the market for junior college players drying up. I think there’s still going to be a market for proven players who are going to be expected to come in right away and play.

“I just don’t know if they’re going to move signing days because our season won’t start until after the signing period ends. I don’t know how it’s going affect guys coming out in December, I don’t know how it’s going to affect guys signing in February and planning on leaving in May, I don’t know. That’s the biggest unknown of this whole thing.”

To Forchtner’s knowledge, changing the early signing period in December or moving the national signing day from Feb. 3 isn’t currently something that’s on the table.

Schaffner is telling his guys with rock-solid offers that if they’re ready to go in December, if they’re academically cleared to be a mid-year guy, then go. Some guys don’t need to play. Some need to leave because their clock is ticking.

Typically, a junior college transfer gets to an FBS program with three years to play two seasons. But if there’s no JUCO football season this fall, suddenly the eligibility of mid-year guys in the 2021 class becomes a question mark. Instead of a 3-for-2 guy, they could be a 3-for-3 guy. Could FBS programs suddenly get a 4-for-3 guy?

Confusion. The following is Forchtner’s unedited stream of consciousness when asked about a 3-for-2 guy becoming a potential 3-for-3 guy:

“I think a kid we were planning on being a 3-for-2, if he signs out this year he’d still be a 3-for-2, but if they signed out in December—dang, man, now you got me thinking—I think if they didn’t use a year they’d be a 4-for-3. If they play in the spring it’s not going to change anything, they’re still going to use a season of competition. If they don’t, they won’t use a season of competition.
“If FBS plays in the fall, I don’t know how that affects our guys, because technically they wouldn’t use a season at the junior college level, but I’m not sure how that changes if FBS competes in the fall and we don’t. I can’t see them taking a year of eligibility from a kid if they didn’t play or compete in a season, regardless of whether it’s in the spring.
“It’s kind of like when the NCAA put in that four-game redshirt rule, well that rule didn’t exist for junior college, but no one was quite aware of that either. The NCAA wouldn’t count that unless the NJCAA counted it, so they kind of deferred to our eligibility on that, where if we count it as a redshirt they’d take it as a redshirt, but even though they count it as a redshirt, if we don’t then it won’t count for them. So, I don’t know if it’s going to be something similar to that, but like I said, there’s more unanswered questions than answered questions at this point.”

Schaffner had a similar line of thinking.

“The kids, through all this I think they’ve been jacked around enough, they shouldn’t be penalized for graduating on time,” he said.

The practices become important in all this, as do any potential scrimmages. If the in-person ban on recruiting gets extended once again by the NCAA, junior college players won’t have Fall 2020 film to stand on and coaches won’t be able to evaluate in person. Schaffner said getting two months to practice will help. It won’t be game tape, but they can flood the market with some kind of film and help that way.

There will always be a market for junior college players, both coaches said.

One thing that’s clear: the focus now turns to academics for those at the JUCO level.

“At junior college, (academics) is always important because you can be the best player in the nation and if you don’t have a 2.5 transferable GPA then you can’t go D1,” Forchtner said. “So, it’s always important, but now I think it’s even more important that the guys don’t get into a hole early. You know, sometimes that first semester in college is kind of a shock to the system for some guys, so … we’re really going to have to keep our thumb on everyone just to make sure that they’ve got what they need academically.”

For incoming freshmen at the junior college level, they only have to meet requirements to be accepted to the school to be eligible to compete in athletics right away. There isn’t an academic requirement until after their first semester—12 hours and a 2.0 GPA.

“Now, playing in the spring they’re going to be second-semester participants, so there are going to be some academic requirements there for freshmen that haven’t always been there,” Forchtner said.

Someone choosing to bypass the December signing period at the Division I level and play in the spring season could run the risk of not being academically eligible, and then they’ve lost a year.

“Between a fall semester and a spring semester, there’s just a Christmas break, so if you’re going fall-spring, you have a little buffer in the summer where if somebody needs some summer school, they can do that, but it’s hard to get classes in the winter. So there’s really not a whole lot of room for error, that’s been kind of removed.”

Schaffner categorized the Spring 2020 semester as a “throwaway” semester with COVID-19 shutting down college campuses with, in some cases, weeks to go before finals. “This got sprung on everybody, so the rules were a little bit lax for us in the spring,” he said. Beginning on Aug. 10, Butler will have students back in the classroom.

While the FBS level of football waits for a clear path forward, the NJCAA seems to have one. Coaches have direction.

“I’d imagine we’re going to continue to get more details,” Forchtner said. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff that has to be worked out.”

“Our function, especially in these times,” Schaffner said, “is to get these kids on to the next level and continue to advance their educational and playing careers.”

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