Walkon To Scholarship

Apr 11, 2021

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I'll try to keep this one short (and I will fail). I've been wanting to write about the four walkons going on scholarship, but I wanted to wait until I had all the facts. This afternoon's press conference with Bret Bielema allowed me to ask the question to get the facts.

I'll just walk you through the information I wanted to know before writing about it. Maybe a list is best.

  • I was on the Zoom call with the four walkons on Thursday. If you missed the news, LB Alec McEachern, CB Tailon Leitzsey, LB (now TE) Michael Marchese, and S Christian Bobak were all put on scholarship at a team meeting on Tuesday night. If you haven't seen it, the video is here.
  • Knowing a little about the story of his journey from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis to walking on at Illinois, I asked him to tell the story. You might have seen his answer in this tweet from the Illini Football account.
  • Getting off that Zoom call, I feel a bit uncomfortable. Mostly because the questions during the Zoom were all pointed towards these players "being on scholarship now". I even asked Christian Bobak questions about next fall. But often, walkons getting scholarships are just one-year or even one-semester deals.
  • Basically, my thought was this: I don't want to write about any of these walkon-to-scholarship-player stories until I know the extent of the scholarship. Sometimes, like Donny Navarro, a walkon moves past all the starters, grabs a starting spot, and deserves to be on scholarship because of playing time. They'll likely stay on scholarship throughout their time at the school. Other times, like with Bobby Walker a few years ago, there's a scholarship open, it's given to a hard-working walkon who deserves it, but the next year, no extra scholarships are open and the player goes back to walkon status.

So I felt like I needed to know how Bret Bielema approaches these situations. Today was the first opportunity to ask him, so that's what I did. Here's my questions and his answers:

I probably need to explain some of that before we can discuss it.

NCAA scholarship rules state that you get 85 scholarships and no more than 25 of those scholarships can be given out to one recruiting class. Scholarships are also for four years. Players have five years to play four seasons, so they can take a redshirt at some point in there, but if they do, the fifth year is at the discretion of the coaching staff.

"25" is probably the most important number in there. To prevent coaches from kicking a bunch of players off their roster and replacing them with 35 new recruits every year, The Houston Nutt Rule was put into effect. You can sign up to 28 players (because not all recruits will qualify academically), but by the time that class enrolls, you can't have more than 25 "new" players (including transfers). You can backdate (say you only had 21 in the previous class - well, you can bring in four early enrollees, backdate them to the previous class, and now you can bring in 29 players that offseason). You can also front-date (blueshirt) by adding a player who wasn't ever "recruited" and he applies to the next recruiting class. None of that really matters here - I'm off track.

The difference this year is that the NCAA lifted the 85 scholarship limit for 2021. No one used a year of eligibility during Covid, so any "super seniors" who return would technically be preventing freshmen from enrolling because the cap of 85 scholarships would be exceeded. The NCAA saw that and said that for one year, there's no limit on scholarships. You're still capped at 25 per class, so it's not like some SEC school could take advantage of the one-year rule change and bring in 45 freshmen, but for this one year, there's no "85".

OK, now we can go through Bielema's answers.

"The guys I put on scholarship had been in the program for more than two semesters ... so it doesn't take an 'initial'".

He's saying that by putting these players on scholarship, because they've all been here at least two semesters, they don't count towards the "25" for this recruiting class. It's not like this takes four spots away from this year's "25".

"It's on a one-year basis - a renewable basis - and I was very up front with the guys that I put on that that was through the spring of this year."

He went on to note that the scholarships are retroactive to the beginning of this semester but that they can't be made retroactive to last fall as well (it has to start when he arrived). So these scholarships handed out to these four players cover spring and summer tuition (and room & board, and fees/etc), and then they'll re-evaluate the scholarship counts in the fall.

That led perfectly into my next question. Normally, what he said there (these scholarships are good for spring and summer and then we'll have to see where we're at in the fall) would mean that there's very little chance these scholarships would extend into the fall. A school might have four open scholarships in the spring, but it's rare that a school would have four open rides the next fall as well. If those scholarships are open, they've likely been taken by an incoming freshman or a transfer.

But this fall is a "no limit" fall. There is no "85" (for one year). If bringing the "super seniors" back doesn't put them over any scholarship limits, could the same be said for some of these walkons? Normally the answer is "here's your spring scholarship son; please note that it's unlikely there will be a scholarship open in the fall once the freshmen get here", but this year, would it be as simple as "we're at 97 scholarship players already - let's just push it to 101"?

His answer:

"The super-senior rule does obviously change the recruiting numbers, but as far as the number of players we can add on to scholarship, it definitely affects that, so there are limitations as we go forward."

I'm not sure I understand the specific math there (I'm sure the NCAA is scrambling to clarify questions like this as we enter this unprecedented "no cap at 85" season), but that's the answer: it's not as simple as "no scholarship limit? Put 25 walkons on scholarship for a year". There are limitations on that.

He went on to clarify that some of these guys put on scholarship are, in effect, "super seniors" with one year remaining but some have two years remaining. So I think you can see how these decisions will be fairly complicated.

After that he went back to my first question and talked about the "one year, renewable" thing. JJ Watt arrived at Wisconsin as a walkon (after transferring from Central Michigan), and when he was put on scholarship by Bielema, it was "one year, renewable". Seems like a fair policy to me. If JJ Watt was given a "here's a scholarship for this year, but you'll need to earn it again next year" ride, then every walkon is going to get an "earn it next year" ride.

Which probably means that even Donny Navarro will have to earn his scholarship next fall. Same with Alex Pihlstrom. The were walkons, moved onto scholarship, but 2021 isn't 2020 and they'll need to prove to the staff that they deserve one of the scholarships.

It's interesting to me that Michael Marchese is one of the guys we're talking about here given that his brother went through the same scenario. His brother Jimmy, along with Bobby Walker, earned scholarships from Lovie Smith on Christmas Day a few years ago. But that was just for one season, and it wasn't renewed, so Jimmy Marchese played his final year of eligibility at Richmond (while Bobby Walker stayed at Illinois and, if I recall correctly, played his final season as a walkon again).

That's kind of how these things work. I'm guessing Jimmy Marchese had a decision between a walkon senior year at Illinois and a partial scholarship senior year at Richmond and he chose Richmond. His brother might get similar offers and do the same. Or his brother might have a scholarship for next year as well.

All we really know right now is that these four players earned scholarships for this spring semester. It will also pay for the summer semester, so the players can get two semesters-worth of free classes (and room & board) with these new scholarships. But after that, there will be decisions made this fall. And you might see any of four scenarios:

1. The players are put on scholarship again for next season.
2. The players return but they're walkons again.
3. The players choose to move on and play out their eligibility somewhere else.
4. The players finish out their current degree track in the spring and summer and then head out into the real world looking for a job this fall.

I'm not trying to be a downer here. Honest. In the past, I've purchased the game-worn jerseys of Illini walkons as a way to honor their blood, sweat, and unpaid tears. I love a good walkon-to-scholarship story. Can't get enough of teammates celebrating with walkons right after they were put on scholarship.

It's just that with the way the questions were going in the press conference, I closed my laptop quite concerned. There's a chance some of these walkons graduate next month and leave school and you're going to say "but I thought he was just put on scholarship six weeks ago?". You'll be right, but they'll also be gone.

There's also a chance some of these guys are scholarship players in 2021 and 2022. They might prove themselves in the spring game, further prove themselves on the field next fall, and the coaches will have to fight off other P5 programs wanting them to grad transfer next spring. That's what Prather Hudson did. He worked his way up to a scholarship at Georgia but A) didn't know if that scholarship would be renewed in 2021 and B) wanted more playing time so he graduated and transferred to Illinois. You might see some of these guys do the same.

What's the point of this post? I just felt like we needed to have a conversation about how it all works. There will likely be "wait, {insert player name here} isn't back?" conversations in the future, and that will make the celebration video feel a little hollow, so I wanted to explain the dynamics of this whole thing.

These players worked hard and earned their spot. Their schooling was likely already paid for this spring, so that's going to be a nice check coming their way. It's an excellent thank-you for all the hard work. If these scholarships were open, it makes me wonder why Lovie didn't do this for these same walkons last fall (although it's possible the Covid budget shortfalls had something to do with it).

But there's still more work to do. The scholarships will need to be earned again next fall, so these last two weeks of spring ball are no time to let up. Next step: earn a scholarship for next fall.


CapitalCityOutlaw50 on April 11, 2021 @ 01:23 PM

Why I pay. A succinct, understandable explanation of something I don't understand.

With a human element.


IlliniBobLoblaw on April 12, 2021 @ 04:23 PM

Why I pay


SactownIllini on April 11, 2021 @ 06:16 PM

Very unexpected informative post. I thought it was going to be more Rah Rah. Fantastic job!!

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