DeMarcus Walker, a four-star defensive end who switched his commitment from Alabama to Florida State, is currently sitting out awaiting certification by the NCAA Eligibility Center. According to a series of tweets by Walker, the NCAA is reviewing a potential “fake class” and may have been tipped off to the fake class by Alabama. So two questions: why is this just coming up now and what are the chances that Walker’s accusation against Alabama is credible?
Walker participated in offseason conditioning before missing spring practice and being removed from the roster for the time being. That timeline can be explained by the NCAA’s 45-day temporary certification period. Between the timing of his commitment and FSU’s need to fit in the eight weeks of student-athlete discretionary time, the opening week of practice might have been the first activity Walker missed. Hence it is only now he is speaking out.
The timing of Walker’s certification also explains why it might be taking so long. The NCAA Eligibility Center is focused on two time periods: July-September and November-December. There is not the army of additional temp workers that help with the fall certification crush. Walker’s case is also likely not considered urgent by the Eligibility Center since he has no pending competition until next fall. And if the problem is a suspect course, Walker’s case would be with the High School Review team, not working through the standard academic certification process.
Which brings us to Walker’s emoji accusation against the Crimson Tide. Graduating early from high school is not always as easy as it sounds. School lose tax revenue when pupils leave early, so some districts are reluctant to allow prospects to graduate in December or January. The NCAA’s requirement of four years of English means in most cases that after the fall semester of senior year, an athlete is still short one English course.
What this means is that early enrollee football recruits often take the type of nontraditional courses or graduate from the type of nontraditional high schools that draw NCAA scrutiny. If Alabama was advising Walker on how to graduate early, they would know whether he was enrolled in any nontraditional courses, the nature of those courses, and likely Walker’s progress in those courses. If Alabama was not working with Walker toward early enrollment, that fact alone would raise red flags with the NCAA, if Walker was on track to graduate and qualify after the spring but enrolled in January at Florida State.
The logical leaps to Alabama having the information that would hold up Walker’s certification are short. Whether they used that information is pure speculation though. If they did, it would be foolish though. Midyear enrollee football players are already scrutinized by the NCAA. The High School Review team does not need additional help catching nontraditional courses taken to graduate early. No reason to risk interfering with an athlete’s certification when the NCAA is likely to dig deep on its own.
But as 2016 approaches and initial eligibility requirements go up, schools get better at advising and counseling their prospects through the academic certification process, and assuming football recruiting stays the same, expect more of these cases.
Traditionally programs have withheld some help from recruits before the sign precisely because of what happened to Alabama in this case. Why invest the time and effort to help an athlete qualify if he ends up playing for a competitor? Rule changes have forced coaches’ hands though. Outlawing quick fixes and reducing the number of courses an athlete can take his senior year mean athletes must be advised before they sign.
Accusations of retaliation are likely to start flying more regularly. Schools will have more information about the academic status of athletes, including the potentially suspect but ultimately permitted methods used to catch up with eligibility requirements or get ahead for early graduation. If football recruiting continues to be defined by decommitments and flipping of recruits, expect schools to use that information to go on the offensive against their former commits.