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The NCAA Rules that Will Help Penn State

By now, most commentators have started to move on to discussing just how bad the NCAA’s sanctions will leave the Penn State football program over the next few years. The worst case scenario, remote though possible, is that attrition over the next year or so leaves Penn State with so few football scholarship players that it decides to not field a team while it recovers. The current feeding frenzy, enabled by the NCAA’s relaxing of recruiting rules, plays a large part there.

The best case scenario is more widely debated. Most would agree that Penn State will not be contending for Big Ten titles, elite bowl games, or National Championships for a while even after their postseason ban ends. Some see them floundering in the Big Ten, maybe winning a game here and there as the best case. Other see some lower level bowl games, .500 seasons, and a big win here or there as a possibility.

Many factors will determine the outcome. Head coach Bill O’Brien will need to recruit for the next few years without a postseason to sell. Just as important is how Penn State manages their limited scholarship numbers and uses the exceptions outlined here to make the most of 15 initial scholarships and 65 overall per year. Here’s a closer look at how Penn State could use each of those.

“Unrecruited” Walk-Ons

Walk-ons are a part of all college programs. NCAA rules even tell you how many football walk-ons you should have: at least 20 at the start of fall camp to combine with your 85 scholarship players to reach the 105 student-athlete squad limit for preseason practice. That’s even in a sport with a huge scholarship limit, compared to some men’s teams splitting 4.5 scholarships amongst 20 or more athletes.

Not all walk-ons are created equal though. Most people are familiar with the recruited or preferred walk-on, an athlete not given a scholarship but guaranteed a roster spot and does not need to try out. But some walk-ons are not really walk-ons at all. Many receive extensive financial aid to attend school from the federal government, the state, and the school itself.

That’s Rare in Football Because of this NCAA Rule:

In football or basketball, a student-athlete who was recruited (see Bylaw 15.02.8) by the awarding institution and who receives institutional financial aid (as set forth in Bylaw granted without regard in any degree to athletics ability does not have to be counted until the student-athlete engages in varsity intercollegiate competition (as opposed to freshman, B-team, subvarsity, intramural or club competition) in those sports.

That’s difficult to parse, because the corollary to parts of the bylaw are more important here. If a walk-on is recruited and receives even non-athletics aid, he counts just like a scholarship athlete as soon as he appears in a football game. The flip side is if the athlete is not recruited, that provision does not apply.

Recruited means something different in NCAA financial aid rules than what most people believe it means.

An Athlete is Only Recruited if He:

  • Was provided an official visit to the campus;
  • Had arranged, in-person, off-campus contact with a coach; or
  • Was sent an NLI or other written scholarship offer.

The status of recruited or un-recruited is also school specific. So a school could call an athlete an unlimited number of times, have them on campus for unlimited unofficial visits, and evaluate them as many times as possible without changing the athlete’s status to recruited.

For Penn State, this presents an opportunity if they can capitalize on a certain group of recruits. Specifically, Penn State will be looking for in-state students who qualify for large amounts of need- or merit-based aid. Those students could potentially get much of their tuition paid by financial aid programs; Penn State could still heavily recruit them without triggering the “recruited” definition.

That will be tricky though because it means delaying scholarship offers until Penn State gets an idea of a prospect’s financial need and a solid picture of his academic record. And it means reserving scholarships for athletes from further away or who do not qualify for financial aid rather than focusing on traditional recruiting bases. But if the coaching staff can get kids to buy into coming to Penn State in such difficult times, perhaps they can get them to buy into finding out if they can fund their education another way.

Two-Year Scholarship Offers

Football is a headcount sport, meaning that all that matters is how many athletes are on scholarship, not how much scholarship they receive. As a result, almost all football scholarships offered are full scholarships. But Penn State needs to start thinking about scholarships differently, or more importantly, get recruits to think about scholarships differently.

Especially given that multi-year scholarships are the norm, all one year scholarships should be thought of as partial scholarships, covering either 25% or 20% of the total cost. While most athletes keep the scholarship they were offered their entire career, that portion is all that is guaranteed.

This could help Penn State overcome a curious math problem the NCAA presents. Penn State is limited to 15 initial counters per year for four years, that is 15 new scholarships awarded every year. Penn State is also limited to 65 total football players on scholarship per year. In the final year of the limits, Penn State will have awarded 15 scholarships to recruits over the last four years, for a total of 60. So where do the other five come from?

They might come from athletes red-shirting, but they could be new scholarships awarded. How? By using an exception the rule that each new scholarship awarded counts as an initial counter:

A student-athlete who has been in residence at the certifying institution for at least two academic years may receive athletically related financial aid for the first time without such aid counting as an initial award, provided the aid falls within the overall grant limitation.

So one option Penn State could offer recruits is to promise to put them on scholarship for their final two or three years, which prevents them from ever counting against the initial counter limit. That can be sold as a 50% scholarship.
If an athlete would rather not simply take Penn State’s word for it, the school could even sign them to a two- or three-year scholarship agreement two years in the future. The downside to this security is it makes the athlete recruited, so they would be limited in what types of financial aid they could receive those first two years.


There’s no shortage of “shirts” in football: red-shirts, medical red-shirts, and grey-shirts are the most common. But New Mexico State’s football and compliance staffs invented a new one: blue-shirts.

The short answer to “what is a blue-shirt” is any football player awarded a scholarship using this NCAA rule:

Bylaw A student-athlete not recruited (per Bylaw 15.02.8) by the institution who receives institutional financial aid (based in any degree on athletics ability) after beginning football practice becomes a counter but need not be counted as an initial counter until the next academic year if the institution has reached its initial limit for the year in question. However, the student-athlete shall be considered in the total counter limit for the academic year in which the aid was first received.

New Mexico State used the provision mostly to award scholarship to junior college transfers, but it could be used for any prospect. The school simply has to keep the athletes un-recruited (as defined above) and then award them scholarships after they arrive and start football practice. They will still count toward the total scholarship limit, but will not count toward the initial counter limit until the following year.

The most important year for Penn State to use this will be in the final year of their sanctions and the following year in order to quickly get back up to full scholarship numbers. After getting 15 recruits in the last year of the sanctions, if Penn State still has room under their 65 scholarship limit, they could use this provision to bring in more recruits, and count them against the following year’s normal limit of 25.

The challenges are twofold though. First, Penn State has to convince better athletes to not be recruited. That means no official visit, no home visit, and they do not get to participate in signing day. Second, Penn State needs to be careful about how they use initial counters on what is essentially credit. Take too many each year and it will seem like the sanctions are extended even longer.

Penn State faces many challenges in fielding a respectable football team over the next few years. But they have ways to ease the burden a little bit. The NCAA’s sanctions were designed to combat the football first culture at Penn State. In a way they might work, since to field the best football team possible, Penn State will need to run its football team more like one of its non-revenue sports.

Do you think Penn State can work around the rules enough to field a respectable team over the next four years? Tell us what you think in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

Great scholarship and recruiting information.

When can I sign A National Letter of Intent(NLI)? What is a signing period?

What is grey shirting?

What is the quiet period?

What is the evaluation period?

How does the NCAA define the evaluation of a prospective student-athlete?

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