Key College Football Super Seniors Using Extra Year of Eligibility for 2021
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA ruled that the 2020 college football season would not count against anyone's eligibility clock. This means that seniors who normally would have been forced to move on to the next chapter of their lives were given the option to return for one more "super senior" year, if you will.
Trying to keep track of who has, who hasn't and who still might exercise that option for one final ride in 2021 has been a significant challenge, but there have been a bunch of key players who have announced their plans to come back in the fall.
How much of a boost will those returning veterans provide to their respective teams?
Could guys like Indiana's Ty Fryfogle, Miami's D'Eriq King and North Carolina's Tomon Fox help push their squads from "ranked in the Nos. 12-22 range" to "legitimately vying for a national championship" next year? Or might noteworthy returnees at Arkansas, Nebraska and Rutgers help those teams snap out of their lengthy streak of losing seasons?
Please note this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every fifth-year senior in the country. These are merely some of the biggest names that we know are returning.
Players from Power Five programs are listed in alphabetical order by school, followed by a few key Group of Five players.
Arkansas Razorbacks: Grant Morgan (LB) and Ty Clary (OL)
Getting an extra year out of a player named first-team All-SEC is kind of a huge deal, especially for a team like Arkansas, which isn't able to restock its cupboards with top-notch recruits like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M can.
That first-team player was Grant Morgan, who led the nation in total tackles per game in 2020 at a rate of 12.3. Against both LSU and Ole Miss, he racked up 19 tackles and a sack. He also had a pick-six late in the win over the Rebels.
With Morgan, fellow linebacker Bumper Pool, safety Jalen Catalon and several other starters returning in 2021, perhaps Arkansas will finally be able to make some improvements on defense. We're certainly not expecting the Hogs to turn into the Steel Curtain or anything, but maybe they could hold opponents below 34 points per game for the first time since 2016?
And while they'll need to replace quarterback Feleipe Franks, the offensive line looks to be in good shape as Ty Clary will return with more than 30 career starts to his name.
Given Sam Pittman's long history as an offensive line coach before taking the head coach job at Arkansas, it was already a reasonable expectation that position group would become a major strength for the Razorbacks before long. Clary's decision to stick around could help expedite that process.
Clemson Tigers: James Skalski (LB)
James Skalski was already one of the oldest guys on Clemson's roster, as the fifth-year senior took a redshirt season in 2018.
He probably could have gone pro after a 2019 season in which he recorded 90 tackles, but he felt he still had unfinished business at Clemson, in part because he was ejected for targeting in the national championship loss to LSU.
Similar story this year, as he was thrown out of Clemson's CFP semifinal for targeting Ohio State's Justin Fields. Skalski was also a bit banged up in 2020, only appearing in nine of Clemson's 12 games, so maybe—in a year without a conventional draft combine—he wanted another chance to remind NFL draft scouts what he's capable of doing when he's healthy.
Whatever his reason, it was a huge positive for Clemson.
The Tigers have a ton of young talent at linebacker, most notably 2021 top-40 overall recruits Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., as well as 2020 5-star recruit Trenton Simpson. But if Skalski had left, middle linebacker would have been the team's biggest question mark heading into the 2021 season. As is, it's hard to find a clear weakness with Clemson, per usual.
(Clemson safety Nolan Turner is also returning for a fifth season, so they will have two super-veteran leaders on defense.)
Indiana Hoosiers: Ty Fryfogle (WR)
Indiana was one of the biggest breakout teams of the 2020 season. The Hoosiers should have gotten a spot in a New Year's Six bowl, what with a 6-1 record and their only loss coming on the road by seven points against a team that played in the national championship. Not too shabby for a program that last finished a season in the AP poll in 1988.
One of the biggest reasons for that breakout was a wide receiver they call "Ty Fry."
Ty Fryfogle set a career high with 142 receiving yards in the early November win over Michigan. Seven days later, he re-set his career high with 11 receptions for 200 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Michigan State. And then seven days after that, he did it again with 218 yards and three scores in the aforementioned valiant effort against Ohio State.
His numbers plummeted from there, but that's largely because starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. suffered a torn ACL in the next game against Maryland and his replacement, Jack Tuttle, doesn't have anywhere near the same cannon as Penix.
Assuming Penix makes a full recovery in time for the season opener, it won't be long before they resume their deep-down-the-sideline connection.
Iowa State Cyclones: A Whole Bunch
Good luck finding a roster making better use of the extra year of eligibility than Iowa State.
Not only did QB Brock Purdy, TE Charlie Kolar and LB Mike Rose all turn down the option of declaring early for the NFL draft, but OL Sean Foster, DL Eyioma Uwazurike, LB Jake Hummel, DB Greg Eisworth II and backup TE Chase Allen will all return as super seniors. Even veteran kicker Connor Assalley is back for a Cyclones team barely losing anyone of note.
It's hard to even decide which of those returnees is most important.
Foster started all 12 games at left tackle in 2020 and did a fantastic job of protecting Purdy's blind side. At 1.17 sacks allowed per game, the Cyclones led the Big 12 in that department. Factor in the holes that they created for Breece Hall and Co. to run through and there's a strong argument to be made that Iowa State already had the second-best offensive line in the country (behind Alabama, of course).
Hummel ranked second on the team in total tackles. Uwazurike had 8.0 tackles for loss, which is mighty impressive for a defensive tackle. And Eisworth has tallied 200 tackles and 22 passes defended over the past three seasons. That's a key fifth-year starter at all three levels of the defense.
This past season was already one of the best in Iowa State program history, and now the Cyclones might legitimately vie for a spot in the 2021 College Football Playoff.
Miami Hurricanes: D'Eriq King (QB), Jarrid Williams (OL), Mike Harley Jr. (WR)
When the Hurricanes snagged quarterback D'Eriq King and offensive tackle Jarrid Williams as graduate transfers from Houston, they were presumed to be one-year rentals who could perhaps help get Miami's passing game back on track after three straight difficult seasons.
Half of that was true. Miami's aerial attack definitely improved. King completed better than 64 percent of his pass attempts for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns with just five interceptions. And his mobility in the pocket was a huge plus. Akron was the only team to lose more yards on sacks in 2019 than Miami, but King cut that number way down while also serving as an ever-present threat to run for a huge gain.
The half that wasn't true was the one-year rental, as both the QB and his starting RT are coming back in 2021.
So is the team's leading receiver, Mike Harley Jr., who racked up 57 receptions for 799 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020, leading the 'Canes in all three categories.
Even better, Miami went back to the transfer portal and got Charleston Rambo from Oklahoma. He struggled this past season, but Rambo made 43 catches for 743 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. He and Harley should be one heck of a one-two punch.
On defense, Zach McCloud is coming back for a sixth season. He has 164 total tackles as a linebacker over the past five years, but he might be sliding down to defensive end out of necessity, given all the 'Canes lost from that position group. Either way, he'll be a welcome veteran presence in that defensive front seven.
(They also got former Georgia defensive back Tyrique Stevenson from the portal, which might be the biggest offseason news of all because that secondary desperately needed some help.)
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Half of the Defense
For the first half of Nebraska's eight-game season, its defense was rather dreadful. The Cornhuskers allowed at least 490 total yards to each of Ohio State (forgivable), Penn State (less forgivable) and Illinois (how in the world does that happen?).
Over the latter half of the season, though, they were substantially better. Each of those four opponents was held below 28 points, and they allowed just 323.3 total yards per game. Had they done that for the entire season, they would have landed just between Georgia (321.0) and Cincinnati (324.6) in the national rankings. That's great company.
That improvement would have been all for naught if all the seniors had left, as Nebraska's four leading tacklers—LB JoJo Domann, LB Will Honas, S Deontai Williams and S Marquel Dismuke—were supposed to run out of eligibility in 2020.
Instead, they all had the option of coming back and used it. Defensive end Ben Stille is also coming back for a fifth season, so the defense should be in great shape.
Nebraska also still has QB Adrian Martinez for at least one more season and looks like a major breakout candidate if you squint just a little bit.
UNC Tar Heels: Tomon Fox (LB), Beau Corrales (WR) and Garrett Walston (TE)
The Tar Heels are losing running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. That quartet had a combined total of 9,090 total yards from scrimmage and 81 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
With Beau Corrales and Garrett Walston coming back, at least QB Sam Howell will have some familiar faces to work with. Their numbers pale in comparison to those of the four departures, but Corrales and Walston combined for 32 receptions, 493 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.
They'll provide a veteran presence in what otherwise figures to be a young receiving corps. Josh Downs, Khafre Brown and Emery Simmons all have serious breakout potential but minimal collegiate experience.
And on defense—where North Carolina desperately needs to improve if it wants to be a real contender in 2021—at least the Tar Heels will be getting one more year out of their top pass-rusher. Tomon Fox led the team in both tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (7.0) in 2020. He also had a team-best 7.0 sacks in 2019. The sixth-year senior now has 21.5 sacks in his career.
Chazz Surratt has soaked up most of the spotlight over the past couple of years, but it should now be Fox's time to shine.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Bo Melton (WR) and a Ton of Defenders
Rutgers' senior class was absolutely massive: 40 players.
Not all 40 players were key contributors, but most of the leaders will return in 2021.
Without question, Bo Melton was the biggest star of the offense. He led the Scarlet Knights in receptions (47), yards (638) and receiving touchdowns (six). He also had six carries for 69 yards and two more scores. With him back for a fifth year, perhaps the Scarlet Knights can remain a middle-of-the-pack scoring offense in the Big Ten.
But if they're going to actually compete in this conference for the first time since 2014, they need to make some major improvements on defense.
The good news is that most of the defensive leaders are back, many of them for a bonus year. Leading tackler Olakunle Fatukasi, third-leading tackler Tyshon Fogg, fifth-leading tackler Mike Tverdov, eighth-leading tackler Julius Turner and ninth-leading tackler Tre Avery are all utilizing the extra season of eligibility. (Second-leading tackler Christian Izien and fourth-leading tackler Avery Young were both juniors and are both expected to return, too.)
That's a whole lot of experience, and perhaps it'll finally result in respectable defense.
Rutgers has allowed at least 398.6 total yards per game in each of its seven seasons since joining the Big Ten. In four of those seven years (including 2020), the Scarlet Knights either ranked last or next-to-last in the league in yards allowed per game. Sharing a division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan is no joke, but they need to fix that problem all the same.
Group of Five Returnees
Coby Bryant, DB, Cincinnati
Getting QB Desmond Ridder back for a fourth season was probably the most important offseason news for Cincinnati, but a fifth year of Coby Bryant on defense is also a huge deal. Over the past three years, Bryant has seven interceptions, 24 other pass breakups and 122 total tackles. He and Ahmad Gardner were quite the pair of cornerbacks for a Bearcats defense that had 16 interceptions and allowed just seven passing touchdowns. They should be elite on D once again in 2021.
Scott Patchan, EDGE, Colorado State
Forget about fifth year or sixth year. Scott Patchan was originally part of Miami's 2015 recruiting class, making this his seventh season on a college football roster. Because of injuries, he didn't really start playing until 2018, and he didn't become a sack machine until he got to Colorado State this past fall, racking up 5.5 sacks in just four games. Let's see what the ageless wonder can do in a full season against Mountain West offensive linemen.
D'Vonte Price, RB, Florida International
Up until this past season, D'Vonte Price was buried on FIU's RB depth chart behind Napoleon Maxwell and Anthony Jones. But when he finally got the chance to become the featured back, he seized it, averaging 116.2 rushing yards per game for a Panthers offense that was otherwise just plain bad. Perhaps they can turn things around a bit now that they know they'll be in good shape in the backfield.
Dustin Crum, QB, Kent State
There are quite a few Group of Five quarterbacks utilizing the extra year of eligibility, including Louisiana's Levi Lewis, San Jose State's Nick Starkel and Ball State's Drew Plitt. The most intriguing of the bunch, though, is Dustin Crum. In 17 games dating back to the start of the 2019 season, Crum has 32 passing touchdowns and four interceptions to go along with 947 rushing yards and 10 more touchdowns. In 2017, Kent State averaged 12.8 points per game. This past season, the Golden Flashes were second in the nation at 49.8 points per game.
De'Montre Tuggle, RB, Ohio
Ohio only managed to play three games this past fall, two of those against MAC basement dwellers Akron and Bowling Green. So, take De'Montre Tuggle's stats with a grain of salt. But he averaged 134.3 rushing yards and 2.0 touchdowns per game, plus had 180 kick-return yards and a score. Two years ago, he led the MAC at 6.4 yards per carry, and the Bobcats were clearly dedicated to getting him more involved in the offense in 2020.