What 2020 “Free Year” of Fall Eligibility Means for Gopher Football

Photo: Joe Maiorana - USA TODAY Sports

There’s a piece to this 2020 college football season that isn’t getting enough time or space from media outlets around the country and it plays a major role in the immediate future of the Minnesota Gophers. The change could mean more for 2021, than it does this for this shortened 2020 season.

The fall sports year, which is currently unfolding, doesn’t really count. Well, it doesn’t count toward a fall athlete’s four years of college eligibility.

Tanner Morgan will play 2020 as a Junior. If he is still in a Gopher uniform for 2021, he will still be a junior. On top of that, seniors who want to stay for 2021 won’t count against standard roster limits for that season. Those are pretty mind-blowing new rules. When all the dust settles, they could be remembered as the biggest rule changes in all major sports, caused by COVID-19.

Instead of trying to wrap my head around what a “free year” could mean for college football at large, I decided on a micro-view of the situation. Let’s look at the biggest ways this 2020 “free year” of fall eligibility will impact our hometown Minnesota Golden Gopher football team.

QB Position Looks Good For Awhile

Gopher QB/Commit202020212022202320242025
Tanner MorganJr (RS)Jr (RS)Sr (RS)
Zack AnnexstadSo (RS)So (RS)Jr (RS)Sr (RS)
Jacob ClarkFr (RS)Fr (RS)So (RS)Jr (RS)Sr (RS)
Cole KramerFr (RS)Fr (RS)So (RS)Jr (RS)Sr (RS)
Athan KaliakmanisFrSoJrSr(RS)

The Quarterback position shouldn’t be a concern for the foreseeable future. They have one of the top QB’s in the conference and across the country, with Tanner Morgan. Behind him sits a former #1 quarterback, Zack Annexstad. Tanner got his shot at starter, in part, because of Zack’s injury in August of 2019.

If Morgan has a big year (as expected), he’s expected to leap to the NFL draft in which case Annexstad would then get the offensive reins back. In theory, that would give Zack THREE (2021, 2022, 2023) full seasons as the starting QB.

Behind the two upperclassmen are Minnesotans, (RS Fr) Cole Kramer and Texan, (RS Fr) Jacob Clark. Both guys have gotten their feet wet for a few plays of major college football but we really don’t know what the future looks like for either one. PJ Fleck did his weekly radio show (KFAN) tonight, and talked about how much he likes their progress from 2019 to 2020 so that’s promising.

Don’t you dare forget about Athan Kaliakmanis, who will join this talented group in the spring. Athan has been all but crowned the future QB1 by PJ Fleck and the Minnesota staff. He’s a 4-star pro-style QB out of Illinois and he’s a beauty. With the free year of eligibility, the Gophers have legitimate QB options through 2024 (’25 if Athan redshirts in 2021).

No Redshirts — Lots of Freshman on Special Teams

Every student athlete can play an unlimited amount of football in 2020 and still retain the same eligibility for 2021. Because of that, coaches won’t have to redshirt anyone. There is no four-game redshirt rule anymore, which limited players in four or less games per year, in order to keep redshirt eligibility. Technically, everyone is a redshirt.

That means younger players could see more playing time, specifically on special teams. Many times, a major college football special teams unit hosts a lot of walk-ons and veteran back-ups. This is party due to college football redshirt rules. Coaches want to keep the eligibility of younger players, if they can’t yet contribute on offense or defense. Why “burn” a season if a player isn’t ready to contribute? That doesn’t help anyone.

The special teams unit will still be full of backups. Instead of the older, less skilled players though, I expect more young, raw and skilled backups; guys who would normally be redshirted and limited to four or less games in a season. We can also hope more talent on special teams equals better play on special teams.

Experience and Skill at Offensive Line… Hopefully

Entering 2020, the Minnesota Gopher offensive line was a position of strength. They’ve grown together into a veteran group, full of future NFL talent. Our projected depth chart has three seniors and one junior who are considered starters. But, everything isn’t rainbows and butterflies in the trenches of Dinky Town.

There seems to be plenty of consternation in the o-line room these days and we don’t know who will even start on the line opening night vs Michigan. Daniel Faalele hasn’t been practicing and Curtis Dunlap Jr was opted out at one point, just to opt back in days later. Faalele isn’t expected to play vs Michigan and nobody knows what’s expected of Dunlap Jr.

The uncertain status of the OL makes this “free year” even more important for Minnesota. Now all of those seniors could hypothetically come back for 2021, making what would have been an OL in transition, a possible strength.

Other (Smaller) Things to Note with “Free Year”

— More Wildcat

Seth Green was supposed to be a Senior this season and he still might leave when it’s over. He does have the opportunity to come back, however, which keeps Minnesota’s wildcat dreams alive for just a little bit longer.

— Girth of Talent at Running Back

The talent piling up at running back right now for PJ Fleck and Co, is getting to be ridiculous. Mo Ibrahim will carry the 2020 weight but there’s no chance that guys like Cam Wiley, Trey Potts, and/or Ky Thomas aren’t chomping for carries by 2021.

On top of that, the Gophers highest rated 2020 prospect is Mar’Keise Irving, a 4-star running back out of Illinois.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan