Penn State works through scholarship limits

Penn State is dealing with unprecedented NCAA sanctions, and the unprecedented nature means that the program is still working its way through all the potential potholes.

The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News' Audrey Snyder has a fascinating series of stories Friday about how the Nittany Lions are learning to deal with the sanctions, particularly when it comes to the scholarship limits. She writes:

"As much as the sanctions were examined when they were announced, the penalties against Penn State present questions the coaches and compliance officers are still learning to answer.

"[Head coach Bill] O’Brien examines the NCAA handbook regularly, highlighting questions and going to his bosses for answers. The staff continues to be proactive about the situation, formulating a recruiting strategy for the next four to five years and putting out small fires as they flare up.

“'Data really isn’t out there in the public realm to see how something like this unfolds,' Penn State associate athletic director for compliance and student-athlete services, Matt Stolberg said recently. 'Compliance people usually aren’t in high demand, but here we pretty much talk about football scholarship numbers on a daily basis.'"

One of the lesser-known clauses in the NCAA punishment allows players to stay on full scholarship even if they decide to leave the team and just become regular students. Any player who was on the roster when the sanctions were announced last summer can take this option before they graduate.

That clause was intended to help the players, but it could hurt the team. That's because those scholarships will count against Penn State's football scholarship limit, which lowers to an NCAA-mandated 65 next year. Those scholarships can't be revoked unless the former players fail to meet academic requirements, which include GPA and credit-hour benchmarks.

Snyder writes that three former players have exercised that option to stay on scholarship, including ex-linebacker Dakota Royer, who did the team a favor by graduating early. Still, that clause may pose an even bigger threat to Penn State's depth than the one that allows players to transfer without penalty up until this year's fall practice, because it would mean even fewer scholarships available. O'Brien has said he expects to have 67 scholarship players this fall, a year before the 65-scholarship limit sets in. That's not counting transfers or players who leave the team but get to keep their scholarship.

O'Brien's celebrated "run-on" program is supposed to help bridge the gap. But, as Snyder writes, there are some complications with bringing in non-scholarship players as well. Penn State's compliance department will have to monitor closely whether any of those walk-ons can receive academic scholarships or outside financial aid and still not be counted as a football scholarship. The Lions are allowed only 15 "initial scholarship counters" for four years under the sanctions, and a walk-on can be counted among those if he receives financial aid and meets the NCAA definition of a recruit, which includes things as simple as meeting with a coach off campus.

Snyder explains:

"This means if a walk-on was recruited by the NCAA’s definition, receives institutional aid from Penn State or any outside academic award, and then participates in a game, he will count as one of the Nittany Lions’ 65 scholarships. It doesn’t matter that the award isn’t deemed a “football scholarship” because it’s for academics, it still has to be counted as if it was a football scholarship.

"The rule was put in place by the NCAA to make sure schools weren’t bolstering their athletic programs by giving players aid for academics instead of football scholarships. ... In the future, Penn State could start a season with fewer than 65 scholarship players because they might need to allow for a cushion in case a handful of walk-ons meeting the criteria see playing time."

Snyder writes that Penn State may have to entice potential walk-ons only by email, because any phone calls or visits could turn them into the NCAA's definition of a recruit. Walk-ons would have to visit campus on their own and talk to the coaches there.

These stories illustrate some of the many, many challenges O'Brien and Penn State will have to deal with for the next few years.