The Big Ten’s decision to play a shortened football season starting in late October highlighted the fluidity of sports during COVID-19, and the hosts of college football’s all-star games find themselves facing similar uncertainty. As a number of players still won’t play football this fall, showcase games have taken on increased importance this year given the exposure they bring pro prospects.
As hosts try to plan during an unprecedented year—figuring out protocols, changes to the games or connected events, fan attendance (there were 38,252 spectators at last year’s Senior Bowl, almost 13,000 attended the East-West Shrine Bowl), and potential moves in the NFL’s draft calendar—they’re also trying to figure out what to do for players facing canceled or delayed seasons. To that end, the Reese’s Senior Bowl is looking at expansion options that include bringing those athletes to Mobile, Ala. a week early for the 2021 game, slated for Jan. 30.
“We plan on having all of those guys in our game,” said Jim Nagy, Senior Bowl executive director and a former NFL scout. All prospects, regardless of their conference or school’s plans, were eligible to make the Senior Bowl’s 2021 Top 250 list. “It would always be beneficial to get another year of tape, and it’s impossible to account for the guys that really bust out as seniors, but we can only go on what we have. We want everyone who plays in the Senior Bowl to put their best foot forward in front of the 32 teams, and if that means to bring them in for an extra week and move to a two-week format for those guys to help, we’re exploring that as well.”
An extra season of development can make a world of difference: 2020’s top draft pick Joe Burrow was projected to go in round five prior to his senior season at LSU.
For those without that opportunity this fall, an additional week would give players extra time to acclimate and condition before resuming full-contact football. It would also give the nearly 1,000 NFL-related attendees more time to scout the players live, as opposed to relying on year-old film.
Nagy said teams would “absolutely” have interest in the additional time to watch prospects they didn’t see in person this season, given that they’re “going to be behind the eight-ball when it comes to the information-gathering part of the scouting process.”
Any impressions made that could get those prospects picked earlier in the draft process could be worth thousands—and sometimes millions—of dollars.
Others are taking a different approach and leaving some prospects to fend for their own exposure. The NFLPA released the first iteration of its 2021 Collegiate Bowl Big Board in August and did not feature any athletes from the Big Ten, Pac-12 or other conferences that canceled fall sports. The game has not yet decided if those players will receive an invitation to participate in the Jan. 23 contest.
“The caveat we put on this year’s Big Board was that we’re only listing prospects who are definitely playing a season,” said Brandon Parker, NFLPA communications manager. “I would definitely stop short of saying we wouldn’t invite [players in conferences without a scheduled fall season] to the game, it’s just hard to say at this point because this virus and the pandemic changes by the day. I will say, at this point, nobody is excluded from participating in our game even if they aren’t on the board.”
Despite the resumption of Big Ten football, hundreds of other NFL hopefuls are still without a fall season. Play remains on pause in the Pac-12 as well as in the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference, home to 35 FBS teams between the three. Old Dominion, a member of Conference USA, and three independents—UConn, UMass and New Mexico State —decided to postpone as well. Eight FCS conferences have canceled or postponed fall play to spring, including the Ivy League, Patriot League and Big Sky.
“We’re still exploring all options to make sure we comply with all health and safety protocols but also make sure our prospects and player participants get the exposure they need,” Parker added. The Collegiate Bowl, in particular, prides itself on supporting prospects from smaller schools each year, many of whom are not playing.
Increasing roster size to accommodate for a few extra players is a possibility Nagy and others are exploring, though that would depend on the NFL adjusting roster limits. Those in charge of the East-West Shrine Bowl game are considering a number of scenarios—and while they’d like to consider adding additional spots, it isn’t feasible.
Despite understanding how “needed” exposure will be for players and coaching staffs this year, the game’s executive director, Bob Roller, said expanding its roster for 2021 would be too costly for the East-West Shrine Bowl, a charitable event, due to the “rather high extra expense that will occur under the COVID restrictions.” Those additional costs include testing and medical requirements—making expansion of any kind difficult for all games to consider without big financial backing.
“Everything is on the table, as well as up in the air, for the 2021 East-West Shrine Bowl. We are aware of the many challenges facing this year’s group of top prospects, and the challenges NFL scouts face without seeing the usual game film on these young men,” Roller said. “We take seriously our 100-year role in providing exposure for these prospects while promoting our cause of supporting Shriners Hospitals for Children. We are constantly monitoring the fluid situation with our partners and contacts within the NFL, college football community and the many scouting organizations.”