What is a super senior? This Kentucky football player could make history in opener
LEXINGTON – College football rosters this fall may look like something out of the Avengers.
Generally, it is not difficult to classify what class a college athlete is in. First-year players are freshmen. For the purposes of NCAA eligibility, second-year players are sophomores or redshirt freshmen depending on how many games they played in during their debut season. From there, players make take the typical progression from sophomores to juniors to seniors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered that system for the next four years.
Spring sports athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was cut short by the start of the pandemic. Recognizing the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-21 academic year, the NCAA extended that same concession to fall and winter sports athletes last season.
Kentucky is listing its football players based on their normal year of eligibility depending on how many games they played in during the 2020 season.
But what do we call athletes who played as seniors last season and elected to return to school for the extra year of eligibility? The college sports world has coalesced around the Avengers-esque term, “super seniors," a phrase previously used to describe any student who took longer than four years to graduate from high school or college.
“I've never used that term, but it's a great term, super seniors, for the guys that decided to come back,” Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops said this summer. “We greatly appreciate having that experience.”
Stoops' squad will include nine super seniors: wide receiver Josh Ali, center Luke Fortner, punter Colin Goodfellow, kickoff returner Zach Johnson, cornerback Quandre Mosely, linebacker William Nalty, tight end Justin Rigg, safety Davonte Robinson and kicker Matt Ruffolo.
Of that group, Fortner, Johnson, Rigg and Robinson are entering their sixth season at Kentucky. The other Wildcat super seniors are entering year No. 5 of college football as they previously had not used a redshirt season.
The Associated Press reported in February more than 1,000 2020 seniors were expected to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility this fall, but even among that group Rigg might be in a class of his own.
Almost all the sixth-year super seniors sat on the sideline for an entire redshirt season in their first five years on campus. The 6-foot-6, 261-pound Rigg will become one of only a handful of players in college football history to actually play in a game in six separate seasons next week in Kentucky’s season opener against Louisiana Monroe.
Prior to the 2018 season, players were not allowed to preserve a redshirt season if they appeared in even a single game, but athletes could be given back a year of eligibility with a medical hardship waiver if they missed the majority of a season due to injury. Rigg, who played in two games a freshman in 2016 before missing the rest of the season with a rib injury, fell into that category.
Even before the COVID-19 waivers were announced, the NCAA did allow for rare circumstances for an athlete to have his or her eligibility clock extended to a sixth year, but those scenarios only came into play when the athlete missed two full seasons due to injury.
Former Wildcat defensive lineman Phil Hoskins played the 2020 season under the sixth-year waiver. While Hoskins elected to enter the NFL draft rather than use the extra COVID-19 year, some players in his situation (like Minnesota defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway) did choose to return to college for a seventh season.
Due to the NCAA’s pre-2018 redshirt rules, they did not play at all in at least one of their first six years on campus though.
After his injury-shortened freshman season, Rigg played in all 39 games from 2017 to 2019. He played in 9 of 11 games in 2020, missing two games due to COVID-19 protocols. Those missed games played heavily on his mind when he decided to use the extra year of eligibility.
“I love football, I love Kentucky and I want to play at the next level,” Rigg said. “…With missing two games due to COVID, I felt it would be in my best interest to come back and help this team and push this team to become better. Really be a leader for my offense and the whole team. Just show the guys in my room, the younger guys, the right thing to do.
“I just felt coming back would be the best decision I could do to get to the next level.”
The majority of Kentucky’s super seniors return at key positions.
Fortner, the former starter at right guard, is moving to center for his last season of college football. Ali, Rigg and Ruffolo are returning starters at their positions. Robinson is a former starter who struggled in 2020 after missing all of the 2019 season with an injury.
“It was always a clear decision,” Robinson said. “I just knew I had a lot more to give, a lot more to prove. I didn’t want to end my year last year the way that it happened. Just in my mind, I was clear that I was coming back.”
The impact of super seniors could be felt for years to come as the 2020 underclassmen decide whether or not to use their extra seasons of eligibility, but Rigg’s exclusive club will likely remain small.
Do we call him a super senior after all?
“I don’t even know,” Rigg said with a laugh. “Super, super senior.”
Now, that’s a name worthy of the Avengers.