Super seniors boost area football teams

Fifty area players will take advantage of an extra year of eligibility

Appalachian State wide receiver Corey Sutton, who opted out of last season during the COVID-19 pandemic, will be back for the Mountaineers in 2021 as one of the team’s 13 super seniors. (Brian Blanco / AP Photo)

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic cut short spring practice for teams around the nation as sports shut down just as most teams had returned to the practice field.

This March, as FBS teams — including the seven programs in North Carolina — get ready to have what they hope will be a full-length spring practice period, the pandemic is again having an impact.

Every team in the state has at least three players who are taking advantage of what’s being called the super senior rule. In anticipation of the pandemic wreaking havoc on team schedules and players losing time due to positive tests, contact tracing or opting out, the NCAA ruled that last season would not count against anyone’s eligibility. They made the same ruling for winter sports, such as basketball.

That creates a new class on football teams, in addition to freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. Super seniors are defined as players who would have been out of eligibility after the 2020 season but are taking advantage of the NCAA granting an extra year to all fall athletes.

Super seniors will not count against a team’s 85-scholarship limit next season. They’re also here to stay, at least for a while. Since the rule granted another year to everyone, that means that players who participated last year as freshmen still have four years of eligibility and will be super seniors in the 2024 season. The NCAA hasn’t yet ruled whether super seniors in any future seasons will also not count against their team’s scholarship limit.

Here’s a look at the super seniors each of the FBS teams in North Carolina are bringing back, from most to fewest.

Appalachian State — 13

Receiver Corey Sutton, a preseason first-team All-Sun Belt pick last year before opting out, is back. So is Baer Hunter, another preseason first-teamer. The Mountaineers also return kicker Chandler Staton, punter Xavier Subotsch, its top three receivers in Thomas Hennigan (47 catches, 616 yards), Malik Williams (41 for 536) and Jalen Virgil (22 for 225), as well as tight end Mike Evans (5 for 75).

On defense, App returns DB Kaiden Smith (74 tackles, 7 pass defenses), DL Demetrius Taylor (13 TFL, 6 sacks), Caleb Spurlin (4 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and Tommy Dawkins (10 tackles), LB Tim Frizzell (4 TFL, 1.5 sacks)

East Carolina — 9

The Pirates will have plenty of experience blocking for them this season, as three super seniors return to the offensive line. Guard Sean Bailey, who has started 17 games in the last two seasons, tackle Justin Chase, who played nine games for ECU last season after transferring from NC State, and Fernando Frye, who started at center last season after moving from guard, have all decided to return.

Linebackers Bruce Bivens, who was fourth on the team in tackles, and Aaron Ramseur (3 TFL, 1 sack), receivers Audie Omotosho (18 catches for 198 yards) and Jonathan Johnson (special teams), DB Warren Saba (2 interceptions, 1 TD) and punter Jonn Young also return.

Wake Forest — 9

The Deacs return their three senior captains from last season’s bowl game in DB Ja’Sir Taylor (2 interceptions, 1 TD), tight end Brandon Chapman (5 catches for 65 yards) and safety Luke Masterson (25 tackles). They also get back offensive linemen Terrance Davis (31 starts at Maryland) and Je’Vionte’ Nash (9 starts), receiver Donald Stewart (5 for 41), DL Sulaiman Kamara (15 tackles) and Miles Fox (11 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and DB Traveon Redd (5 TFL)

Charlotte — 8

The 49ers will be bolstered in the trenches with defensive linemen Mikel Horton (1 TFL), Siah Sa’o (7 tackles) and Joshua Bailey (5 TFL for Iowa State) and offensive linemen Hunter Kelly (3 starts) and Jon Jacobs (5 starts) all returning. Charlotte also gets back tight ends Ryan Carriere (4 catches for 19 yards) and Christian Roberson (5 for 64 in 2019), as well as linebacker Luke Martin (27 tackles).

North Carolina — 5

The Tar Heels return receiver Beau Corrales (13 catches for 238 yards) and tight end Garrett Walston (19 for 255) on offense. On defense, the Heels return edge rushers Tomon Fox (10.5 TFL, 7 sacks) and Tyrone Hopper (2 TFL, 2 sacks). Kicker Grayson Atkins is also back.

NC State — 3

The Wolfpack get back their leading receiver in Emeka Emezie (47 catches for 738 yards) and leading sacker in Daniel Joseph (6.5). OT Tyrone Riley returns from injury.

Duke — 3

The Blue Devils return center Jack Wohlabaugh, who is an All-ACC candidate, as well as long snapper John Taylor and kickoff specialist Jack Driggers.