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JUCO football, broken down in 4 minutes

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Junior college football is quirky, but it’s important to everyone in the sport.

Netflix

Junior college football isn’t glamorous, but it’s important. The subject of a popular Netflix show is also a key talent pipeline for some of Division I’s most prestigious programs and a stopover for some of football’s most talented players, along with a way for thousands of players who won’t be going pro to advance their college careers outside of the NCAA.

Last Chance U has introduced a lot of people to this unique part of the sport’s ecosystem. Here’s how it works at the schools on the show and elsewhere.

JUCO football is vast, with 65 current teams across seven conferences (including a couple of independents).

The country has thousands of junior and community colleges. They play in the National Junior College Athletic Association. But most JUCOs don’t sponsor football, though there are still as many JUCO teams in football as there are Power 5 teams.

Some of these programs are dominant. East Mississippi Community College, the subject of Seasons 1 and 2 of Last Chance U, won four of the last six national titles through 2017. Blinn College in Texas (Cam Newton’s JUCO) and Butler Community College in Kansas won another nine championships between 1995 and 2017.

Other programs are horrible. The standard JUCO regular season is nine to 11 games long (it’s not as standardized as in the NCAA), and a bunch of teams go 1-10 or 2-8 every year. The quality of play at the worst JUCOs is way worse than at the nation’s top high schools.

California has a bunch of JUCO programs, but they’re in their own classification, not the mostly nation-wide NJCAA. Here’s where those teams are concentrated:

JUCO has an important role in Division I football, thanks to NCAA rules.

When a player at one FBS school transfers directly to another, he has to sit out a full season. He might not want to do that (or might not have any offers), so JUCO means another path.

The NCAA rulebook lets players avoid sitting out a season if they’ve a) spent at least one full-time semester or quarter at a JUCO and b) maintained at least a 2.5 GPA. As long as the player met standard eligibility requirements out of high school, he can use JUCO as a detour and then quickly head back to the Division I ranks.

But JUCO transfers aren’t necessarily about speeding up a timeline.

Some players don’t have many other options. JUCO is a way to keep playing college football for players who are ruled academically ineligible at a higher level. It’s also a place to go for players whose teams have booted them for disciplinary reasons.

Others might go to JUCO out of high school in an attempt to draw interest from Division I scouts. Eventual first-round NFL picks Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen did that after not getting much attention as recruits.

JUCO recruiting is a lot different than NCAA recruiting.

Some conferences have scrapped scholarship and roster limits altogether. There is no over-signing. There are no dead periods that slow recruiting to a near-halt.

Jason Brown, the head coach at Independence Community College, the team Netflix follows around in season 3 of Last Chance U, explains:

Football recruiting in junior college never ends. That’s our blood-life. When a tackle gets kicked out of Florida State on July 30, we need to go pick him up. We have to show we are the go-getters that have their ear to the ground and turn over rocks.

You always want to bring in the best players, and you want to bring ‘em in 30 deep, if you can. I believe competition breeds winning cultures.

It eliminates a lot of kids doing foolish things, too, because now you can cut Player A, and Player B’s just as good. That’s why we bring in so many numbers, and that’s why we recruit the nation.

We recruit until Day 1 of the season. And we recruit all season long for the next year’s class.

Every year, several big-time FBS prospects come from the JUCO ranks.

Like grad transfers, they can be high-profile free agents because of their immediate eligibility. The best JUCO pickup in recent memory was Newton, the dual-threat QB who made a pit stop at Blinn in 2009, between stints at Florida and Auburn, but Pro Football Hall of Famers like Roger Staubach, Walter Jones, and others made JUCO stops for various reasons as well.

Newton is a rare case, but ex-blue-chippers and other Power 5 recruits come out of JUCO every year. Many of the country’s best FBS programs sign JUCO talent. A few have been featured on Last Chance U, including quarterback/receiver John Franklin III (FSU to JUCO to Auburn to FAU to the NFL) and linebacker Dakota Allen (Texas Tech to JUCO and back to Texas Tech).

Plus, JUCO games can get buck wild from time to time.

In Season 1, the show covered the most famous example: a huge brawl that resulted in the rest of EMCC’s season getting canceled and a title shot going down the drain.

JUCO football exists in large part as a waypoint for players who are striving to land elsewhere.

The people who coach it and play it freely acknowledge what it is.

“It’s an 18-month school,” Brown, the Independence coach, says. “We don’t have an alma mater, don’t have a fight song. This is not a four-year institution.”

Brown’s quarterback in Season 3, former FSU blue-chipper Malik Henry, plainly tells Netflix’s cameras at one point that he doesn’t want to be there.

JUCO isn’t a destination. But the show has brought attention to a part of the sport that’s deserved it all along.