Butch Jones once said this about Alabama: “The one thing they can say about their program is it is what we are building here at Tennessee.”
When it comes to recruiting, it’s starting to look like Butch is a chip off the old block. You may not have noticed, but Tennessee is well on its way to a monster-sized recruiting class, well over the scholarship limit. How can Jones do that? Well, much of that will come down to the traditional way more aggressive programs have gone about their oversigning business: some combination of countbacks to the 2013 class, grayshirting, weeding out some kids on the current 85-man roster and pushing some current commits to the side to take higher rated ones. It’s a frothy mixture that no doubt will be tolerated by the Vol faithful, but it’s nothing new.
What is new is this.
As Tennessee’s list of verbal commitments continues to grow (it should be up to 34 if lineman Charles Mosley commits on Friday as expected), the Vols are contending with two limits.
One is the NCAA-imposed limit on scholarships. The other is the conference-imposed limit on signees.
There’s no loophole on NCAA scholarship limits. Teams can have only 85 total scholarship players, of whom no more than 25 can be “initial counters” in any given year. (There are some strategies to minimize the impact of the NCAA limits, which I discussed here. More on that in a second).
But is it possible that Tennessee’s staff has stumbled upon a loophole that would effectively allow the Vols to “over-sign” in a way that was common a few years ago but has largely been eliminated because of new rules?
Take a look at the text of the SEC rule limiting signees that went into effect Aug. 1, 2011 (emphasis added):
13.9.1 Letter of Intent – Limitation. Each SEC member institution is limited to signing 25 football prospective student-athletes to a National Letter of Intent, Conference financial aid agreement and/or institutional offer of athletics financial aid from December 1 through May 31st of each year. [Adopted 5/29/09; effective immediately; revised 6/3/11; effective August 1, 2011]
(Here’s a .pdf link if you want to peruse the SEC rules yourself.)
The dates are critical, because the SEC bylaw collides with a new NCAA rules interpretation that impacted this recruiting cycle. Academically eligible student-athletes who plan to enroll early (in January) are now allowed to sign aid agreements with universities as early as Aug. 1.
Tennessee had a flood of players sign aid agreements last month — perhaps a half-dozen players or more. Why is this significant? By the letter of the law, those players wouldn’t count against the SEC’s signing limit. They’re freebies, if you will.
I’m not exactly sure I’d call that a freebie, or even a loophole. It’s more like buying something on credit – at some time you’ve still got to pay the bill, so to speak. It’s a semi-loophole, at best.
Signees and scholarships (i.e., initial counters) are two different things.
SEC rules limit signees; NCAA rules limit overall scholarships and initial counters.
The possible loophole I described is for the former; there is no loophole for the latter.
At the end of the day, the Vols — like any other team — can give no more than 25 initial counters in any year and have no more than 85 scholarship players overall.
Under the hypothetical theory I floated in the story, the Vols could sign 35 players, but they would still have to cross the scholarship hurdle.
In the end, Jones will have to get his roster numbers down to the same level that every other program does. It’s the process of getting there that’s going to be revealing. As Woodbury puts it, “Signees are a January/February issue. Scholarships are a May/June/July issue.” In other words, get ’em in the door and let God sort out the rest. At least the kids who signed financial aid agreements won’t be coming out of pocket.
The other thing that will be worth watching is as Jones’ strategy comes more into focus is the reaction from other coaches. Do they scream or do they copy? Hey, it’s the SEC, who am I kidding? They’ll do both.