Coaches play oversigning game (cont.)
Sometimes, however, the numbers don't work. Nutt's 31-player class in 2008 included a quarterback/defensive back from Sherwood, Ark., named Hunter Miller. Last summer, it became clear the Rebels had more qualified signees than they had available scholarships. Nutt asked Miller to grayshirt. Miller declined and asked to be released from his letter of intent so he could walk on at Arkansas. Reached this week, Miller's mother, Dawn, said she would rather not comment except to say that there were no hard feelings and that "everything worked out best for Hunter," who has since transferred to a junior college to play baseball.
Greg Sankey, the SEC's associate commissioner for compliance, said he has seen few cases in which players got angry after being asked to grayshirt. Sankey said the key issue is whether coaches are being honest with players before they accept commitments and before the players sign their letters of intent. "What kind of dynamics are involved when there are commitments being made that may not be honored as they're presented?" Sankey said. "Do these athletes have access to the college they signed with?"
Another relatively unexplored issue is grayshirting's effect on the National Letter of Intent, the contract between player and school that guarantees a scholarship. The Frequently Asked Questions section of the NCAA's NLI Web site warns athletes to "be aware of the informal nature of this commitment." Meanwhile, Section 6-A-2 of the NLI suggests schools cannot hold athletes to their letters of intent if oversigning forces them to grayshirt. "This NLI shall be rendered null and void if I am eligible for admission, but the institution named in this document defers admission to a subsequent term," the section states. "However, this NLI remains binding if I defer my admission."
But the issues may not remain unexplored for long. "This is certainly not a practice that was contemplated when the NLI was designed," said Sankey, who is very familiar with NLI issues because the Collegiate Commissioners Association administered the program out of the SEC office until the NCAA's Eligibility Center took over in October 2007. Sankey said if grayshirting remains a popular option, the NCAA may eventually make rules to regulate it. "It does not seem that this is a practice that has gone away," Sankey said. "Over time, these things have a way of percolating onto agendas."
Georgia coach Mark Richt refuses to oversign for two reasons. First, he wouldn't want to run out of scholarships for qualified players. Second, he would not want to run off current players who have eligibility remaining to keep the Bulldogs under the 85-scholarship limit. "We could always get into a situation where we oversign, but there's no way I could look at a kid and his parents and say, 'We had some room, but now we really don't.' I just think you have to be careful," Richt told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Signing Day. "I don't want to oversign, then tell one of the kids we've already got, 'You've got no value to us' and toss him aside. I'm not going to do that."
Typically, coaches solve their numbers crunches without losing qualified players and without chasing away current players. Last offseason, the hot topic in SEC country was how Alabama's Saban would manage to squeeze in the players from his top-ranked, 32-man recruiting class. The questions led to a spirited back-and-forth between Saban and Birmingham News beat writer Ian Rapoport during an April 2008 press conference. "It'll all work out," Saban said. "I mean, the whole thing has a solution to every issue. You don't put yourself in a position where you don't know what's coming, then have to take it in the chops."
Reporters and rival fans watched in the ensuing months to see how Saban would make the numbers work. He did, with a mix of academic casualties, transfers for playing time and attrition. When the Crimson Tide began the 2008 season, 26 of the 32 signees were on the roster. Here is a detailed breakdown of how that class managed to fit.
Two players (receiver Chris Jackson and kicker Corey Smith), enrolled in January 2008. Because Alabama has two scholarships left in the class for the 2007-08 academic year, Jackson and Smith's scholarships counted back to that class. That brought the 2008-09 number to 30. Meanwhile, athlete Devonta Bolden, defensive end Brandon Lewis and receiver Kerry Murphy failed to qualify academically, bringing the number down to 27. Running back Jermaine Preyear, nursing a shoulder injury, accepted a grayshirt, bringing the number down to 26. During the summer, receivers Destin Hood and Melvin Ray signed professional baseball contracts, bringing the total of incoming freshman for the 2008-09 class to 24.
But that was only part of the equation. Alabama still needed to shed existing scholarships to stay under 85. During the offseason, the Tide lost defensive back Tremayne Coger (transferred to Jacksonville State), offensive lineman Patrick Crump (quit football), defensive end Jeremy Elder (arrested on a robbery charge), quarterback Nick Fanuzzi (transferred to Rice), receiver Tarence Farmer (transferred to Wyoming), linebacker Jimmy Johns (arrested on cocaine dealing charges), linebacker Zeke Knight (medical hardship) and cornerback Lionel Mitchell (medical hardship for back injury).
This year, Saban and his staff won't need to hope for so much attrition. The focus will instead be on Oxford and Chapel Hill, where North Carolina coach Butch Davis signed 29 players despite losing only 12 seniors last season. Since the season ended, the Tar Heels have lost another nine players for a variety of reasons. Davis, like most of the coaches who embrace oversigning, is confident he'll make the numbers work.
"What you're trying to do is target kids that want to come to the University of North Carolina," Davis said. "We have a plan for every kid that falls into that category -- whether it's a grayshirt opportunity because of an injury, whether it's an academic situation where someone may have to go to a postgraduate [school], whether it's somebody that they need some age, some maturity. ... There's a variety of different guys that this fits."
Davis, like the other coaches, knows the key is to be up front with the players during the recruiting process. That will spare player and coach from heartache down the road. Because even though the NCAA doesn't regulate oversigning, the 25 a year and 85 total scholarship rules won't change anytime soon.
"Here's the secret that goes into it," Davis said. "You have to be honest with the player, the high school coach, the parents, and say, 'This is our plan for your son.'"