New SEC rule on signings offers safety net for recruits left behind
Atlanta RB Justin Taylor committed to play for Alabama in February 2011
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North Atlanta High tailback Justin Taylor committed to Alabama in February 2011. He didn't pay much attention to the news out of Destin, Fla., three months later that SEC presidents had once again tightened recruiting rules to further curb oversigning -- a morally gray practice most SEC schools have employed to gain a competitive advantage over their non-oversigning conference foes and out-of-conference recruiting rivals. Taylor had no idea he would wind up the test case for the new rules.
Earlier this month, Taylor took an official visit to Tuscaloosa. There, Alabama coach Nick Saban told Taylor that because of a combination of the new rule and the torn ACL Taylor suffered in September, Taylor couldn't sign with the class of 2012. Taylor said Saban offered to sign a contract stating that Alabama would guarantee Taylor a scholarship in the 2013 signing class. One of the new rules states that an SEC school can sign only 25 players a year. Essentially, Taylor had slipped to the 26th-most-important player committed to Alabama for the class of 2012.
Now Taylor must weigh his options. Does he take Saban at his word and wait for an Alabama scholarship in 2013? Or does he attempt to seek a scholarship for 2012 at some other school? At the moment, he isn't sure. "I'm still getting my head together," Taylor told SI.com on Monday night.
The anti-oversigning zealots will offer this as proof that coaches such as Saban toy with the lives of teenagers when they play the numbers game in recruiting. Alabama fans will offer this as proof that despite all the red tape and Taylor's injury, Saban is at least sticking to the offer he made. The truth is somewhere in the middle. But one fact cannot be disputed.
The new rule worked.
No one in the Big Ten -- which has the most effective anti-oversigning rules because it doesn't allow schools to go more than three over the 85-scholarship limit at any given time -- will believe this, but the rule the SEC presidents devised provided the exact safeguard it was intended to provide. The SEC wasn't going to go to a Big Ten-style system. It wouldn't completely discard a competitive advantage. But the league's presidents did want to offer a measure of protection to the 18-year olds who were getting gamed by the system.
How did the rule protect Taylor? It will keep him from signing with a school that doesn't have room for him. Before the rule, Alabama could have signed Taylor to a National Letter of Intent on Feb. 1. The NLI is the worst contract in American sports. In plain English, it is a one-year deal with a club option for the next three (or four) years. Except in some cases, it isn't even a one-year deal. In return for prospects signing away all their leverage -- no other school may recruit them once they have signed -- a school is supposed to guarantee a scholarship and a roster spot for a year. But it doesn't always work that way. When LSU had two more qualified signees than it had available scholarships in 2010, those players were not allowed to play football on scholarship at LSU. They had signed away their right to be recruited and received nothing in return. This is par for the course in a system tilted in favor of the millionaire coaches over the 18- to 22-year-olds, but at least some of the grown-ups have attempted to help the prospects by allowing them to hold on to their leverage.
Now, if Taylor opts to stick with Alabama, the Crimson Tide will still have to fend off all other suitors until they can actually deliver the promised scholarship. Saban can sign whatever he wishes, but he can't stop other schools from recruiting Taylor between now and the moment he steps in a classroom in Tuscaloosa. The rule will prevent SEC oversigners from stockpiling recruits and then hiding behind the NLI. The option Alabama is offering Taylor is commonly known as a grayshirt. Plenty of other schools offer the same deal. There is nothing wrong with making such a deal as long as other schools are still allowed to present the prospect with an alternative -- going on scholarship immediately. Now, other schools can recruit grayshirted players. (In Saban's defense, there has never been a story of him not having a scholarship available for a grayshirted player. Not all coaches can make that claim.)
Former South Carolina and NFL player Stanley Pritchett is Taylor's coach and guardian. Pritchett said Monday that he has gotten calls from Purdue and Tennessee since Taylor got the news that he couldn't sign with Alabama in '12. Pritchett isn't pleased with the situation. "I was surprised," Pritchett said. "When he got hurt, they told me they were going to stick with him." Unfortunately, we can't hear Saban's side of the story directly. NCAA rules forbid him from speaking about specific recruits. Alabama spokesman Jeff Purinton reiterated this Tuesday morning. So if Taylor goes through with the plan to enroll at Alabama next year, Saban won't be allowed to speak publicly until January 2013.
Taylor's injury is the X-factor in this case. Had Alabama planned to grayshirt Taylor immediately after he got hurt, Taylor might have had more time to find a school willing to take him. Getting the bad news in January puts Taylor in a more difficult situation because most schools have already filled their classes. By the same token, no other schools recruited Taylor hard after his injury. Alabama continued recruiting him. Georgia fans were among the most vociferous critics of Saban when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Carvell published a lengthly interview with Taylor Sunday -- probably because Georgia has been at a disadvantage because it doesn't oversign -- but the Bulldogs haven't exactly rushed to offer a scholarship to an in-state player. Alabama is offering for '13. (The argument that other schools shied away because of Taylor's commitment to Alabama doesn't hold water. Nothing short of a restraining order will stop most SEC coaches from recruiting a player they want.)
Thanks to the new rule, Taylor will have options. If he finds a school he likes that will offer him a scholarship for '12, he can sign the NLI and be done with the recruiting process. If he truly wants to go to Alabama, he can wait and enroll next year. But if Taylor chooses that option, and in June or July, Auburn or South Carolina or Georgia Tech or N.C. State suddenly has an opening because a signee didn't qualify academically or chose to play professional baseball or chased his lifelong dream of joining the circus, then those schools can recruit Taylor. They can let him know they have a scholarship available immediately. Taylor still has his leverage, even if he doesn't have his scholarship at the moment.
As of Monday night, Taylor still plans to go to Alabama. "I'm still committed," he said. "That's what everyone has been asking me. Did I decommit? That was not true. I'm still committed." But if another school happened to call with a scholarship offer? "Would I talk to them?" Taylor said. "I mean, maybe."
In other words, Taylor is exactly as committed to Alabama as Alabama is committed to him.