Has Butch Jones found a recruiting loophole? Vols could use complex strategies to manage brimming class

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — When Butch Jones met with the Knoxville Quarterback Club last week, he dropped a nugget of recruiting information that most wrote off as hyperbole.

“If we can find a way to sign 35, we’ll sign 35,” he said.

Was he exaggerating for effect?


Or perhaps not.

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.

Now, make no mistake: This loophole, if it’s real, doesn’t affect the scholarship limitations. But it would give Tennessee more flexibility than teams that haven’t yet discovered the loophole.

For example, let’s say five players sign aid agreements before Dec. 1, 2013, and enroll at UT in January.

UT can count back at least five scholarships against 2013 because that year’s class was under the 25-man limit. So that’s now 10 that wouldn’t count against the SEC signing limit.

Jones has said he wants to welcome 14 mid-year enrollees in January. If the Vols were able take 10 of those players “off the books” for the purposes of the SEC signing rule, they could sign another 21 players to traditional Letters of Intent in February.

Grand total? 35.

Now the next challenge would be squeezing those 21 February signees into the remaining scholarship slots. But Tennessee would have all summer to worry about that, which is valuable time to work out details of who will qualify, who won’t, who will gray-shirt and who can contribute immediately.

Assuming UT can count back five to 2013, the Vols would have to count nine of the 14 midyear enrollees against the 2014 limit. That would leave 21 players for 16 slots in the 2014 allotment.

What happens to the remaining five? The problem could very well resolve itself during the summer. If it doesn’t, gray-shirting is an option. (That’s when a player agrees to delay his enrollment for one semester; in this case, the player would enroll in Jan. 2015 and count against the 2015 limits).

The more intriguing and non-traditional option is blue-shirting. Here’s how I described it an earlier article: “Officially, a player arrives in the summer as a walk-on. Once football practice begins, he’s awarded a scholarship. The school is allowed to count the scholarship forward — against the 2015 class — but the player can play immediately. There’s a big catch: The student-athlete may not have been recruited, as defined by NCAA bylaws. That means no official visit to campus, no in-home visits from coaches, no signed National Letter of Intent or athletic aid.”

There are some prospects on the Vols’ list who, notably, have not yet taken official visits to campus. That said, official visits are just one element of being recruited. In fact, the definition of a recruited student-athlete on UT’s own compliance website is so restrictive that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could possibly avoid getting that distinction.

Of course, all the strategies listed above could be moot. The Vols could simply shed members of its signing class the old-fashioned way: Nudging lower-rated prospects aside as National Signing Day approaches.

As much as the SEC signing “loophole” seems like a logical strategy given the rules, based on talking to people around the program, I’m not convinced it’s an important part of their plan.

They do have a plan of some sort, however. And Butch Jones has repeatedly assured fans not to worry about it.

Jones and his staff don’t seem to be sweating the numbers game, which is one reason why so many people are curious about just what tricks — if any — they have up their sleeves.

“It will work out,” Jones said at the same booster club event last week. “I promise you.”