National Signing Day will answer some questions about Vols’ numbers crunch — but not all of them

Butch Jones (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — If you like a good mystery, the growth of Tennessee’s 2014 class has been fun to attempt to unravel.

We think — unofficially — that the Vols have scholarships available for 31 in this recruiting cycle. That’s the NCAA maximum 25 in 2014, plus six counted back against the smaller 2013 class.

Beyond that, we’ve engaged in a lot of speculation about Butch Jones and the Vols’ number-crunching strategies.

As of today, the Vols have 34 verbal commitments. Michael Sawyers, visiting this weekend, would be No. 35 if he chooses to commit to Tennessee ahead of Ole Miss and Georgia Tech.

So how does 35 become 31 in a climate in which once-routine “over-signing” has essentially been legislated out of existence?

We might get some clues about the answer to that question on Wednesday, even if the final resolution doesn’t come until this summer.

News Sentinel subscribers can check out a long story I wrote on that subject in Sunday’s paper.

In a nutshell, the Vols have a few options:

1. Pare down the current class to 31 (remember that 14 have already enrolled) by slicing off players who might have academic troubles and asking them to sit tight for the moment. If they qualify, offer them a grayshirt opportunity in 2015. If they find another home in the meantime, wish them well.

Advantages: Avoids negative “over-signing’ publicity.

Disadvantages: Might lose borderline academic cases.

2. Go full steam ahead with the so-called “loophole” strategy. In this case, Tennessee could sign 34 or 35 (or perhaps even more) and then worry about paring down the class later.

Advantages: By signing borderline players, UT would be in a better position to push them toward gray-shirting opportunities in 2015.

Disadvantages: Negative attention from alleged “over-signing” might not be worth the advantages of hanging on to only a couple of players.

3. A mixed strategy: This is what I think UT might pursue and I think it will leave the most unanswered questions. Let’s assume that UT wants to hold on to more than 31 of its commitments AND avoid “over-signing” in a way that will attract negative scrutiny. There has to be some way to let those 32nd, 33rd or 34th players feel like a part of the class without actually signing them to National Letters of Intent. How will that be done? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps one or two will blue-shirt or others will gray-shirt. Academic risks could be held in wait-and-see mode.

So Wednesday might come down to semantics. A blue-shirting player can’t sign a Letter of Intent or an aid agreement. So could Jones comment about him publicly? Could he be mentioned in the UT press release? I’m not entirely sure.

Some of this is uncharted territory, which is why I think we’ll get at least a hint of clarity on Wednesday.