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.