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Commentary: Oversigning not evil

Commentary by Ronnie Sanders, Publisher

Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley signed twice with Auburn

Much has been made of the Southeastern Conference's decision to curtail the practice of oversigning, a move the league SEC hopes will soon be adopted on a national level. The league’s presidents and chancellors voted Friday to institute four roster-management proposals, the biggest of which was the reduction of a soft signing cap from 28 annual football signees to 25.

Many, including seemingly informed presidents like Florida's Bernie Machen and Georgia's Michael Adams, rail against oversigning without knowing the reasons behind the practice. From their standpoint, a student-athlete is unable to enroll in the fall of his freshmen year because he has been misled by an evil coach.

The reality is that there are plenty of great reasons to oversign. They aren't evil and they make good, common sense.

First, let's take a brief look at the rules.

Each year, a school can enroll up to 25 new scholarship football players. However, the total number of football scholarships cannot exceed 85. Transfers, injuries, academic casualties, players leaving early for the NFL and general attrition mean a school typically ends up with around 25 scholarships to offer each year. Sometimes it's less. If there's too much attrition, you can end up with APR (Academic Progress Rate) problems, which can cost you scholarships.

So, why all of the fuss about oversigning? I'm not really sure, to be honest. Oversigning has been a terrific tool for many schools for several years and has provided great benefits for student-athletes.

Many people wrongly assume that, if a school oversigns, that some poor kid is going to be mistreated and have to wait a year before enrolling. That is seldom the case. I worked at four different institutions. We oversigned at every single one. The athletes that were affected were told well in advance of signing day. Most of the time it was to their benefit. Let's cover the scenarios:

1. Not quite ready/Injury. A student-athlete is a great prospect, but isn't quite ready to contribute. Oversigning and grayshirting him allows you to bring in a full class in the summer/fall and push the kid who isn't quite ready back to January. This is great for the school because it doesn't have to carry a player who isn't going to help now but still gets a great player a year later. It's great for the player because his eligibility clock doesn't start until he enrolls. He begins school in January and has all of spring and summer to learn the system. He still has a redshirt year remaining and, if he's ready, could start as a true freshman after grayshirting. The same thing applies when a prospect is injured. When I was at Florida, we signed current Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder. He had an injury. He grayshirted. He played as a true freshman and as a true sophomore and is now a star in the NFL.

2. Academic Issues. In the past, coaches have extended offers to prospects who were borderline academically, meaning they might or might not be eligible. Many times, the offer was for a grayshirt. In other words, if the prospect was a late qualifier, it was understood that he would grayshirt and enroll the following January. The player now has a set course of action. If he's eligible, he has a full scholarship. If he's not, he's going to be placed in junior college or prep school. Without oversigning, it's possible that prospect has nowhere to go.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley signed with Auburn, didn’t qualify, went to junior college and signed again. Running back Onterio McCalebb went to prep school and signed again. Without the ability to oversign, Auburn might not have signed them out of high school and they might signed elsewhere.

3. Sign and place. Many times grayshirting has been used as a means to "place" a player in junior college. Every college coaching staff has relationships with different junior colleges. When a program places a prospect in junior college, it expects to get the player back in two years. It is expected the JUCO will "protect" that prospect from recruiters at other colleges. In return, that junior college will get future prospects.

In 2007, I was the recruiting coordinator at Southern Miss. We signed 32 prospects that year. including Pernell McPhee who was not going to qualify out of high school. He never even took an official visit. In fact, he'd never even been on campus. We placed him at Itawamba Community College. Jeff Bower stepped down as head coach at Southern Miss and McPhee ended up at Mississippi State. Nobody knew who McPhee was. If we don't sign him, he probably never plays major college football.

4. Counting back. Many times, you have more than 25 scholarships to give. As an example, maybe there was a coaching change and the new staff had to sign a small class. Oversigning could be a huge help in this instance. Say you signed 21 prospects the year before. You plan to sign 25 in your current class and you have several prospects who could graduate from high school and enroll in college early. On National Signing Day, it looks like you signed 29, but four of the signees "counted back" on last year's class. That’s how Auburn signed 30 players in 2010.

In all the years I worked in college football, we always had players that were going to be close academically. In case they didn't make it, we oversigned and had guys who could step in so we still had a full class. If they made it, the guy who wasn't quite ready got the grayshirt. It was good for the players and it was good for the colleges. The only harm ever done to a prospect that was a "victim" of oversigning is that he had to enroll in January instead of August.

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