Saivion Smith enrolled early at LSU so he’d be ahead of the game.
After all, the highly touted defensive back wants to play immediately as a freshman next year. What better way to assure that than getting a five-month head start on learning the defensive system and participating in spring practice?
The same can be said for other midyear enrollees like John Ehret’s Michael Divinity and North Webster’s Devin White, two four-star prospects whom the Tigers might need immediately at linebacker next season.
Receivers Dee Anderson and Stephen Sullivan enrolled last month, too, completing their high school careers a semester early so they can get a jump on their college journey.
As much as enrolling early is a benefit to players, it has an even more significant impact on schools.
Why? They get to over-sign — a practice in which teams sign and enroll more than the NCAA yearly maximum of 25 prospects. That practice was supposed to be dead, killed off by stringent NCAA policies implemented in 2010, but over-signing is very much alive.
“People still over sign,” said Scott Kennedy, national director of scouting for Scout.com.
“Somehow,” said Barton Simmons, 247Sports’ national recruiting analyst, “schools still figure out a way to push that number to beyond 25.”
Enrolling prospects at the midyear in January is the easiest and most-popular route to piling up the prospects — a loophole around that 2010 NCAA bylaw.
Explaining exactly how it works isn’t so easy, but know this: LSU will likely use this loophole on national signing day Wednesday.
The Tigers head into Wednesday with 23 commitments, but they are expected to announce a class of as many as 27-28 signees.
LSU is far from the only school breaking the maximum of 25 signees. In fact, Michigan and Florida enter signing day at 25 commitments, with more expected to ink on Wednesday. Wisconsin currently has 26 commitments, already one over the limit even before signing day arrives.
LSU coach Les Miles, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Florida’s Greg McElwain and Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst are, mainly, using midyear enrollees to maneuver around the signing limit.
And it’s perfectly fine with the NCAA.
“One of the exceptions football and a few of the other head-count sports have is the ability to do a midyear graduate replacement,” said Kris Richardson, NCAA associate director for academic and membership affairs. “That midyear person … you’re allowed to go ahead and count that person as one of your 25 for this year or next year.”
For example, LSU signed 25 players in the 2015 class last February, but just 23 of those enrolled. Receiver Brandon Martin and defensive back Jeremy Cutrer did not qualify academically.
Teams are restricted to enrolling 25 new scholarship players each academic year — just as they are allowed 25 signees. For the 2015-16 academic year, LSU enrolled just those 23 players, leaving them two spots available for — you guessed it — two midyear enrollees.
Two of LSU’s five midyear enrollees will replace Martin and Cutrer in the 2015 signing class — or the 2015-16 academic year. That leaves LSU with a full 25 to sign for the 2016-17 academic year: the three other midyear enrollees and 22 more expected signees who will enroll this summer.
In all, that’s 27 new players on scholarship.
So technically, it’s not over-signing, said Susan Peal, the NCAA director overseeing national letters of intent.
“(Fans) are seeing, ‘Oh, they oversigned!’” Peal said. “All of the sudden you see 28, but they don’t understand you can count that individual in the current year or move them forward to the next year.”
“For Joe Fan out there, it might look like they signed 33 or 35, when in reality they’re still in their 25 limit,” said Will Lawler, the Southeastern Conference’s assistant commissioner for compliance. “They just had eight of them that were effectively replacing graduating seniors, and they were counting back in the current year.”
Midyear enrollees can join a team in two ways. They can replace seniors graduating in December or take open scholarships if a team isn’t using its full allotment of 85 scholarships.
The midyear enrollee route is the new method by which programs over-sign, and it’s really taking off.
Southeastern Conference teams this semester welcomed 82 midyear enrollees, an average of 6.8 per team. Florida led the league with 12 followed by Auburn (9), Alabama (8), Ole Miss (8) and Kentucky (7).
In order for these teams to sign more than 25 players this year, they could not have enrolled a full 25 players last year.
Florida, for instance, can count three of its 12 midyear guys back to last year, allowing the Gators to sign 28 players this year.
Florida signed 21 players in the 2015 class and added four graduate transfers to get to 25. But two of those signees were midyear transfers who counted back to the 2014 class. And another didn’t qualify, leaving Florida with 22 of a possible 25 new scholarship players, according to Florida’s 247Sports’ affiliate, florida.247Sports.com.
“That’s a huge piece of it,” Simmons said of midyear enrollees. “We’ve seen a huge rise in early enrollees. Now it’s the norm. It’s only going to continue to increase.”
It’s not the only way to bypass the NCAA’s 25-signee limit. The other most-used path: grayshirts.
You’ve heard of a redshirt, when players, mostly freshmen, are on scholarship and can practice but do not play in competition for one year.
Grayshirted recruits don’t attain a scholarship until the second semester of their freshman years. The prospects can enroll like normal students in the summer or fall, but they cannot practice with the team until the second semester, in January.
Grayshirts are often handed out to prospects when a team is in jeopardy of either enrolling more than 25 players in a single academic year or having more than 85 scholarship players. A team must always work in the framework of the 85-maximum number of scholarships allowed to Football Bowl Subdivision programs. At any one time, no more than 85 football players can be on scholarship.
“Grayshirts are a really important part of making these classes work,” Simmons said. “Essentially it means telling a kid there’s not a scholarship at the time of the signing but they expect one to open when he’s ready to enroll in the fall. That’s a way schools have worked around the limitations.”
That backfired on LSU in 2010, when Elliott Porter was asked to grayshirt after signing with the Tigers. He transferred over the summer to Kentucky before rejoining LSU in 2011 and developing into a two-year starter for the Tigers.
Porter’s issue is becoming less frequent after the NCAA member conferences, led by the SEC, created a signing limit in 2011.
“People are doing a better job of managing scholarship limits,” Kennedy said.
Before 2010, teams could sign an unlimited number of prospects each year, but the schools could enroll only 25 new players every academic year. Coaches were abusing the unlimited signing rule, inking 30-plus recruits and then having to cut players or push prospects elsewhere in the summer.
Then-Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt signed 37 players in February 2009 leading to the SEC’s adoption of a signing cap of 28 signees, which the NCAA adopted as a national rule in August 2010.
Two years later, the cap was moved from 28 to 25, where it stands today.
The signing limit has helped Football Championship Subdivision and lower-level FBS programs more than any other, said Buddy Stephens, coach at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi.
Major college programs often steered unqualified players they over-signed to junior colleges in hopes of getting a talented junior-college graduate in return a year or two later.
“The guys you were getting in junior college that normally had been over-signed are now trickling down to the other FBS schools and even to I-AA,” said Stephens, who’s led EMCC to three junior-college national championships in four years.
“I think it’s helped for parity,” Stephens continued. “I’m not sure it’s helped with anything other than that. It’s immensely complicated. They make it harder than it has to be.”
Through it all, though, over-signing has endured.
ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said in an interview years ago with AL.com: “Coaches know how to work these numbers to make them right each and every semester.”
GETTING ’EM IN EARLY
Midyear enrollees are becoming more and more poplar. A total of 82 players enrolled in January in the SEC this semester.
Ole Miss: 8
South Carolina: 6
Mississippi State: 5
Texas A&M: 3
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.