Willie Fritz is one of the lucky ones.
Like the other 130 coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision, he is for the first time operating under the NCAA’s new policy limiting schools to signing no more than 25 players per class.
The Tulane coach gets a bonus: He’s signing 26 after falling one prospect short of filling last year’s signing class — a lucky break.
“Just worked out that way,” he said last week.
Ed Orgeron isn’t so lucky.
The LSU coach has just 25 signing spots available during this recruiting cycle, three fewer than he first thought he’d have. It is a rough start to operating under the new policy, which was passed in April and took effect in August.
“It’s tough. It makes it tough,” Orgeron said. “It doesn’t give you any leeway. There are a lot of young men out there we’d love to have scholarships for, but we had to turn away some very good players. I don’t like to do that.”
LSU has room for four signees in its 2018 class. As Wednesday approaches, here are the six targets to watch.
National signing day 2018 is here!
Coaches better get used to it — turning away top prospects because they are out of room in a signing class. This year’s traditional national signing day Wednesday will not be the last for which coaches are stewing over tight numbers.
The 25-person signing limit is not new. The old policy has only been tweaked. A 25-player limit has been around since 2011, after then-Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s 37-man signing class of 2009 resulted in a more stringent policy to minimize the art of oversigning. The NCAA adjusted the policy last April to make it even more rigid and nearly impossible to oversign.
Coaches can no longer use a handful of loopholes to sign more than 25 players to a class. The adjusted policy greatly decreases a coach’s chance of “roster manipulation,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
“Most coaches would tell you that over the last 10 years, because of inadequate change in the NCAA structure, that roster manipulation was one of the keys to success,” Berry said. “I’m not talking about the players but the numbers. And I think we all got tired of it.
“Will it still happen? Yes,” he continued. “Is it less likely? Yes.”
Explaining why it is less likely is not easy. The Advocate conducted interviews with multiple college coaches, recruiting experts, an NCAA administrator and an official from LSU’s compliance office to understand the adjustments to the old policy.
Three loopholes in the 7-year-old rule are closed, or mostly closed, they say.
1. Prospects who sign and do not qualify academically remain part of the signing class.
Coaches can no longer retain those spots to use in future classes as they previously have done. For instance, LSU took advantage of this when 2015 signees Brandon Martin and Jeremy Cutrer failed to qualify.
Those spots were used on two 2016 prospects who enrolled the next January by way of the NCAA’s mid-year graduate replacement option and gave LSU the ability to sign 27 players in 2016. Prospects who enroll early can be counted as part of the previous signing class, if there is room. They enroll in January by acquiring a scholarship from a senior graduating in December.
The NCAA’s mid-year graduate replacement option still exists under the adjusted 25-man policy. Fritz, for example, is using it to sign one more than the limit this year. However, Fritz believes this is the last year coaches will regularly “count back” mid-year enrollees, he said. To have an extra spot in a class under the tweaked policy, coaches would have to purposely sign fewer than 25, something they said is not likely to happen.
2. Blueshirting a player to manipulate class sizes is no longer an option.
A blueshirt is any non-recruited football player who arrives and acquires a scholarship after preseason camp begins. Although the player is in the same class as other freshmen, under the previous rule, he could have been counted forward into the next signing class, giving coaches a work-around to the 25-player limit. Coaches can no longer count that player forward and must include him in the same class as other freshmen.
The new policy focuses on closing this loophole more than any other, said Kris Richardson, the NCAA associate director for academic and membership affairs.
“This new rule really takes a run at this phenomenon of the blueshirt,” Richardson said. “Those are the young men who are coming in that fall practice on the promise of, ‘I might have a scholarship for you,’ instead of having a scholarship in hand when they come in for fall practice.
“It could be transfers or high school students who are the good but not great.”
SHREVEPORT — It is dark.
3. There will be less need to force a player into a grayshirt.
The final loophole is another shirt, this one gray.
A grayshirt is any football player who does not begin to receive financial aid until the January after his freshman season. This player must sit out his first semester of football.
Grayshirts serve as a way for coaches to, again, work around the previous 25-man policy. Grayshirts are often handed to prospects when a team is in jeopardy of either enrolling more than 25 players in a single year or having more than 85 scholarship players — the maximum a team can have in all classes.
This backfired on LSU in 2010, when center Elliott Porter was asked to grayshirt after signing with the Tigers. He transferred to Kentucky before rejoining LSU in 2011 and developing into a two-year starter.
The grayshirt is still available for use, but it is less likely players will be forced into one, Berry and others said.
“It limits the opportunity for grayshirts or guys who have to become grayshirts because you oversigned,” he said.
The three loopholes are at the heart of the new policy. The plugging of these loopholes could potentially bring drastic effects for college football programs if not monitored carefully.
“I’ll be interested in the unintended consequences,” said Barton Simmons, 247Sports’ national recruiting reporter. “What this rule really does is it attacks some of the creative navigation we saw from programs in order to build out the biggest class possible. It’s a little more of an honest way to approach the process.”
For coaches, roster management will become more important. Players departing a program through normal attrition — transfers, dismissals, juniors declaring for the NFL — affect a team more than ever. Coaches can no longer scramble to fill those spots by oversigning. LSU had six players declare early for the draft this past year, and the school has sent 31 underclassmen to the draft since 2013.
Recruiting misses hurt even more. Schools are given no more than 100 signees over a four-year period for the maximum of 85 scholarships — a 15-player margin for error that can evaporate quickly.
In fact, LSU is not expected to use all 85 of its scholarships in the 2018-19 academic year. Adding 25 new players to the 58 presumed scholarship guys currently on the roster, the Tigers will start camp with, at most, 83 scholarship players. That does not include potential transfers after spring practice.
The only option to fill those open spots is awarding scholarships to walk-ons who have been on campus for at least two years, something Orgeron did this past fall with linebacker Jonathan Rucker and quarterback Caleb Lewis.
“You’ve got the spots on your roster with the 85 (scholarships),” Orgeron said. “You should be able to fill up to the 85.”
“This is going to add an extra layer,” Richardson said, “that is going to encourage schools to look at that a little more critically and do that pre-planning so they do know how best to position themselves for those upcoming recruiting classes.”
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This affects prospects, too. For instance, a player at risk of not qualifying academically now has a much longer shot of signing with a major program. Players looking to blueshirt or grayshirt might be out of luck, too.
“We’ve regularly seen blue and grayshirts go to places in which they would not regularly go to,” Simmons said. “This is not ideal for them, but on the back end of that, this also limits and tries to control the roster management you see from college coaches where they sometimes run a guy off.”
The new early signing period in December was partially behind the non-qualifier adjustment to the 25-man policy, Berry said.
“What we didn’t want is guys signing in December and them not making it academically and you get those scholarships back for February,” he said.
Also, this prevents coaches from signing at-risk prospects that they know won’t qualify just to “boost their recruiting rankings,” Berry said. “It keeps you from manipulating your ranking.”
“It makes you cross your t's and dot your i's with guys academically,” Fritz said. “If you sign someone who isn’t going to make it, you’re going to lose that spot.”
In an interview last week, Orgeron called the new stringent policy “very unfair.”
“We signed 22 last year and had three (available scholarships) that could have went to early enrollees,” Orgeron said. “We would have signed 28. Those are three good players we had to let go (and not sign).”
The three major-college transfers the program brought in last spring — defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko, tight end Thaddeus Moss and receiver Jonathan Giles — filled up LSU’s class last year, leaving them without any empty spots. Transfers have always counted toward a program’s 25 new enrollees, said Blair Napolitano, LSU’s assistant athletics director for compliance.
In previous years, with a more lenient 25-man rule, coaches found ways to manipulate numbers with transfers. That’s no longer possible, and it was not possible when the Tigers signed Division II transfer kicker Cole Tracy during the early period. He counts toward the 25, Napolitano confirmed.
LSU petitioned the Southeastern Conference to retrieve the scholarship spot last year given to Seth Stewart, an offensive lineman from West Virginia who signed with LSU and spent less than a week on campus.
The school was denied.
“That’s tough,” Orgeron said. “Got a guy who comes for two days and he counts as an initial.”
Hard lessons are being learned at LSU and beyond during this inaugural year of both the early signing period and the strict 25-man limit. The Tigers signed 21 players in December. Though he cannot specify them by name because of NCAA rules, Orgeron is targeting as many as seven players as he heads into Wednesday’s traditional early signing period.
He can only sign four.
“There were a lot of guys we wanted to sign,” Orgeron said, “but we didn’t have spots.”
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