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More Thoughts on Oversigning

I suppose my last post on this topic revealed me to be in the minority on the issue of oversigning.  Also, my creative solution of giving everyone a scholarship for six years as a solution was not altogether popular.  I want to get down, however, exactly what it is that bothers me about oversigning and what there is to do about it.

Let me be very clear that I do not think our own oversigning points to any sort of moral failing on our part, or on the part of our coaches.  The rules not only allow for oversigning, but actively encourage it.  To see how, we need to break down the overarching "oversigning" issue into its component problems.  By which I mean, there are actually two different types of oversigning, each tied to one half of the 85/25 recruiting rule.  The issues, both moral and humanitarian, are different for each type, and any solution will have to recognize the difference.

The first kind of oversigning is, I think, the most troubling practice.  I call this "initial oversigning" which is not a particularly good name for it, but it's the best I can come up with.  This is the practice of accepting more than 25 letters of intent in any given year.  You can only give out 25 scholarships per year, and accepting more than 25 means that someone is not going to get a scholarship.  Most teams do this expecting that one or more signees won't qualify academically.  Indeed, sometimes you know for a fact that someone won't qualify, because they're too far behind academically or for some other reason.  Others sign knowing that they may "greyshirt", a practice that has come under criticism, but is really not that serious of an issue so long as the athlete and his family know about it way ahead of time.  LSU, for one, has had considerable success with its greyshirt program.  Two former players who "greyshirted" became important players for us later: Trindon Holliday and Harry Coleman.  All they have to do is delay their enrollment.  As long as the player knows exactly where he stands from the minute he commits, I don't see a problem.

The problems come when a program is caught completely by surprise in having too many players qualify academically and someone who expected a scholarship can't have one.  People insinuate this happened with the Elliot Porter situation, though no one really comes right out and says it, and we don't really know what happened there.

Nine times out of 10, the process works out and no one who qualifies is left out without knowing it well ahead of time. 

To me, "initial oversigning" is not an issue at all so long as the coaches plan ahead and let their recruits know exactly under what conditions they will be allowed to enroll in the Fall.

The second problem I will call "back-end oversigning" and is related to the 85-person scholarship roster limit.  This is the problem of signing more recruits than you can fit into the 85-person limit after seniors leave.  This necessitates that players leave the program early, either to the NFL or to some other life.  "Cut" is sometimes the word for it.  This is the process that I think really needs to be fixed.  Others of you don't see this as a problem.

The reason this practice bothers me is not that it punishes kids who don't turn out to be good enough at football.  The problem I have is that the current system MANDATES that schools either a) cut their weakest players or b) use strategies that put it at a competitive disadvantage.  It doesn't matter how good your weakest players are.  If you have a roster full of future NFL draft picks, then you have no room on your roster for your future 7th rounders, and they have to disrupt their educations in order to continue their football careers.

My problem is that a scholarship after high school is nothing more than a promise for a tryout.  If you sign 25 players every year, then after 4 years you will be 15 players over your limit, and nevermind what happens when you start redshirting people and making your roster even more bloated over the limit.  In this environment, you will absolutely have to cut (either a "hard" cut in which you tell the person he has no scholarship here any longer or a "soft" cut where you invite him to pursue a transfer because he is too far down the depth chart to ever see real playing time).

For example, if you sign 3 defensive ends one year and 4 the next, you have 7 defensive ends within 2 years.  You know that you will probably have to chase off at least two of them eventually to make room for future more recruits later.  It does not matter if all 7 turn out to be good players, hard workers, and good citizens.  Two of them (or more) will have to go.  You know this the minute you sign them.   So really all you have given the 7 of them is a promise for a tryout.  You have signed these players knowing full well that some of them will have to go so that your team will be the best it can be.

I don't blame any coach for undertaking this practice.  The rules allow it, and even encourage it, because it's the best way to make your team the best it can be.  Neither Les Miles nor any other coach should unilaterally disarm, especially in an environment in which a few extra losses here and there could mean the difference between getting fired or getting a big raise (or a field named in your honor or a statue of you built).

So what's the solution?  If you don't like my radical solution previously proposed, how about a simpler one?  Raise the 85-scholarship limit.  That limit necessitates coaches to cut players (or alternatively, not field their best possible team).  Raise the limit to 100, and you won't have to have nearly as much attrition in order to keep adding 25 per year.  I imagine most programs will continue to have voluntary attrition, because you still won't be playing more than about 50 players in meaningful snaps any given year, and some would rather go to another school than sit on the bench.  You'll still also have players being kicked off for disciplinary problems from time to time, and players leaving early for the NFL from time to time.  With 15 more scholarship slots, however, no one who wants to keep his scholarship would ever have to lose it so long as he does what's expected of him.