In a recent blog entry in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia Tech
coach Paul Johnson made some comments about “oversigning” recruits in
college football. This is not an issue that gets much attention in the ACC, but
it’s becoming a hot topic around the nation, particularly in the SEC. Reading
the Paul Johnson article led me on a winding path around the web, and by the
time I was done reading and studying, I learned exactly what oversigning is, why
it’s an important issue, and which schools are doing it the most. Why should
you, as a Hokie fan, care about oversigning?
First, a disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be all-knowing about the practice of
oversigning and its ramifications. There are people who are passionate and
knowledgeable about the subject, and whose expertise far exceeds mine. I hope,
should they read this article, that I don’t make a fool out of myself. There are
web sites (especially one, oversigning.com) that cover the topic in great
detail, should you wish to learn more. But there’s no reason we here at TSL
can’t give you a primer on the topic and introduce you to it, because it’s an
interesting one that does affect college football and therefore the Hokies.
First, let’s establish a knowledge base, most of which you already know. A
Division 1-A college football team (we’re now celebrating 2+ years of refusing
to use the term “FCS” here at TSL) can have no more than 85 players on
scholarship at any given time. Most teams will have close to that number during
At the end of the season in January, a certain number of players — your
seniors and redshirt seniors — finish out their eligibility, reducing your
scholarship count. When National Signing Day approaches on the first Wednesday
of February, recruits sign letters of intent to attend your school. If you sign
more recruits than you had departing seniors, which would put you over the limit
of 85 if all the new recruits enrolled right away, then you have oversigned.
A school can assign 25 players to any given recruiting class, but oversigning
isn’t about signing more than 25 players. It’s about signing a number of players
that puts you over the 85-scholarship limit. For example, if you have 85
scholarship players, and you lose 17 seniors in January, then you have 68
players on scholarship. If you sign 25 players in early February, that’s a total
of 93 players.
That means that before your new recruits enroll in school and officially go
on scholarship in late summer, you’ve got to shed eight players, either from
your existing roster, or from the group of freshmen signees, or a combination.
That’s where it can get tricky, and football staffs around the nation are
constantly juggling their rosters and their incoming recruiting classes to stay
at the 85 limit. From Signing Day in February to Fall Semester in August, it’s
an effort to get down to 85 scholarships.
Working the Numbers
There are two primary ways a roster gets trimmed.
Attrition:Players leave programs all the time to transfer elsewhere for
more playing time, or they flunk out academically, or they get in trouble with
the law and get kicked off the team or out of school entirely. Since Signing Day
2011, Virginia Tech has lost Lyndell Gibson, Jacob Sykes, Austin Fuller, Quillie
Odom, and Lorenzo Williams to various forms of attrition.
Greyshirting:”Greyshirting” is the practice of a signed
freshman delaying enrollment until the following January, so he doesn’t count
against the scholarship limit for the upcoming season. For example, if a player
who signed in February of 2011 doesn’t enroll in school until January of 2012,
he won’t count against the scholarship limit for the 2011 season.
Where it Gets Shady
Those are the above-board ways to keep your scholarship count down to 85 (but
even those methods can be abused — we’ll get to that in a moment). Another
method is available to a coach: refusing to renew the scholarship of a
player who is in good standing academically and legally, and wants to stay in
Many fans don’t know that athletic scholarships are one-year renewable
agreements. When an athlete signs a scholarship, he doesn’t sign it for four or
five years; he only has that scholarship for the upcoming year. At the end of
that year, if he’s in good academic standing, wants to remain on the team, and
the coach wants him to remain on the team, the player has to sign a new
scholarship agreement for the coming year. This happens each year a player is in
In most cases where a scholarship doesn’t get renewed, the player and the
program reach a mutual conclusion that it’s time for the player to move on. Many
players are simply never going to receive significant playing time, and when
that becomes apparent after a year or two or three, the player meets with his
coaches, they shake hands, and the player moves on.
But in some cases, it’s not a mutual decision, and this is where the system
is prone to abuse. Sometimes a coach decides a player is not working out and he
needs to move on, but if the player still wants to stick it out and refuses to
bow out, the coach will come up with various ways to make the player’s football
life a living hell, until he wants to transfer out: moving the player to a new
position, abusing the player in practice, not giving a player any practice reps,
parking him at the end of the bench and never letting him see the field, etc.
We’d like to think this never happens, but it does. Entire movies have been
filmed about this. (Try watching One on One, a late-70s basketball flick
starring Robbie Benson, for an example of a coach trying to run a player off.)
In the most egregious cases, a player who thinks he’s coming back to the team
in the fall will get a letter in the summer, out of the blue, telling him his
scholarship isn’t being renewed. Former LSU quarterback Chris Garrett claims
that Coach Les Miles cut him unexpectedly in this fashion.
Coaches also unexpectedly greyshirt players. The ethical way to
greyshirt a player is to let him know during his recruitment that you want to
greyshirt him; that if he signs his letter of intent, he won’t be enrolling the
following August, but will be coming to school in January, 11 months later.
But some coaches will let all of their true freshmen arrive for second summer
session in July, evaluate them during workouts, and upon deciding a player won’t
be a contributor that fall, will unexpectedly tell them to go home and come back
in January. This isn’t honest, it disrupts a player’s plans, and it doesn’t sit
well with players or their families.
Even worse, some coaches will use that second summer session almost as a
tryout, evaluating true freshman against upperclassmen, and deciding to
greyshirt some freshmen and cut some upperclassmen, based on what they see and
what the program’s needs are.
In a perfectly open, ethical scenario, coaches communicate clearly with
incoming freshmen as to whether or not they’re going to greyshirt, and they come
to mutual decisions with upper classmen about transferring, so the player knows
its coming and can make other plans.
In the worst scenarios, coaches surprise players with unrenewed scholarships
and forced greyshirts.
There is another way that coaches can game the system: by signing players who
aren’t going to qualify academically, then sending them to prep school or
junior college. If the kids succeed at prep school or JC, the 1A coach
remains loyal and welcomes the player with open arms at a later date. If the kid
bombs out, then he has been weeded out without risking a scholarship … and in
the meantime, no other school has gotten their hooks in him. This isn’t
necessarily unethical, it’s just another angle to how some coaches use
oversigning to their advantage.
Why You Should Care
Other than feeling bad for players who are unexpectedly cut or who are abused
by unethical coaches, why should you, as a Hokie fan, care? You should care for
two reasons that I can think of:
1.) You should care whether or not Virginia Tech falls on the ethical side of
This is obvious. Frank Beamer is praised by Hokie fans for running a clean
program with a family atmosphere. We want him to treat all of his players, from
All-Americans like Jayron Hosley to non-contributors like Austin Fuller, equally
and fairly. It’s the right thing to do.
Otherwise, at best the family atmosphere is a façade, and at worst, Frank
Beamer’s a scumbag. We know he’s not a scumbag. To our knowledge, recruits are
informed before they sign their LOI if they’re a greyshirt recruit, and I have
never, ever heard a single story or rumor of a player’s scholarship being yanked
out from underneath them.
Beyond that, there’s a lot of grey area that I don’t want to get into,
because I’m not part of the program or privy to all the private things that go
on between players and coaches. But the large, large majority of the time, I
think the Virginia Tech staff does things completely above board, openly and
2.) Coaches that use oversigning as a tool can choose their team from a
larger pool of players.
This is the biggie. It doesn’t take a college football junkie to figure out
that a coach who signs 140 players over a five-year period is picking his 85
scholarship players from a larger pool of candidates than a coach who signs just
100 players over that same five-year period.
Think those numbers are preposterous, that those discrepancies don’t exist?
They do. Wait a little bit, because I have the data coming up soon.
This is reminiscent of the days before scholarship limits, when a coach at a
rich, tradition laden school could sign as many players as his athletic director
approved, building massive rosters of 130 to 140 players. This accomplished two
functions: (1) surely you can find 22 really good players from a group that big;
and (2) the more players you sign, the fewer your competition gets.
Massive rosters were the reason why scholarship limits were put in place, to
help level the playing field. But as you’re going to see from the data, coaches
can still game the system, via oversigning, to build their teams from larger
pools of players.
That’s why you should care. If Frank Beamer doesn’t abuse oversigning, but
certain schools the Hokies compete against do, then it puts Virginia Tech at a
Example: If Virginia Tech signs 10 offensive linemen in the span of four
years and 50% work out, the Hokies get a starting OL but no depth. If a
competing school signs 16 offensive linemen and 50% work out, they’ve got a
starting OL and three quality backups. This can be the difference between wins
and losses, the difference between conference championships or not, and the
difference between BCS bowl wins or not.
Another example: Former Auburn coach and current Texas Tech coach Tommy
Tuberville proudly points to defensive tackle Nick Fairley as being a kid that
probably wasn’t going to qualify academically, but whom Auburn signed anyway in
2007. Fairley failed to quality and enrolled at Copiah-Lincoln Community
College, where he redshirted in 2007 and had a great season in 2008 (63 tackles,
7 sacks in 7 games). He wound up at Auburn for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and in
the BCS Championship game last January, he was, in my eyes, the difference in
Auburn signed 30 players in Fairley’s 2007 recruiting class. From 2007-2011,
the Tigers averaged the second-most signings among BCS schools, inking an
average of 28.6 players per year. That’s 143 signees in five years,
meaning that 58 players would have to be trimmed, via attrition, cuts, and
expired eligibility, over five years to keep Auburn under the 85 limit in the
Signing that many players appears to qualify as “oversigning,”
though I admit that the definition of oversigning isn’t signing more than 25
players per year — it’s the practice of signing so many players that you go
over the 85 limit and have to trim the roster between February and August. But
looking at the data, it’s highly likely that Auburn was routinely oversigning.
If Auburn didn’t regularly make a practice of oversigning, would they have
signed Fairley in 2007 as part of that large class? Would he have wound up at
Auburn? Would the Tigers have won the 2010 BCS Championship? Maybe not, and this
is why oversigning is important. Sometimes one player makes all the difference.
Teams that use oversigning as a tool have a competitive advantage over teams
The Big Ten Rule
Before we throw the numbers at you and you glaze over, it’s worth looking at
how the Big Ten does things. In the Big Ten, a team is only allowed to sign
enough players to put them three players over the 85 limit. If your existing
roster in January plus your February recruiting class is more than 88 players,
then you have violated the Big Ten rule.
The process is transparent and is done through the league office. Every
school in the Big Ten must inform the conference of its full January roster, and
they are not allowed to sign so many players in February that they go over the
hard limit of 88. And then they have to document the circumstances and reason
for any attrition that occurs.
If recruits fail to qualify and enough attrition occurs that it forces a Big
Ten team below the 85 limit, that’s too bad. The rule is the rule. So it
behooves Big Ten teams to sign players that they know are going to qualify, and
to do everything they can to limit attrition, so they always have close to 85
scholarship players on the roster.
So what schools and conferences sign the most players? This is the juicy
I compiled the number of players signed by all BCS schools in the last five
recruiting classes (2007-2011), plus a select group of four other teams: Notre
Dame, Boise State, TCU and BYU. This is 70 teams in all.
I simply pulled up signing lists on Rivals.com, so the data are accurate
insofar as Rivals is accurate. There was no effort to try to massage the data
for any reason after compiling it to account for inaccuracies, players who later
signed with other teams, players who were counted in more than one recruiting
class, etc. I merely pulled the numbers up on Rivals and put them in a
Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, the SEC signs more players than any
other conference. Surprise, surprise.
|Number of Players
(Sorted by Average, Highest to Lowest)
They do things differently in the SEC, don’t they? Like, for example, averaging
signing more players per year than the NCAA allows you to enroll. Note in
particular that SEC schools signed 11 classes of 30 or more players, out of 60
recruiting classes studied (12 schools, 5 years). That’s as many classes of 30+
as all the other conferences combined.
The SEC signed just five classes of 20 or fewer players, and two of those
five came from Vanderbilt, which averaged just 20.0 signees per year. Take Vandy
out of the equation, and the SEC average goes up to 26.2 signees per team per
If you read a few articles about oversigning, you quickly realize that it’s
yet another area where the rivalry between the SEC and Big Ten intensifies.
Whereas the Big Ten has a league-wide policy governing oversigning, the
SEC has a culture of oversigning.
In any given season, a team is comprised of players from the last five
recruiting classes, and you can see that in the SEC, they build their teams from
a five-year pool that is 19 players larger than the average Big Ten team. That’s
a severe competitive disadvantage when the two leagues encounter each other in
high-profile matchups and bowl games.
Ohio State has won or shared the Big Ten championship for six straight
seasons, and it’s worth noting that from 2007-2011, the Buckeyes averaged just
20.4 players per recruiting class. Some people ridiculed Ohio State for their
failures against Florida and LSU in the 2006 and 2007 BCS Championship games,
but from 2002-2007 (six seasons), OSU signed an average of 19.5 players per
year, while Florida (24.0) and LSU (24.2) averaged significantly more.
Bottom line? Oversigning is yet another area in which the SEC schools play on
a different field than the rest of the BCS conferences.
Here’s another table with a little more detail on specific class sizes and
averages in each conference.
|Largest and Smallest
Classes and Averages by Conference
(Sorted Alphabetically by Conference)
|Conf.||Largest Class(es)||Smallest Class||Highest Ave.||Lowest Ave.|
|ACC||33 (FSU 2008)
33 (Miami 2008)
|12 (Clemson 2009)||25.4 (FSU)||19.0 (Wake Forest)|
|Big East||31 (Syracuse 2010)||16 (UConn 2011)
16 (Syracuse 2009)
|25.2 (Syracuse)||21.6 (UConn)|
|Big Ten||29 (Minn. 2008)||14 (Penn State 2008)||25.0 (Minn.)||18.2 (NWestern)|
|Big 12||34 (KState 2007)||17 (three)||27.4 (KState)||22.2 (Texas)|
|SEC||37 (Miss. 2009)||14 (Vandy 2007)||28.8 (Miss.)||20.0 (Vandy)|
|PAC 12||34 (Ore. State 2007)||11 (UCLA 2007)||26.2 (WSU)||19.8 (Stanford)|
We’ll get to the Hokies and where they rank in the ACC in a moment. For now,
let’s take a look at some data that show individual schools, because it sheds
even more light on the problem the SEC presents for other schools, and it
reveals some interesting data about individual schools.
Get ready for a monster table. This table shows all 70 schools I studied.
Signees, 2007-2011 (per Rivals.com)
Sorted by average number of signees per year
more than 25 players signed
Yellow: Largest class/average class in conference
Blue: Smallest class/average class in conference
Red: Largest class/average class among all teams
Green: Smallest class/average class among all teams
|5||Big 12||Kansas State||28||17||25||33||34||137||27.4|
|8||Big 12||OK State||27||27||26||29||23||132||26.4|
|13||Big 12||Iowa State||24||28||25||25||25||127||25.4|
|19||Big 12||Texas Tech||29||28||25||17||26||125||25.0|
|26||PAC 12||Arizona State||21||26||22||28||24||121||24.2|
|27||PAC 12||Oregon State||25||20||24||18||34||121||24.2|
|33||Big 12||Texas A&M||22||24||28||24||18||116||23.2|
|49||Big Ten||Michigan State||21||22||23||21||23||110||22.0|
|63||Big Ten||Ohio State||24||19||24||20||15||102||20.4|
|68||Big Ten||Penn State||16||19||27||14||21||97||19.4|
Some notable points:
- 6 of the top 7 (and 9 of the top 15) schools are SEC schools.
- The SEC schools not in the top 15 are Vanderbilt (#65), Florida (#45) and
Georgia (#46). Vandy is Vandy, and Florida and Georgia are known for being
opposed to the practice oversigning, making them outliers in the SEC.
- Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt is the king of oversigning. He’s
responsible for Ole Miss’ last four recruiting classes, which averaged a
whopping 30.5 players per year. He has the single biggest class in the
five-year study, 37 recruits in 2009. When grilled about the size of that
class, Nutt is famous for saying, “There’s nothing that says I can’t
- Teams with strong academic reputations hover at the bottom of the list:
Vanderbilt, Stanford, Wake Forest and Northwestern, all ranked in the Top 25
in the US
News rankings, are all in the bottom six.
- Penn State is known for graduating a very high percentage of their
players, which minimizes attrition due to academics. The Nittany Lions
accordingly average fewer than 20 signees per year, close to the bottom.
- Some football powerhouses that are surprisingly low on the list are Texas
(#48), USC (#61), and Ohio State (#63). Texas signs the fewest players in
the Big 12, just 22.2 per year.
- In the ACC, FSU is the top signer, averaging 25.4 players per year and
coming in #12 overall. That’s rather SEC-like. The Hokies are #2 in
conference at 23.8 players per year, #28 overall.
- Recent BCS title game winners, starting in 2007: LSU (#11), Florida
(#45), Alabama (#7), Auburn (#2). They beat Ohio State (#63), Oklahoma
(#44), Texas (#48), and Oregon (#22).
- VT lost high-profile games to Boise State and Stanford last year, and it
wasn’t because the Broncos and Cardinal stuff their rosters via oversigning.
They come in at #66 and #67, with 100 and 99 players respectively the last
five years, versus the Hokies’ 119.
Virginia Tech and the ACC
Here’s how the Hokies and the ACC stack up.
ACC Recruiting Numbers, 2007-2011, per Rivals.com
Sorted by average number of players signed per year
|Note: “Overall Rank” refers to ranking among a list of 70
schools, including all
BCS schools, plus Notre Dame, BYU, Boise State, and TCU
There are no real surprises here. As a conference, the ACC doesn’t have a
culture of oversigning, so they only have one team in the top 27 (which is
filled mostly by the SEC, Big 12, and Big East). Florida State is the closest to
an SEC-caliber school when it comes to signing, ranked 12th in our study of 70
Starting with Virginia Tech, there is a cluster of three teams together, and
the final eight teams in the conference are almost spaced out in linear fashion.
Oversigning is a vast, multi-faceted subject, and this lengthy article is a
mere introduction to the topic. I hope that I haven’t presented the practice of
oversigning as all bad, because that wasn’t my intent. While some coaches abuse
the practice, not every coach who oversigns is an evil despot who destroys the
hopes and dreams of football players everywhere in his quest to win football
games and keep his multi-million dollar salary.
You can argue the flip side of the coin, that every recruit who is squeezed
in on the margins is a kid who otherwise might not get a chance. Some make the
most of that chance, like Auburn’s Nick Fairley, a mere 3-star offensive lineman
who was an academic risk. Auburn took a chance on him, and he went on to become
the 13th player selected in the 2011 NFL Draft.
There are schools that oversign regularly, like most SEC schools, and there
are schools and conferences that view it as a bad practice and avoid it. And
there are a lot of schools in the large middle, like Virginia Tech, who are
neither misers nor gluttons when it comes to handing out scholarships. The Hokie
coaching staff, like most staffs, do their best to stay at or near the 85 limit,
while giving each player on the roster a fair, honest chance to make something
But the fact remains that schools and conferences that regularly oversign
have a competitive advantage on the field over those that don’t. You can’t deny
that signing 143 players over five years, as Auburn did from 2007-2011, gives
you a better chance of fielding a top notch team than signing 91 players over
that same span, as Northwestern did.
But schools like Boise State and Stanford put together extremely competitive
squads last year, despite signing just 98 and 99 players respectively, in the
five classes that preceded the 2010 season (2006-2010). So oversigning isn’t the
be-all and end-all to success. It’s just one facet of the overall picture.
There are steps the NCAA can take to limit oversigning, and therefore the
potential for abuse. There are a lot of suggestions out there, and one option
would be for the NCAA to adopt the Big Ten’s 88-rule, and enforce it nationally,
with oversight being done by an NCAA committee. That would instantly level the
playing field across the country.
There are other ideas, but outlining them here would lengthen an article that
is already long enough. Hopefully, you have learned a little from this epistle,
and if you want to study more, the best resource is Oversigning.com,
which tracks the topic regularly and in great detail. In particular, their Recruiting Numbers page contains more extensive data than what I have here,
and it’s sortable. Be advised that the guys at Oversigning.com are very much against the practice.
For my own spreadsheet of number of signees from 2007-2011, click
For an ESPN “Outside the Lines” video feature on oversigning, click