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How years of scholarship planning set up each team’s National Signing Day

The signing of recruits is the result of years of planning, roster management, and things teams never see coming.

High School Football: National Signing Day-Stephan Zabie Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

When thousands of college football recruits sign National Letters of Intent on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, joyous moments will unfold in high school gyms and living rooms across the country.

They’ll also unfold in college teams’ recruiting war rooms, where years of meticulous planning will finally come to a head. Signing a good class — or any class, really — requires detailed roster management that needs to be projected over years.

“The hardest part is forecasting, the forecasting aspect of it,” one Group of 5 program recruiting coordinator said in an interview before Signing Day 2017. “Now I’m mapping out how many guys I’m gonna take in the 2018 class based on, ‘OK, since we took this many guys in 2017 and we’re losing these seniors this year, so they’re being replaced by these starters. How these starters develop during the spring, fall camp, and the season will help solidify what we need. But I need to go ahead and have a tentative plan.”

It all has to fit within two NCAA rules that underpin all of college football recruiting.

The first rule: An FBS team can have 85 scholarship players at a time.

Unlike most other college sports, football at the top level is a head-count sport. That means those 85 scholarships are full rides for 85 individuals. There’s no dividing the value of scholarships among teammates.

The second rule: An FBS team can bring in 25 new scholarship players in one signing class.

The limit is on 25 “initial counters,” which you can think of as players in their first year on an athletic scholarship. But a team can bring in more than 25 enrollees in a given year, in a few circumstances. Most commonly, if an athlete graduates high school early and enrolls for the spring semester, and if the school stayed under a cap of 25 in the previous year, it can assign enrollees to the previous class, up to the 25-man total cap.

If a player wants to delay his enrollment until the following spring, he can then be assigned to the following year’s class. But all players must be attributed to either a prior, current, or future class, and no class can exceed 25.

The only exceptions are Army, Navy, and Air Force. Every service academy student is on a non-athletic scholarship anyway, though those teams have a long list of other recruiting challenges that more than levels the playing field.

Conferences have their own rules, too. The SEC has a limit of 28 signees between December and May, which limits how many players a team can enroll early to avoid breaching the 25-man cap. The Big Ten’s rule is similar and also features a cap of 28 per year.

These rules make balance critical.

Every year, coaches and recruiting staffers need to get a detailed accounting of not only their current roster, but future rosters. That means charting out the remaining eligibility of every player in the program, then parsing that by position. The goal is to stay within 85 scholarships without ever getting too thin at any particular position.

“You set, ‘How many inside linebackers do I need? How many D-backers do I need?’” the recruiting coordinator says. “‘How many safeties do I need? I need seven cornerbacks. I need five running backs. I need four quarterbacks.’ So on and so forth. So each position has a desired number. And what you do is you build your desired numbers to be 41 on offense, 41 on defense, three on special teams — your punter, your kicker, and your long snapper.”

The NCAA now allows schools to give players four-year scholarships, but plenty of offers are for a year or two. Initial counters are almost never taken off scholarship for on-field performance. Walk-ons who’ve been in school for two full years often fill in the margins when a school doesn’t have 85 after fall camp. Those players aren’t initial counters — one of a few workarounds to the rule — and their scholarships don’t have to be renewed.

“The way people are adding two to three on their team is by bringing in walk-on kickers, punters, and long snappers every year, so that you constantly have competition. And then by your third year, you’re able to put a guy on [scholarship] without being an initial counter, so you never have to sign a kicker.”

But you can’t keep accurate tabs on a years-in-advance depth chart by only looking at a spreadsheet.

“The emphasis on evaluating how guys are developing really is important. When I say that, it’s not just the starters. It’s the backups,” the coordinator says. “If a bomb goes off at cornerback, what are we doing? If we have two safeties quit and a cornerback declares for the league that we didn’t expect to declare, and we lose three commits in this class, what are we looking at?”

If a team goes below something like three quarterbacks, 14 offensive linemen, 15 offensive skill players, 15 defensive backs, or 24 defensive front players, it’s playing with fire.

Sometimes, the rules force teams and players into uncomfortable conflict.

Not infrequently, programs oversign in a particular recruiting year. The math’s simple: If you sign 25 players every year and nobody leaves before playing exactly four seasons, you’ll wind up with 100 scholarship players, 15 more than you’re allowed. Add in redshirts, and you’re even further from compliance.

No team is that symmetrical. Players transfer, quit, get dismissed, get hurt, and declare for the NFL. But it’s common for teams to wrap up Signing Day with commitments to give scholarships to more than 85 players. Urban Meyer’s Ohio State got into some internet hot water when it was in that spot a few years ago, and SEC teams used to be infamous for it.

Some teams like to head into fall camp with a handful of their 85 scholarships available, so they can accommodate late graduate transfers and keep some roster flexibility. That can mean uncomfortable conversations with scholarship athletes who aren’t getting playing time. Coaches want their players to get degrees — or else it hurts the team’s NCAA APR score — but sometimes want them to get them elsewhere.

“We’ll wanna push them out of the program,” the coordinator says. “We’ll have that conversation of, ‘Hey, when you graduate, you know that you will not be playing here anymore. We’re gonna help you if you wanna keep playing football. We’ll help you get a spot somewhere else. You can be a grad transfer and not sit out.’”

A common work-around to the 25-initial counter rule is the “grayshirt.” That’s the practice of having a recruit wait to enroll in the spring semester after his would-be freshman season, thus getting around the 25 rule and 85-man total and delaying the player’s NCAA eligibility clock. (The player still eventually counts against both rules, but not until the next season.) That’s OK if coaches are upfront with recruits from the beginning. When they’re not, and the grayshirt comes as a late surprise, they get heat.

“For schools in areas where high school coaches reign as champions of football — you’re talking Ohio, you’re talking Florida, you’re talking Texas — those states, if you screw somebody, they are gonna blacklist you,” the recruiting coordinator says. “When you try to drop somebody or you try to get out of a scholarship or you try to maneuver to add a number and grayshirt a kid, it winds up being a bad look in the area, and word gets around quickly. That’s the fact of the matter.”

“Blueshirting” is also a tactic to circumvent the 25-per-class limit. If a player wasn’t technically “recruited” by the NCAA’s definition of the term, he can go on scholarship at the start of his freshman year but not be an initial counter until the next year. That practice can work well with scholarship transfers, who are also initial counters and have often generated lots of game film at another school.

Signing Day is a mad rush to the finish line.

The weeks leading up to the first Wednesday in February are mostly what the NCAA calls a “contact period.” Coaches can visit often with players, either at the college or at the player’s home or school. Phone calls, written, and electronic talk are allowed. The last Sunday before Signing Day becomes a “quiet period,” when in-person, off-campus contact isn’t allowed. Official visits to campuses are just wrapping up.

But Monday and Tuesday are a “dead period,” with no in-person contact allowed. Teams still get a phone call to recruits, and recruits can call teams. But it becomes a lot harder for teams to know where they stand.

Teams send official National Letter of Intent offers to their targets who haven’t already gotten them, but they’ve got to avoid more kids signing those letters than the NCAA allows. On the other hand, they can’t be so passive that they don’t sign enough players.

“All you gotta do is, you mail out your NLIs to the guys that you know are going to sign with you,” the recruiting coordinator explains. “Your commits, your solid commits and the targets that you know will sign with you. You know. A kid has already told you he’s gonna sign with you on Signing Day. If you don’t know, you wait until Monday, and then you overnight it.”

On Wednesday, teams wait by the fax machine, hoping it lights up. But if a player’s not committed and doesn’t call you on Monday or Tuesday, he’s probably not coming.