Mailbag: Why Shirt Color Matters in Recruiting

With National Signing Day one week away, the many and varied ways coaches manage their scholarships kick off this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
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The second and final National Signing Day of the 2019 cycle is a week away, and you have questions…

From Grant via text: I realize teams have 85 total and 25 initial scholarships. Could you explain what the terms “grayshirt” and “blueshirt” mean to how teams get to those totals?

A few years ago, the concept of grayshirting was somewhat controversial—not because of what it is but because of how it was being used. A grayshirt player delays enrollment by a semester and joins the team during the spring semester of the following year. This allows the program some flexibility when it comes to the 25 initial scholarship players allowed each year by the NCAA.

Let’s say the player signs now and doesn’t enroll until January 2020. He may count against the class of 2019—if, say, a player didn’t qualify academically and the team only wound up using 24 initial counters—or he may count against the class of 2020. This also means the player’s eligibility clock doesn’t begin ticking until 2020. There’s nothing controversial about that. It got weird when coaches would spring the grayshirt option on players within days of signing day, when they might not have a chance to find a non-grayshirt deal elsewhere. 

The grayshirting policies of Alabama’s Nick Saban got the most attention because everything Saban does gets a ton of attention. An example of the late notice situation came in 2012 when a defensive line commit from Mobile named Darius Philon was told he needed to take a grayshirt if he still wanted to join the Crimson Tide. Philon had injured a knee in the playoffs late in his senior season, so Saban—knowing Philon probably couldn’t play as a freshman—switched the offer to a grayshirt shortly before signing day. Philon wanted to enroll on scholarship with his class, so he signed instead with Arkansas, where he redshirted. Philon now plays for the Chargers, so it all worked out.

The grayshirt is less controversial now because the early signing period makes it nearly impossible to spring the grayshirt on a player. If the grayshirt option is offered in December, the player still has until February to find a non-grayshirt option. Then he can make an informed decision.

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The blueshirt is a lesser-known option that coaches have used lately to help dig their programs out of scholarship holes (usually left by predecessors). When a program needs to take more than 25 players to get its numbers closer to the 85-scholarship maximum, blueshirts often are the only option.

So what is a blueshirt? In NCAA parlance, it’s a non-recruited player. The schools added this classification in case a team had 25 incoming scholarship freshmen and a surefire contributor just came in off the street as a walk-on. It allows the school to place that player on scholarship when practice begins without him counting against the 25. 

This exact scenario doesn’t happen very often. The closest thing I can remember to this was when former minor league baseball player Kelly Washington enrolled at Tennessee in 2001 and wowed everyone as a walk-on receiver, but Washington’s high school football coach had been in touch with Tennessee’s defensive backs coach beforehand. (And Washington’s tuition was paid for by the Florida Marlins, so he was in a different situation from a scholarship perspective.) The fact is most programs know exactly who is coming in—even the walk-ons.

The practical application of the blueshirt is to recruit a player without doing any of the things that put him on the books with the NCAA as a recruit. He can come in on an unofficial visit (he or his family pays for travel, lodging and food) but not an official visit (the school pays). The coaching staff can’t make an in-home visit. But the player can enroll with his class and be placed on scholarship on his first day of practice.

Why would a player accept this rather than a regular scholarship? Because he probably doesn’t have any offers at the level of program that is offering him a blueshirt. If he’s got Group of Five offers and a Power 5 school offers a blueshirt, he’s probably going to take it. To him, the process won’t be much different—especially if he lives near the school and can get there easily for unofficial visits—than it will be for his classmates with more conventional offers.

From Jerome: There have been a lot of high-profile players hitting the transfer portal, but who are some lower-profile players who can make a big impact at new schools?

This is a great question. Though all the young quarterbacks piling into the portal have brought a lot more attention to the transfer market, the bulk of the action remains older players stuck on the depth chart at their current schools trying to find a place where they can start.

A good example of this is T.J. McCoy. McCoy was thrust into the starting center spot at Florida in 2016 as a redshirt freshman when two players in front of him went down with injuries. McCoy won the starting job in 2017 but had his season cut short by an injury. Playing in 2018 for a new coaching staff, McCoy got beat out by Nick Buchanan and spent his junior season as a backup.

So rather than being a backup again, McCoy has graduated and transferred to Louisville, where he’ll be eligible to play immediately—and where he may be more needed. The Cardinals don’t have any seniors on the offensive line with experience, and they ended last season with only eight offensive linemen. An experienced interior player such as McCoy should be able to help.

Texas tailback Kyle Porter has a similar story. He averaged 4.5 yards a carry as a freshman backup to D’Onta Foreman in 2016, but he slid down the depth chart after Charlie Strong and his staff were fired and Tom Herman took over. Porter is scheduled to graduate in May and should be eligible to play immediately at his next school—when he chooses one.

LITMAN: The Most Interesting Non-Quarterbacks in the Transfer Portal

From Doug: With the new stadium, could Las Vegas host a CFP title game?

I sure hope so. As lovely as the Bay Area is, it couldn’t turn itself into a hotbed of college football activity for the national title game. But there are places west of the Rockies that would make better hosts, and Vegas is absolutely one of those.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act opened the doors for states other than Nevada and Delaware to allow sports betting, and several already have done so with more to come. The NCAA has long kept its tournaments out of Nevada, and while the College Football Playoff isn’t run by the NCAA, it is run by a bunch of NCAA member schools that likely would have respected that ban had the law not changed. As more states legalize sports gambling, the powers that be likely will relax their stance on playing championships in places that have sports books.

The Pac-12, which began holding its basketball tournament in Vegas in 2017, just opted out of its deal with Levi’s Stadium for the league’s football championship in 2020. Conveniently enough, that is the year the Raiders are supposed to begin play in their new stadium in Las Vegas.

The Pac-12 title game has suffered from attendance issues that probably can’t be solved by holding the game on Friday at 5 p.m. local time in one of the most expensive, spread-out and traffic-choked metro areas in America. Vegas is a far more sensible solution for a neutral site.

Meanwhile, the CFP could get fans very excited about coming to its championship—regardless of who is playing—by putting it in Vegas. But it’s going to be awhile. The next four seasons are spoken for by New Orleans, South Florida, Indianapolis and Los Angeles.