College football signing classes are expected to soon grow in size.
NCAA officials are moving closer to an immediate expansion of the annual 25-person signing limit as a way for coaches to replace players they’ve lost to the burgeoning transfer portal. The NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee is finalizing a proposal that would change the signing limit this cycle in what’s being described as a one-year waiver of relief until a permanent policy is created.
Multiple officials spoke to Sports Illustrated under the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of ongoing deliberations on the proposals.
A compromise is finally emerging among a group of proposals. Under the plan, schools can sign 25 new players while gaining additional signee spots for every player who transfers out of their program—up to a certain limit. The extra spots would be based on the number of players who enter the transfer portal under their own volition and would be capped at a figure, such as seven.
For instance, a school that loses five players to the portal can sign 30 new players. A school that loses 10 players to the portal can sign 32 new signees, if the cap were seven. The replacement cap has not been finalized.
In fact, other proposals are being discussed as well, including one that simply increases the total signees to 30, 32 or 35. Another proposal, still being vetted, would require a school to use its 25 spots on high school players and would give a school an additional five to seven spots for transfers.
The impetus for immediate action on the topic is a result of policy changes that are leaving—and will leave—many schools well short of the overall 85 scholarship limit. While schools are limited to having 85 scholarship players a year, they are restricted to signing 25 players in a single class. The 100 signees over four years leaves a 15-player wiggle room for natural attrition.
However, there is more movement in the sport than ever before because of a rule change that grants athletes the right to transfer once without penalty. The transfer surge combined with name, image and likeness is resulting in another disturbing trend: coaches steering their recruiting away from the high school level and toward the portal.
Meanwhile, rosters are in for a critical makeover next year, when two classes—as many as 40 players—exit because of a COVID-19-inspired rule granting each athlete an extra year of eligibility.
Officials believe the solution is offering coaches more signee spots, hoping they will use them to both recruit the high school circuit more and to consistently remain near the 85 mark.
“We want to maintain the ability to recruit high school players,” says Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “If we don’t have any corrective legislation, people aren’t going to do that. We’re trying to maintain high school recruitment and make sure universities hard hit by losses to the transfer portal are O.K.”
Proposals were brought before the Oversight Committee last week and then socialized among the conferences this week. The committee meets Thursday to further discuss the topic and potentially approve an immediate move.
It’s a somewhat stunning turn of events. The waiver would expand the 2022 signing class—which coaches are in the midst of amassing—four months before the early-signing period starts.
But not everyone agrees with the proposals. The annual signing limit in football has for years been an argumentative issue. It was originally implemented to disincentivize the trend of coaches cutting or pushing out scholarship players in an effort to over-sign high school players or transfers.
Earlier this year, West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons and other administrators expressed concern that replacing departures with additional signee spots will “repeat history.” They believe that coaches will exploit the change by pushing out players to create an additional spot for more talented athletes—a reason for the cap on replacements.
However, in the compromise proposal, schools can replace only players who leave for the transfer portal on their own. Schools would not be able to gain additional spots for players dismissed from a team, pushed out by coaches or those who leave early for the NFL draft.
In a policy proposed by the AFCA, similar to the compromise plan, only those players who enter the transfer portal after the first day of the February signing period can be replaced. Schools would have to replace them by the time camp starts. They would not carry over to the next class.
That timing is still under discussion and some of these concepts have been met with scrutiny. For instance, asks one athletic director, who is to determine exactly why a player has left? In order to amass additional spots, will coaches convince departing players who they have pushed out to lie to compliance staff?
“Is there a possibility of that happening? Yes,” says Berry, “but players who are run off are usually not happy. They’ll come in and tell compliance ‘They kicked me off the team.’”
Officials are hoping the additional spots result in coaches steering their recruiting back to the high school level. Some coaches have stated publicly that they’re holding as many as half of their classes for transfers, adversely impacting high school and junior college recruiting.
“When you start looking at where we’re headed with the transfer portal, there are two ways of looking at it,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck told SI in the spring. “The first singing day is like the draft. The second part is free agency, and that’s the transfer portal. You’ll see less and less people signing 25 high school kids.”
The portal is overflowing with players, many of them with nowhere to go. In SI research for a story this past spring, the average Power 5 program had 8.5 scholarship players in the portal, while the average Group of 5 squad had 6.3.
Portal hunting comes at a cost, hurting overall numbers. Not only does a transfer punish his own school by leaving an empty scholarship spot, but he’s using one of the precious 25-signee spots at his new school despite, many times, not having a full four years of eligibility remaining.
Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC, said in the spring that the 25-player limit needs a “hard look” because of the concern that teams will not consistently fill all 85 of their scholarship spots given the transfer movement. That is a concern from a host of college athletic administrators and coaches.
“It’s going to be hard for teams to have 85 when the season starts,” says Pat Chun, the Washington State athletic director.
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