College football signing classes are one step closer to growing in size.
The NCAA Football Oversight Committee has recommended that the annual 25-person signing limit immediately expand as a way for coaches to replace players they’ve lost to the burgeoning transfer portal. The recommendation is expected to be debated and potentially approved at the next Division I Council meeting on Oct. 5. The policy will take effect in the current 2022 recruiting cycle and is seen as a one-year waiver before a more permanent rule is created.
Under the recommendation, schools can sign 25 new players while gaining additional signee spots for each player who transfers out of their program—up to a limit of seven, sources tell Sports Illustrated. The transferring player must have left academically eligible. 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.
Schools can only replace those who enter the transfer portal. They would not gain additional spots for players who retire from the sport or leave early for the NFL draft. Other proposals were debated among Oversight members, including increasing total signees to 30 or 35, but they settled on this compromise, as originally reported by SI in August.
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 all 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 more 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,” Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, told SI in August. “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.”
The passage of the rule is a somewhat stunning turn of events. This so-called waiver would increase the signing class of 2022—which coaches are in the midst of amassing—three months before the early signing period starts.
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 oversign 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 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.
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Schools are only allowed to replace players who enter the transfer portal after the early signing period. Schools would have to replace them by the time camp starts. They would not carry over to the next class.
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 signing 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.
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