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Coaches defend 'oversigning' recruits

NewsCore WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Coaches at some of the nation's top college football programs continue to sign more incoming players than they can accommodate on their rosters, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

Despite increasing criticism of the practice, which is known as "oversigning," three coaches from the hotly competitive Southeastern Conference are defending it.

South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, whose 2011 recruiting class is considered one of the nation's finest, ended up with three more players than NCAA rules will allow him to add to his final roster in the fall. In a rare move, Spurrier was forced to tell two recruits who had committed to play for South Carolina that there would not be room for them in this fall's class.

Spurrier said oversigning is "helpful" because so many of the players in the state come from underprivileged backgrounds and may not qualify academically. He said the Big Ten, which has curbed oversigning for decades, is making a mistake by doing so.

"I think that really hurts them a lot," Spurrier said. "They end up giving scholarships to a lot of walk-ons."

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, who signed 31 recruits in 2009 and is a few players over the 85-player NCAA limit at the moment, said oversigning is fine if coaches are forthright about it.

Houston Nutt, Mississippi's coach, signed 31 players in 2008, 37 in 2009, 25 last year and 28 last month. He said oversigning is sometimes necessary, mainly to plug holes.

This year, he said, two cornerbacks, Jermaine Whitehead and Floyd Raven, defected at the last minute.

"Now I'm sitting here without two corners," Nutt said. "You just can't have this perfect world of, 'We're gonna sign 22 this year.' "

How college football teams manage their allotted number of players is a serious competitive issue in the sport. The 120 schools in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, the sport's highest echelon, are limited to 85 scholarship athletes each.

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No more than 25 new signees are allowed to join a team in the fall. Because injuries are common, teams do whatever they can to make sure those spots are filled by the best athletes.

Coaches love oversigning because it gives them more talent to choose from, keeps it out of the hands of competitors and allows them to replace players who quit, fail to qualify academically or violate team rules. If a spot opens up from this sort of attrition, they have a highly sought-after recruit to fill it.

But in some cases, the team does not lose enough players through attrition to account for all the extras it signed, so the coach needs to get rid of some people. Rather than cut them outright, which would cost them their scholarships and create ill will among future recruits, teams force some to "grayshirt," or delay their enrollment for a semester.

Others are asked to take a "medical scholarship" which allows them to keep their scholarship so long as they agree they are too injured to continue playing for the team. Some are strongly encouraged to transfer.

Critics say the rule is unfair to players, some of whom unwittingly arrive on campus facing the chopping block.

This year, Spurrier said that so many recruits chose South Carolina that they wound up with two more players than they could take under conference rules. The team told Jordan Montgomery, a linebacker from Groveland, Fla., and Lorenzo Mauldin, a defensive end from Atlanta, that there was not room for them in this year's class.

Montgomery's high school coach, Walter Banks, said: "I told them this was foul. I didn't have a clue until 18 hours before signing day, and if they say anything else, they're lying."

Spurrier said he selected those two players because they had the furthest to go to qualify academically. Both players could still be in South Carolina's class next year.

"What we probably could've done earlier in the recruiting is tell them that this could happen," he said. "But then again, we didn't know it was going to come up. It's a ticklish situation."

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