When Butch Jones was hired last December, just two months before National Signing Day, the Vols had fewer than a dozen verbal commitments who would ultimately sign with the team.
Today, nine months before prospects in the Class of 2014 are allowed to sign, Jones has already collected 12 commitments, more than all but one other school in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Texas has 13).
“I think people around the country understand what we have here,” Jones said this spring amid a flurry of good recruiting news. “They’ve been waiting for Tennessee to wake up. And now we’re waking up.”
Why is the Vols’ class getting so big, so quickly?
There are several factors at play, but one reason is most glaring: In 2014, the Vols have the flexibility to sign an unusually large class.
Although teams rarely verify a firm number of available scholarships, a News Sentinel analysis of past recruiting classes indicates that the Vols could sign as many as 30 and perhaps more players in 2014.
To maximize the class, five of those 30 players would have to be early enrollees who start classes at UT in January and participate in spring practice. Those five players could then be “back-counted” against the 2013 class, which was unusually small.
NCAA rules limit teams to 25 scholarships each year, or 85 overall. In the past, teams frequently signed more than 25, assuming some players would not qualify academically. Other players would be asked to delay their enrollment. Some were simply dropped if there wasn’t enough space.
Backlash against this “over-signing” led to conference regulations that prohibited teams from signing more than 25 players in any class.
So why do many schools seem to sign more than 25 every year? By counting certain players against the previous class, teams can maximize their available scholarship numbers and make up for lean years by padding their numbers in future years. The term “back-counting” isn’t lingo recognized by the NCAA or SEC, but it’s used to describe the way teams make the most of the current system.
A year ago, Georgia was in a similar situation to Tennessee. Due to a number of factors, including lack of available space, Georgia coach Mark Richt signed an unusually small class in 2012. A year later, with more room under the 85-scholarship limit and a huge crop of in-state prospects, the Bulldogs signed 33 players.
Based on previous announced signing classes, here’s how it appears Tennessee got to this point:
The Vols announced 22 players in the 2012 class. Tino Thomas, a “grayshirt” whose enrollment was pushed back from 2011, made it a 23-man class. Although there were six early enrollees, it’s not clear if any were able to be counted against the 2011 class. Any players counted against 2011 could increase UT’s haul in 2014.
The Vols announced 21 signees in the 2013 class in February and recently added a potential summer enrollee in receiver Johnathon Johnson. The Vols could count at least two early enrollees against the 2012 class. With Johnson’s arrival, the Vols still would count only a maximum of 20 against the 25-man limit in 2013.
If UT convinces five prospects to enroll early, they could count all of them against 2013, with room to add up to 25 more as traditional summer arrivals for a total of 30.
The questions emerge when classes prior to the creation of the strict 25-man rule are factored into the equation. The Vols had sizeable early enrollments in 2010 and 2011, but that was before the current rules made programs think about class size the way they do today.
Of course, Tennessee could still choose to sign fewer than 30-odd players, but given the large senior class that UT must replace and the gaping holes on both the offensive and defensive lines, it’s likely that Jones and his staff will try to sign as many as possible.
Regardless of year-to-year signings, teams can never have more than 85 players on scholarship at any given time. That’s another area of contention and criticism for websites like Oversigning.com that chonicle players who are pushed off of rosters to make room for newly signed players.
But it seems unlikely that the 85-man cap will pose a problem for Jones and Tennessee.
Assuming all 2013 prospects qualify academically, the Vols will add another 17 scholarship players to the roster this summer, bringing the team’s total to 85, according to an unofficial count by the News Sentinel. (That figure includes two players who have uncertain futures. Suspended running back Marlin Lane is likely to return; senior defensive back Eric Gordon, who has been contending with personal issues, may not be back).
The Vols will lose 22 seniors to graduation after the 2013 season. At least one junior — offensive lineman Antonio “Tiny” Richardson — could leave early for the NFL. At least three former walk-ons who were awarded scholarships could return to walk-on status, if necessary.
That’s 26 potential vacant spots already, and that doesn’t include the inevitable attrition that occurs in any program over the course of a year.
Bottom line: Get ready for a busy National Signing Day in 2014. The Vols have plenty of room to spare.