Oversigning persists in recruiting process

When four-star defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson turned down Tech to commit to Alabama on Wednesday, it probably should not have been a surprise. It’s hard to fault a top prospect for spurning Tech for the defending national champions.

There’s a slight issue, though. With Tomlinson and other Signing Day commits in tow, Alabama received letters of intent from 26 players for its 2012 class, meaning they have committed to one scholarship over the limit of 25 imposed by the SEC starting this season.

It could and would have been worse, though, if Alabama had not already taken questionable steps to avoid the problem. Two longtime Alabama commits, running back Justin Taylor and defensive tackle Darius Philon, had their scholarship offers revoked by coach Nick Saban in January without warning. Suddenly, just days before National Signing Day, each player found himself without a scholarship despite having been committed to Alabama for months.

Mark them down as two new entries on the ever-growing list of victims of oversigning, a disgusting practice that has gained a foothold at several major programs. It’s a tactic that always ensures that teams that oversign will be able to fill out their 85-scholarship allotments, provided they are willing to betray players who have committed on the promise of a scholarship offer.

What happens to the victims of oversigning varies from case to case, but none end cleanly. Many are asked to grayshirt, or defer enrollment by a year to count toward the following year’s class. Those with poor grades are often sent to junior colleges to improve their academics.

The most brutal tactic, though, is the “medical hardship,” something that Alabama has allegedly abused heavily. Here, a rarely-used scholarship player already on the roster is forced to accept a release from the team under the guise of a nonexistent medical issue. He can no longer play and, more importantly, no longer counts for the 85-scholarship limit.

Oversigning and its effects result from a push to get as much talent on the roster as possible, so it is little surprise that many of the schools known to habitually oversign are in the cutthroat SEC. Former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt once signed 30 and 37 players in back-to-back classes. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino have historically abused the practice and have spoken in favor of it, citing the flexibility it offers to support their case.

It’s pretty pathetic. Even Alabama’s Saban said that trying to achieve a 25-player class was “difficult,” ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the nation has had little trouble accepting this completely sensible practice.

There have been fairly successful efforts to crack down on oversigning. The Big Ten has been one of the most innovative conferences in college athletics, and its policies on oversigning are no exception. Schools are never allowed to be more than three scholarships above the limit of 85 for any reason, and internal discussions have persuaded nine of the 12 schools to shift from renewable one-year scholarships to four-year grants as of this season, an approach that a handful of schools around the country are adopting.

The change from one-year deals to four-year deals, while technically separate from the oversigning debate, would give players much more security upon signing by forcing coaches to be far more accountable.

There is a case to be made that with the freedom recruits have to jump from school to school and switch commitments, college coaches almost have to oversign to ensure they reach 85 scholarships each season, even if a few recruits are stepped on along the way.

It’s a completely unfair comparison, though. Where the loss of one or two recruits in a 24-person recruiting class will hardly cripple a program’s ability to compete, withdrawal of a scholarship offer to a committed recruit can be devastating to the player, leaving him without a school and, in most cases, without any other offers.

The two spurned Alabama recruits, Philon and Taylor, were lucky enough to sign with other SEC schools in the end…but if they had not had those offers, they would have had to accept Saban’s “offer” to let them grayshirt at Alabama.

It’s a simple sign of the power that oversigning-prone coaches can wield to manipulate their recruits. Increased awareness of the practice has produced change, oversigning will not truly be curbed until more formal regulations are put in place at both the NCAA and conference levels.