<
>

Loophole closed, questions remain

3/7/2014

Spring practice began in earnest this week, from North Carolina to Notre Dame, Ohio State to Ole Miss, Washington to West Virginia. Drills start within the next 48 hours at Tennessee, LSU, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

On campuses nationally, coaches open the spring with a review: Let's see what you forgot.

Same goes in the recruiting world, where the Nike Football Training Camp on Sunday in Los Angeles serves as the unofficial kickoff to a period of evaluation that intensifies as college coaches hit the road next month to watch prospects in action at their high schools.

And with it, we need a review of the most significant legislation to affect recruiting in the past year -- a ruling that figures to factor more prominently for the Class of 2015.

This past fall, the NCAA issued an interpretation to an existing rule that allowed senior football prospects who planned January enrollments in college to sign financial aid agreements that bound the programs with which they signed to honor scholarship offers.

Eligible prospects are permitted to sign on Aug. 1 before their senior years.

The agreements, not to be confused with the national letter of intent, do not bind prospects to the schools.

But the schools that received executed agreements are allowed to publicize the signings and communicate, free of normal, NCAA-imposed restrictions, with the signed prospects outside of recruiting dead periods.

Well, the whole thing led to a few problems. Or as the NCAA preferred to say, unintended consequences.

"There were some things that weren't necessarily thought through," Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen said.

Notably, recruits realized they could sign with multiple programs. Many did, including heralded receiver Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., who essentially insured his offers from Clemson, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State before even picking a school. (He eventually chose the Volunteers.)

Additionally, the scenario that involved Malone and others carried the potential to ignite a recruiting free-for-all, with coaches and schools competing for recruits in public venues and through unmonitored communication.

"That could be really ugly," Duke coach David Cutcliffe told me shortly before signing day. "To me, look at how damaging that could be to a young man and his family."

So, in December, the NCAA, in an attempt to close this loophole before it became a giant mess, ruled that only the program that first signs a prospect to a financial aid agreement is allowed to publicize the signing and text or call at free will. In theory, it should fix the problem. There's not much incentive to accept a recruit's second signature when only the first school reaps the reward.

That said, most programs won't turn it down from a prospect the caliber of Malone or any of the dozens of top recruits set to enroll early in 2015. And how exactly does the NCAA know with whom a recruit signed first? The organization plans to leave it largely up to the recruiting media to sort it out.

"There's some logistics to work out with that situation, for sure," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.

Sounds like a controversy waiting to happen.

Which brings us to today. Last year, the situation with financial aid agreements was disorganized. The NCAA interpretation that began the mini-landslide of signings was unveiled only in October. Even then, many schools did not notify their early-enrolling targets and commits of the possibility to sign.

"They never presented the option to me," said defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, who signed with Notre Dame out of Demarest, N.J., "but it didn't really matter. I knew I was going there."

It matters for some. Take the case of Nebraska quarterback Zack Darlington, who enrolled early after suffering a season-ending head injury in the first game of his senior year. If he had signed a financial aid agreement -- Darlington never did -- nothing short of his failure to graduate early could have jeopardized his scholarship. The Huskers did not waver in their offer to Darlington after his injury, but other schools have dropped kids over less significant matters.

Penn State QB Michael O'Connor, who played his senior year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., did not know whether he had signed a financial aid agreement in the days before Bill O'Brien left for the Houston Texans.

"I don't think I have," O'Connor said at the time, "but I've signed so many things in the past few weeks, it gets confusing."

New Penn State coach James Franklin was happy to keep O'Connor, but what if he had wanted to bring in his own quarterback recruit and had room for just one in the class? It happens. If O'Connor had signed early, the possibility would have been eliminated.

This year, come Aug. 1, early-enrolling recruits and their high school coaches will be armed with the pertinent information and ready to act. No longer can college coaches hide from a prospect that he's eligible to sign an agreement to secure his scholarship. It also might reduce the so-called uncommittable offers, which make little sense but have grown in acceptance the past few years.

"I think there's a lot to be worked out with this topic," said Sonny Cumbie, co-offensive coordinator at TCU. "The recruiting process is sped up so much now."

At TCU, Cumbie said, coaches want prospects to visit campus before making a commitment. Current rules allow no official visits before Sept. 1 -- a full month after recruits can sign the agreements. An adjustment is needed. An early letter-of-intent signing period might solve the problem. Perhaps the legislators who govern these rules should submit to the same practice college coaches require of their players every year at this time: a full review of what they learned last year.