KNOXVILLE — It was the vote that dominated headlines earlier this summer and changed the immediate future of recruiting in the Southeastern Conference.
The league's presidents and chancellors voted at the SEC spring meetings a little more than six weeks ago to reduce the size of football signing classes to 25 players even though coaches unanimously wanted to keep it at 28.
The change will force the league's coaches to adjust, although for University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, it won't be much different from the norm.
“I don't think this is going to change much how we do stuff,” the Volunteers' second-year coach said earlier this week, “because y'all know I've been about minimizing risk from the beginning and I'm not trying to have a lot of attrition, although you need to have some attrition.
“But I don't think it's going to change much. I think the good news is when we needed to sign a lot of guys, the rule wasn't in place — that's the last two years. So hopefully we'll kind of steady the ship, and if we can have a good, deep roster that doesn't have a lot of attrition, then the rule shouldn't affect you.”
Since NCAA rules allow schools to bring in just 25 players each August, the SEC's new rule, which replaced a rule that was put in effect in 2009, means coaches likely will have to adjust to having less room for error with recruits who may not qualify academically or finish their careers at the school.
That won't be as big as adjustment for Dooley and his staff, however, given their usual recruiting standards. Two of the five criteria the Vols use in their evaluations of high school prospects place emphasis on the player's character and academics, in addition to the recruit's size, ability and intangibles on the field, with the goal in mind of minimizing attrition.
The method appears to have had some success in Dooley's first full class. All but one of the 28 players UT signed in February have enrolled at the school, and 20 of the 22 players who didn't enroll in January arrived for the start of summer school in June.
The amount of uncertainty in recruiting, Dooley said, will be the hardest adjustment for him and the rest of the league.
“The unknown that you have every year from an academic standpoint,” he said, “the unknown on the high schools players’ academic standpoint, the unknown of injuries that might happen in the spring and summer of the high school player, the unknown of things that might happen on your roster. There's a lot of unknown when you're sitting there in January — so many things can happen between January and August.”
The old rule, under which the Vols signed 27 players in 2010 and 28 in February, helped the Vols build their number of scholarship players back closer to the NCAA-mandated limit of 85 after more than 40 players left the program for various reasons over the last five recruiting classes during the instability of three different coaching staffs in three consecutive years.
The Vols, who could bring in 26 players in this class, currently stand one player over that limit. One of the Vols' freshmen likely will have to grayshirt, which would prohibit the player from participating with the team while he is still taking classes.
“The first day of camp it'll be resolved,” Dooley said. “We'll have our 26 initials. It's premature right now to start speculating on who's what.”
Dooley's biggest issue with the new rule is that it isn't effective in addressing the four different periods in which players can currently enroll: mid-term (January), summer school, fall and delayed.
“I think the bigger issue that I've said all along is that this is just a band-aid,” Dooley said. “It's not addressing the issue. The [National Letter of Intent] only addresses the fall enrollment period, so we have a flawed document that was created when the rules were different. So we need to address the issue, and that's revising and changing the NLI so it can speak on all those enrollment periods.”
The rule change could get more attention at SEC Media Days later this week, but though the league's coaches might not favor it, they'll still have to make some adjustments.
“We've stated all the concerns that we've had about it,” Dooley said. “Just like any rule, you can't look back now. You've got to adjust and not sign more than 25 guys, and then figure out a way to not have so much attrition.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...