Coaches work around signing day limits

If it's all the same to you, the man who lent his name to the Houston Nutt Rule wants it back. His name, that is; the rule, you can keep.

"I'd rather be known for winning the Cotton Bowl," said Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, who actually has won the last two Cotton Bowls.

The so-called Houston Nutt Rule has nothing to do with winning Cotton Bowls. It applies to signing day, and it is the reason why Ole Miss did not sign 39 players this year, the number that it signed in 2009.

The Houston Nutt Rule, adopted by the Southeastern Conference this year and headed for your neighborhood NCAA Manual in the fall, maintains that no member school may sign more than 28 players between signing day and May 31.

If not for the Houston Nutt Rule, Ole Miss "probably would have signed 30" players last week, Nutt said. Instead, the Rebels signed 22.

If you are good at math, you may note that 39, 30 and 28 all are more than 25, the NCAA-mandated limit that has applied to FBS schools since 1992. But a few years ago, some very shrewd coach (no one is sure whom) noticed that the rule says that no more than 25 signees may enter the university in the fall term. It says nothing about how many players may sign with the university in February.

It is a loophole that a coach can drive a championship through. National champion Alabama, for instance, has announced 29 signees on each of the last two signing days.

Coaches do their best work in the loopholes that exist in the NCAA manual. That is why they began to creep over the limit of 25 players at signing day. Math is something of an inexact science in recruiting. The NCAA allows coaches to sign 25 players a year. But a university may not have more than 85 players on the roster. Wake up any FBS head coach in the dead of night at any time of year, and he could tell you his head count.

As an assistant, second-year head coach Frank Spaziani of Boston College said, when the topic of signing limits arose, "I fell asleep at those meetings. Now that I'm in charge, you have to worry about the numbers."

In a sport where 4 x 25 = 85, one may excuse a coach for believing that the NCAA expects a little "attrition."

Each coach defines attrition differently. Injuries affect roster size. Academic progress, or the lack thereof, affects roster size. Players leaving early for the NFL leave open spaces. Redshirt seniors have to prove that their fifth year is worth more to the team than an incoming freshman.

"We got guys wanting to come back for their fifth year, even if they're not playing, to help out," Spaziani said. "They have to convince me that they understand how much they are going to play. Do they still want to practice and contribute?"

Attrition also takes place when coaches sign players who will not qualify for freshman eligibility. They know it, and the player knows it. That's one of the reasons that Nutt signed 39 players last year.

"I explained it to [Ole Miss athletic director] Pete Boone," Nutt said. "We have so many junior colleges in the state, and we were trying to build a relationship with them. We knew nine of [the signees] were not going to make it academically [qualify for freshmen eligibility]. There's nothing like a young man being able to say, 'I'm coming to Ole Miss eventually.' I think it motivates them."

Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered. Nutt went so far over the limit of 25 signees that he made the rule look toothless. University presidents don't like their rules to be mocked.

"We spent some time trying to analyze what happens in each signing class," SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey said. "Folks got so concerned that it became an issue that crystallized last spring."

The SEC athletic directors suggested that the signing limit from signing day through May 31 be set at 30. The presidents agreed upon 28. The NCAA also adopted the 28-man limit, although few schools outside the SEC have signed more than 25.

In the perfect world, Sankey said, annual classes hover below the limit of 25 and the total roster hovers below 85.

"When you see [that]," Sankey said, "there may be a great deal that's going right. They're bringing in people, and those people are making academic progress."

When you don't see that, there may be attrition. There also may be January enrollees. Coaches love players who enroll in January for a few reasons. For one, the NCAA does not designate to which season January enrollees are assigned. If a coach signed more than 25 and doesn't have the right amount of attrition, he must coax the number over the limit to wait until January.

"I've only had to do that once," Nutt said. "You go to the parent and say, 'Hey, can you help us out until January?'"

If a school didn't have 25 signees in place when the school year began, January enrollees may be backdated to count in that class. In other words, a linebacker who plays high school football and signs in January may be counted as a classmate of guys who played in college games in the same season.

January enrollees are great for schools that have players who leave early for the NFL. Alabama and Florida announced last week that they each had 11 players enroll in January. Florida signed only 16 players a year ago, so the Gators could backdate some signees. Alabama will be counting more toward 2010.

Spaziani is a big fan of January enrollees, who can begin college without the pressure and expectation of competing for playing time.

"You go in January, you adjust to school, you go to spring practice and you don't have to worry about making the team," Spaziani said.

"It's so tough when all their buddies are going through two-a-days, and they are not part of it," Nutt said. "We had three or four this year. Once they get here, they say, 'Hey, I'm so glad I did that. I'm a year older. I'm a year smarter.'

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has at least three players enrolling either for the current winter quarter or for spring quarter, which begins on March 30. Yet he is wary of falling in love with potential instead of appreciating who he already has in his locker room.

"If you keep pushing guys out to be grayshirted, does that mean you think you're not going to recruit as well next year?" Sarkisian said. "Or are you going to have a better year next year?"

Sarkisian believes that the new 28-signee limit is one more way to level the playing field against the Floridas and the USCs, where he coached as an assistant under former Trojans coach Pete Carroll.

"They can't sign all the good players and keep pushing it out a year," Sarkisian said.

At least until they find another loophole. Coaches always do.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.