NCAA rules cap signees at 25 per year. In this recruiting cycle, Florida can sign as many as 27. How is that possible?
Glad you asked.
The three caps
Forgive me, but we have to get into NCAA jargon to sort this out. There are two NCAA caps: one on counters, and one on initial counters.
“Counters”, as in head count, are players on scholarship. An FBS team can have no more than 85 of them enrolled at a time.
“Initial counters” (ICs) are players receiving a scholarship for the first time from a school. This includes high school signees, JUCOs, transfers, and even walk-ons being granted scholarships. A team can only add 25 new scholarship players per year regardless of how they came in, with a few picayune exceptions.
The most pertinent one is that walk-ons used to be able to get a scholarship without counting as an IC if they’d been at a school for at least two full academic years. A recent change dropped it to one. Another key rule is that schools used to get ICs back from signed recruits who end up non-qualifiers, but in 2017 that provision went away.
Finally, the SEC caps its member schools at 28 NLI signings between the months of December and May.
Back it up
Wait, why does the SEC have to cap it at 28 when the NCAA caps it at 25?
The reason is because of early enrollees. Recruits and JUCOs who enroll in January are doing so in the middle of the academic year. The ones in this cycle will be joining UF in the middle of the 2019-20 school year. However, they won’t officially be participating in football until the 2020-21 school year. Only the dates of the sport’s season matter for these purposes; practices don’t.
Therefore, a school has the option of counting these mid-year enrollees as ICs towards either the year in which they enroll or the year in which they actually start participating.
Because we talk of recruiting classes by the upcoming year — Florida is right now putting together its 2020 class — you’ll hear people talk about back counting early enrollees to the previous year. That’s the terminology I’ll be using from here on out, but just know that’s not technically what’s happening.
A school can back count up to five early enrollee ICs toward the prior year. That’s where the SEC’s limit comes in. A school that signs 20 recruits, doesn’t back count any towards the prior year, and doesn’t take any transfers will have five IC spots leftover. Theoretically it could sign 30 the next year as long as it has at least five early enrollees. If it’s in the SEC, it can’t — it can only go up to 28. You can thank Houston Nutt for that rule.
Let’s count the (initial) counters
It’s not simple to calculate the number of ICs a school can use for a particular year because it depends on how many early enrollees it can back count to the prior year. And the number of those slots in the prior year depends on how many they back counted to the year before that. And so on.
Florida signed 22 players in 2008 and just 18 players in 2009. It didn’t welcome in any new transfers during those years either. That means Urban Meyer had the ability to count back a full five from 2010 to 2009. There’s our for-sure starting point.
Now, if you want to see how all the math works since then, you can. For the detail-minded, I’ll note that D’Anfernee McGriff not qualifying in 2015 got UF back his initial counter, and I believe Tommy Townsend was a walk-on for two years (2016-17) before getting a scholarship in 2018. That saves Florida an initial counter on him too.
For everyone else, I’ll skip ahead and just look at the current coaching staff’s tenure.
Dan Mullen signed 20 players in his transitional class. However, Randy Russell was medically disqualified shortly after enrolling in January 2018 with a heart condition. Thanks to a relatively new rule, bylaw 188.8.131.52.1.3 (yes, really), UF got his initial counter back since Russell hadn’t participated in a season yet.
UF also brought in three transfers: Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Adam Shuler. Those three plus 19 signees makes 22, but there was one slot left from 2017 for back counting purposes. Therefore, the Gators used 21 initial counters for 2018.
In 2019, UF signed 25 players. Three of them didn’t qualify: Diwun Black, Deyavie Hammond, and Arjei Henderson. The former two went to JUCO and therefore still count towards the year’s ICs; Henderson enrolled in a different Division I program in FCS Jacksonville State and therefore does come off the IC books. Wardrick Wilson was unable to enroll due to a visa issue, so he also didn’t count. That brings it down to 23 ICs from the signing class.
The Gators had two incoming transfers in Jonathan Greenard and Brenton Cox. They push UF up to 25, but there were four IC slots left over from 2018. By back counting four early enrollees, Florida winds up with another 21 used for 2019.
Now comes the current cycle. With the standard 25 initial counters to work with plus four slots from last year for back counting, there are 29 ICs available. Well, 28, since Texas wide receiver Jordan Pouncey has decided to transfer in. There seems to be optimism out there that Wardrick Wilson will finally be able to enroll in January — this is not me reporting anything, by the way, just noting things in the winds — which would bring the total down to 27.
Therefore if I got the math right and Wilson is able to enroll, Florida can sign up to 27 players in the current recruiting cycle.
But wait, what about the 85 cap? Well, Florida was down to 75 recruited scholarship players by the end of the season. There are 13 seniors among them, and though both Feleipe Franks and Lucas Krull have announced their intentions to leave, Pouncey and Wilson would replace them. That puts them down to 62 before any early NFL Draft entrants, and CJ Henderson is widely expected to go pro. All it would take is three more transfers out or draft declaration to make room for 27 new Gators. It would take four if former walk-on Tanner Rowell remains on the team and retains his scholarship next year. Either way, I think they’ll be fine there with how many players are considering the draft and the number of lightly used rising senior veterans.
My big question is whether Mullen will max out with 27 signees or not. If he does, then Florida likely cannot take any new transfer players in until January of 2021. There are some minor exceptions here and there for initial counters like the one Russell fell into, but they’re not ones you want or count on.
Mullen signing fewer than 27 will likely be a sign that he’s holding an initial counter spot or two open in case the right transfer comes on the market during the offseason. Or that I got the math wrong; that’s entirely possible too. I think I got it right though, and given how Mullen has taken real advantage of the transfer portal, I wouldn’t put it past him to go one or two under the 27 limit to keep options open.
So there’s your answer: Florida likely can sign up to 27 players in this recruiting cycle, but it may choose not to in order to have the option to bring in a transfer or two during the next calendar year.