Please see update at the bottom of the post — ed.
Last summer, the SEC adopted new "roster management" rules designed to address the scourge of "oversigning," foremost among them a 25-man cap on new additions in any given year. Finally, no more stockpiling of academic casualties bound for junior college. No more new arrivals signing letters of intent that lock them into a specific school, only to discover six months later that there's no room for them, after all. No more promises to teenagers being broken at the last minute. Right?
One of Georgia's top running backs said that was told by Alabama's Nick Saban this weekend that he will have to wait until next year to sign with the Crimson Tide.
Justin Taylor of North Atlanta High School has been committed to Alabama for nearly a year, last February becoming the No. 7 pledge for this year's class. The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder missed his senior season with a knee injury.
A couple of weeks ago, Taylor and his high school coach, former NFL RB Stanley Pritchett, both said they were informed by Alabama assistant Chris Rumph that it was likely that Taylor would not be able to sign with the Crimson Tide this February.
"Coach Saban just said I'm the 26th commitment. I would be the 26th signee. I guess he went and picked up somebody else. He said I make 26 and they only get 25."
Based on verbal commitments, Alabama's 2012 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation (again) according to Rivals, and Taylor is a relatively lowly three-star prospect at a position that also includes commitments from five-star headliner T.J. Yeldon and four-star Kenyan Drake. Saban confirmed this weekend that Taylor's longstanding offer — again, he verbally committed last February, and spent the subsequent 11 months set on going to Alabama — had effectively been yanked with just weeks to go before the vast majority of recruits sign binding letters of intent on Feb. 1. In place of a scholarship, Saban offered a sort of non-binding contract instead: As Taylor explains it, "…he also said he would sign a piece of paper to show that they are keeping their word — they are going to sign it and they want me to sign it to make sure I know I still have my scholarship."
Taylor says he plans to stick with Alabama, at least in part because other schools backed off due to a) His commitment to the Tide, and b) A torn ACL he suffered in August that cost him virtually his entire senior season. (Not to discount the fact that he actually wants to go to Alabama: Taylor was on campus for an official visit this weekend, ate breakfast at Saban's house and generally thought the trip "went great.") Instead, he said he plans to remain in Georgia, continue physical therapy on his knee, go to work — he told the AJC "they are going to find me a job," instantly setting off conspiratorial alarm bells across the South — and enroll next January with the early arrivals in the class of 2013.
In other words, he's a grayshirt without the letter of intent. And in this case, he seems to be cool with that.
If I was in his position, I would not be so cool with that, but whatever. Here's the relevant question: Is this an example of the success of the new signing restrictions, or of their ultimate irrelevance? On one hand, Taylor was promised a scholarship, remained committed to Alabama for nearly a year, did not flirt with other schools in the meantime and suddenly finds himself up against a wall in terms of pursuing other options because Alabama reneged on its offer — more or less the same scenario that's driven criticism of oversigning for years. On the other hand, at least he still has other options: Under the old rules, he likely would have signed an LOI next month and spent another six months in the fold before getting the axe in late July when a spot failed to open up for him. It may be a raw deal, but at least it's one coaches now have to make earlier in the process, and one that a recruit can agree to — or reject, or subsequently walk away from — before he puts his signature on anything.
As long as verbal commitments are unofficial, unregulated and non-binding, they'll come coated in a certain amount of slime. But it is significantly less slimy than pulling the rug out from under a recruit who has already locked himself into a one-way commitment. Justin Taylor can still change his mind without the express written consent of the University of Alabama. As long as he plans to hold up his end of the bargain, though, I have one word of advice: When it's your turn to sign that "piece of paper" Coach Saban was talking about, you'll probably want to have it notarized.
UPDATE, 3:49 p.m. ET After some consideration, Taylor has decided that no, in fact, he's really not cool with this:
"At first I was cool with it but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it," Taylor said. "I have already missed an entire season of football because of my injury. I decided I just can't miss another season. It's no hard feelings against Alabama but I just decided it's best for me if I go somewhere that I can be at least practicing with the team this year, even if I have to redshirt. I haven't talked to any other schools yet but I will start looking right now."
Plus, do you know how hard it is to find a decent attorney in Atlanta who specializes in cocktail napkins?