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Just What Exactly is a Blueshirt?

Hidden inside the New Mexico State team preview was an innocuous question, one raised because of my unfamiliarity with the term: what’s a blueshirt, anyway? As noted in the preview, we’re all familiar with a redshirt, when a player sits out a season yet retains his eligibility; we’re familiar with a greyshirt, when a player delays his enrollment until the year after he signs his Letter of Intent, pushing his scholarship into the following recruiting cycle. As far as I know, the term “blueshirt” is invented by and used only by New Mexico State, which uses it to describe a rather ingenious recruiting practice.

A little history. According to the N.M.S.U. compliance department, “blueshirt” is a term coined by former assistant coach Herb Paterra, who spent the final two seasons of his 46-year coaching career under Hal Mumme from 2005-6. In short, the term is used to signify a player who arrived on campus as a walk-on but has earned his scholarship; every school in the country typically places at least one, perhaps as many as five, former walk-ons on scholarship at the tail end of each season.

So what’s the big deal? Firstly, there were three players listed as blueshirts on the university’s signing day release on Feb. 2: wide receiver Marcus Williams, offensive lineman Kevin Pankey and linebacker Bryan Bonilla. The former pair were JUCO transfers who joined the program the previous fall; Bonilla enters his third year with the program in 2011, having redshirted in 2009 and played sparingly in 2010.

So here’s the rub: Bonilla’s awarded scholarship falls under the typical walk-on-done-good story with which we’re familiar. He arrived on campus in 2009 as a walk-on, redshirted that debut campaign, worked hard to break into the linebacker rotation last fall and has, through talent, hard work and determination, earned one of New Mexico State’s 85 scholarships.

What of Pankey and Williams? Well, each was recruited as JUCO transfers during the 2010 recruiting cycle; neither was given a scholarship during that cycle but joined New Mexico State as preferred walk-ons. Such players are given preferential treatment, at least to a degree: not quite scholarship players, not quite local players off the streets, a prospect like Pankey and Williams will be given access to the program without the financial benefits of being on scholarship.

At least for a few weeks. In the case of Pankey and Williams, both arrived on campus in the fall and were put on scholarship mere weeks later, at the conclusion of New Mexico State’s fall camp. The pair is unlike Bonilla in that regard, seeing that Bonilla had to work his way through two years of walk-on status before earning his scholarship.

What’s the advantage for the players? In the most recent instance, Pankey and Williams received a measure of security; once on scholarship, always on scholarship, at least in the vast majority of cases. And there’s nothing wrong with awarding a scholarship to a walk-on as soon as possible, according to N.C.A.A. bylaws. It’s against the rules to offer a walk-on a future scholarship in writing prior to his arrival on campus, but there’s no evidence that N.M.S.U. did so with either Pankey or Williams.

What’s the advantage for a program? Above all else, the process of assigning a blueshirt pushes a recruit’s scholarship number to the ensuing class, regardless of when he joined the program. Look at it like this: it’s like a greyshirt, but one where the recruit can actually play during his initial semester. A player is part of the 2010 recruiting cycle, for example, plays during the 2010 season yet counts towards the 2011 recruiting class. That’s a blueshirt in a nutshell.

It’s an unquestionable win-win for New Mexico State, which gets all the bang of a recruit without the buck – the scholarship. There’s a reason one person familiar with such a scholarship practice likened it to a “credit card” for recruits. Get the player now, pay for services – not literally pay, but grant his scholarship – down the road.

Illegal? No. Underhanded? It depends. Is N.M.S.U. promising scholarships down the line for preferred walk-ons? Even if that’s the case, there’s really nothing wrong with doing so, to be fair. There’s only a problem with promising that future scholarship in writing in advance. Maybe the Aggies and DeWayne Walker are ahead of the curve, in a way. In the case of Pankey and Williams, it seems, N.M.S.U. found two overlooked prospects, enticed them to enroll in Las Cruces with the promise of a scholarship down the line, and signed both once they joined the program last fall.

It still seems underhanded, if only because while awarding these blueshirts doesn’t break N.C.A.A. rules, it knows where the line between the legal and illegal clearly lies. N.M.S.U. doesn’t take any chances; the program will wait until the recruit arrives on campus to award the scholarship, which, as noted, does two things: pushes back the scholarship while getting the player on the field.

It’s the best of both worlds. So what’s the problem? I can think of two issues. One, that N.M.S.U. found a loophole in the how the N.C.A.A. polices scholarships. Greyshirts were just the beginning; with these blueshirts, the Aggies show how it’s possible to get players on campus, forward their scholarships to the next cycle yet still use them on the field, which is a tremendous development.

Two, what happens if a school like Alabama, Florida or Texas begins doing the same thing? What if Nick Saban could convince a five-star prospect to turn down other offers to attend Alabama, with the promise that he would receive a scholarship the day he arrives on campus? What if Mack Brown could do the same in Texas; wouldn’t the Longhorns be able to clean up even more in the nation’s most talent-rich state?

It’s a loophole, one that must be addressed. There’s nothing wrong with awarding a former walk-on a scholarship; in fact, that’s something we should highlight. There is also technically nothing wrong with awarding a walk-on a scholarship the day he arrives on campus, but it opens up a Pandora’s box of issues if not properly policed.

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  1. [...] underestimate the ingenuity of college football coaches to skirt the signing rules, my [...]

  2. Andy Schwarz says:

    It may (or may not) violate NCAA rules, but it’s not a question of whether it’s legal or illegal, because the NCAA isn’t a government agency and doesn’t make laws.

    Paul: Yeah, saying “legal or illegal” is not a proper way to phrase it. Let me think of another way to say it and I’ll make changes above.

  3. Patrobas says:

    OK…so what are the potential issues flying out od Pandora’s box? Can you be imaginative and give some concrete possibilites?

    Sounds like just a slicker version of oversigning ala the SEC and esp “Bama.”

    Paul: You named the prime issue right there. It’s like oversigning but with a twist, in that the players can greyshirt but play immediately, which would be a huge development for some of the bigger programs in the country.

  4. [...] Read more of “Just What Exactly is a Blueshirt?” on PreSnapRead.com 5.5.11 [...]

  5. Peter says:

    This seems like a great way to help rebuild a program in a hurry, but I doubt programs will extensively use blueshirts continuously because at some point they have to ‘pay up’, i.e. lose out on scholarship players down the road.

    And since we’re making up the recruiting rainbow, would a “whiteshirt” be players taking a break for Mormon missions?

  6. schedule nit says:

    Hey now, don’t go hating on Alabama just because top recruits are lining up to play there–sometimes things just work out sunshine is all!

  7. ChileDuck says:

    Seems that programs like USC who will be coming off of years with scholarship reductions (if that every really happens) will be able to use “blueshirts” get back their numbers back faster.

  8. Russ says:

    I’m nearly certain there are rules in place to prevent this from being done with big time players.

    If a kid is “recruited” – which I think is to say that he went on an official visit, then he cannot come in as a walk on and play in either of his first two years without being counted as a scholarship player.

    It’s done to prevent rich kids from paying their way and not counting against the numbers. For example, Eli Manning was not on scholarship while he was at Ole Miss (because his father wanted to give the money for his tuition), but he still counted.

    However, they can be recruited and sit out two years, then go on scholarship and never count against a year’s 25 limit, only the 85 overall limit.

    I may be mistaken though. I don’t think it’s a big deal because very few people are willing/able to do it.

  9. John G says:

    I think the major problem will be if a team like Bama who has been abusing greyshirts, and medical scholarship practices, will unofficially offer blueshirts to 3 players or so and have them play for a season only to not offer them a scholarship unless they turn out to be better than expected. In other words offer a kid prefered walk on status with a fake promise of scholarship. Yet another way Bama will screw over young kids who are naive enough to trust Saban’s word. Another thing to consider is that you can use the blueshirt concept in tandem with medical scholarship to get more kids on the field in year one and then move them to medical in year 2 so that the slots filled by blushirts are freed up… Basically Saban will figure this out and abuse it every year…just you watch..he is a clever man albeit unethical.

  10. This Guy says:

    I could actually see this helping the have-nots, too. If a hard-up prospect has to ride out a scholarship wait or put up the various required deposits even if he has a day-one verbal offer, Idaho and Wyoming suddenly have a much easier shot than the public schools in bigger states that usually make up the Top 25.

    There may be a reason this is happening in New Mexico and not Florida or Texas.

  11. David says:

    Russ – official visit is only one of the triggers that makes a student-athlete become a “recruited student-athlete”

    the others are

    arranged, in-person off-campus “encounter” with student-athlete, or the parents or legal guardian of the student-athlete

    initiating/arranging *more than one* phone contact “for the purpose of recruiting”

    issuing a National Letter of Intent to the student-athlete (this one’s pretty obvious)

    since NMSU is being so open about their “blueshirts”, it seems like they would have their records in place to show that these guys weren’t “recruited”

    also, it seems that it would be quite hard to do this with any student-athlete that any other school wants…

  12. smokeybandit says:

    What’s the big deal about this? This is actually taking the long way around the block.

    This can just as easily be accomplished by having a recruit simply not sign an LOI. You could have him sign scholarship papers on June 1 (when the time frame for the oversigning rule ends), and he’d be just as eligible with the same “fuzzy math” benefits as this blue-shirting scenario.

  13. [...] Quickly… Oregon and Oregon State have already spent most of the windfall from the Pac-12′s blockbuster new television deal. … Maybe trading five picks for Julio Jones probably wasn’t such a great idea. … Florida lands a verbal commitment from a Pennsylvanian giant. … Kansas State moves its Farmageddon showdown with Iowa State to the first weekend in December. … Notre Dame outsources the concession stand. … Come on, the Pac-12′s bowl lineup is not that bad. … And your college football vocabulary word of the day: Blueshirting. [...]

  14. [...] could test the "blue shirt" waters. [...]

  15. [...] Pre-Snap Read: A College Football Blog Another way that schools work it. I think Kiffin must believe that he will get a championship with the giant class he just had, because the restrictions they are under now will gut them for the next 3 years. That is another reason to pursue some of those Cali kids even if it is a long shot. __________________ "I understand you are trying to fight this battle by throwing out numbers and guessing on things you have no clue of, but at some point in a man's like he has to realize he's just not that intelligent of what he speaks." Lofton4Three… [...]

  16. mike says:

    If he is enticed to come to school with the verbal promise of a scholarship, then he’s not a “walk-on”

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