They say don’t worry about the numbers, there will always be room. For Notre Dame recruit Marist Liufau it may turn out that there is in fact not enough room at the inn. Last week it was reported that the Fighting Irish have been planning to grayshirt the Honolulu linebacker for the 2019 football season, a decision that if it occurs would be a first in modern Notre Dame history.
What is a grayshirt? Check out this SBNation article on all the different types of “shirts” for more info. Essentially, a grayshirt in its simplest form is deferring enrollment in school by at least a semester because there are not enough [projected] scholarships available.
First off, it must be stressed that not all grayshirts are created equal. The practice really blew up over the last 15 years or so but usually flies under the radar when used across the country. Still, several high-profile grayshirts have been covered by the media in recent years specifically when a recruit is told he’ll have to wait to enroll right before National Signing Day. Effectively, a school made a last-minute decision to recruit over a committed prospect in their own fold and stories like this have drawn considerable criticism in recent years.
Therefore, the morality involved with asking a recruit to grayshirt revolves heavily around communication, when the recruit learns about the plan, and perhaps most importantly to the process how the recruit feels about it. Grayshirting is pretty uncommon for the simple fact that when recruits learn of such a plan from a coaching staff they typically decide to move on to another school if possible.
Back to Liufau who was the 20th commit of the 2019 class back on November 14, 2018. He had visited Notre Dame a few days prior for the Florida State game when he received his scholarship offer. As news broke recently about Liufau’s potential grayshirt it came with the note that the Irish coaching staff was and has been upfront about this possibility and the player appears fine with it if it comes to pass. Interestingly, five days after Liufau committed Notre Dame received a commitment from 4-star Georgia linebacker JD Bertrand while publicly doing so as a walk-on.
Clearly scholarship numbers were much tighter than usual in the last month of the football season.
The difference between Liufau and Bertrand was that the former signed a National Letter of Intent as part of the 2019 Notre Dame recruiting class while the latter did not and will pay his own way beginning this June.
The Poly tradition carries on! 🤙
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 19, 2018
This is a bit of a twist on a usual grayshirt as normally the recruit doesn’t sign their NLI which allows them to either sign elsewhere at a later date or enroll at the school as a part-time student to get acclimated without counting towards the program scholarship limit. As mentioned, grayshirting is very uncommon because the vast majority of recruits will not want to pay for a semester at minimum without the ability to practice with the team if there are other scholarship options available elsewhere. With Liufau, had he not signed he’d obviously be free to commit somewhere else at any point and sign a NLI in February.
Since he did sign, he’s bound to Notre Dame until June when freshmen report. If there isn’t a scholarship available Liufau will be released from his NLI and free to sign and play football elsewhere.
Based on the reports last week, Liufau will wait to see if a scholarship is available and if not attend a prep school for 2019 and enroll at Notre Dame as a scholarship player in January 2020, and maybe in June 2020.
So, is this a big deal?
It depends. One the one hand, if Notre Dame was upfront about the situation and Liufau still wants to wait that long to come to Notre Dame that’s certainly the athlete’s prerogative. In the days since I’ve seen a lot of people celebrating that a recruit would be this willing to come to Notre Dame under less-than-ideal circumstances and how that speaks to the current strength of the program.
Nevertheless, I still don’t like any attempt to grayshirt. Even if it’s true that a situation like this–where a high 3-star solid recruit is willing to push back his enrollment–is bound to be extremely rare I don’t like the ethics behind it. The situation with Bertrand where his family can afford tuition until a scholarship opens up is sticky too but it’s a crappy situation if someone like Liufau can’t financially afford that type of decision and isn’t coming to campus at the same time.
True, the communication involved with a gray shirt is important, even crucial, to the process. However, while trying to grayshirt someone at the last moment is clearly dirty and unethical to nearly everyone, the softer side of recruiting someone, offering a scholarship, and allowing them to commit and sign a NLI when you’ve let them know about a grayshirt far in advance is unethical too–just less unethical.
Many will disagree.
I am probably old-school when it comes to this. In the larger picture, the 2019 class was supposed to be small and 17 players were committed by the end of this past summer. The coaching staff didn’t set the world on fire for 2019 recruiting, took a lot of solid if not unspectacular players early, and put themselves in the position where come November they were really unsure about the availability of scholarships.
I don’t really blame the Notre Dame coaches for taking advantage of this situation (especially as it’s likely to be a rare case) but if it were me I would’ve simply passed on Liufau in this scenario.
Additionally, about a month prior to Liufau committing the Fighting Irish coaches had increased their recruiting of Washington linebacker commit Asa Turner and it appeared briefly that he may flip to Notre Dame. A mere 12 days after Liufau committed there was more news that Clark Lea had visited Turner and the Irish were still working for the flip. Even as the early Signing Period approached the temperature among Notre Dame fans was that Turner wasn’t a realistic flip due to numbers and the absurdity of signing a 5th linebacker in the class.
Despite a rumor going around, #NotreDame linebacker Marist Liufau made it clear today to @bangulo that he signed his NLI on Dec. 19 for many reasons and no matter when the time comes, he only wants to play college ball for the Fighting Irish. https://t.co/wNI6QdwFtd@247Sports pic.twitter.com/swt7oM47kN
— Tom Loy (@TomLoy247) January 18, 2019
As it happened, Turner backed away from signing early and remains undecided between Washington and Notre Dame. Even if you don’t think it’s unethical I still believe it’s a poor move to be talking about a grayshirt for Liufau while waiting on Turner (and Isaiah Foskey) to come aboard too.
Of course, it may all turn out to be nothing, Notre Dame will be down to 83 scholarships in May, and Liufau will arrive in South Bend in June with the rest of his classmates. That’s probably even slightly better than 50/50 odds at this point, especially if Turner ultimately sticks with Washington.
Be that as it may, if Liufau actually does take a grayshirt I’m interested to see how it plays out. If a scholarship opens up in mid-July this summer does Notre Dame make plans for Liufau to arrive for August 26th and the first day of fall classes? Can he even arrive in early August after the summer session and before fall classes so that he doesn’t miss fall camp? Are we sure this scholarship would even go to Liufau and not Bertrand or preferred walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard?
The logistics of this type of grayshirt make it seem likely that if a scholarship doesn’t open up prior to June than Liufau won’t come to Notre Dame at any point during the summer. In fact, he may not want to do that anyway and risk coming in so late and starting his eligibility clock in what would almost assuredly amount to a forced redshirt.
There’s also a lot of trust placed in Liufau that he can spend the summer at home and a semester or more at a prep school without heading elsewhere. If he does in fact get towards the end of May with plans to grayshirt and is released from his NLI, I think the odds go up considerably that he will ultimately sign with another school in June and/or commit elsewhere in December 2019. That’s a risk Notre Dame is obviously willing to take but as much as Liufau may want to sincerely come to South Bend it’s a long time to wait and pass up a scholarship elsewhere.
This is why–even if a prospective student-athlete is on board with the grayshirt–it’s a bit unethical to put a recruit in that position to decide. If Liufau decides in June that he’d rather sign with someone like Arizona or even Utah State I’d be disappointed that Notre Dame allowed him to sign a NLI only to see him jump ship at the last moment because there wasn’t space in South Bend and he reconsidered waiting in limbo for 6 or more months. It’s certainly far from the most sketchy things in recruiting but I think Notre Dame should be better than that with recruits.