Men who have offered college football scholarships to eighth-graders are worried the sport’s recruiting calendar is accelerating too quickly. That’s enough reason to pause at least and consider if that might be true.
The cause for concern is a recently added earlier signing day and changes made to support the new date. High school prospects will now be able to sign a letter of intent with their chosen school during a three-day period in December (the 20th through the 22nd this year) instead of having to wait for the traditional signing period which begins on the first Wednesday of each February. The current signing period will remain unchanged for players who decide against signing in the early period.
“If I could have voted on it, I would not have voted for it,” said LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. “I have no choice now. I have to deal with it.”
The biggest concern for Orgeron and most of his SEC colleagues is they don’t know exactly what the changes are going to mean, and that drives the control freaks in the group (meaning every single of one of them) crazy.
“I am very interested to see how this plays out,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “We are dealing in a world we haven’t dealt in. When you have that, there are usually repercussions you haven’t thought of.”
It may be that 90 percent of players decide to use the new early signing period. It may be that 10 percent do. It might allow college coaches more time to do better research on future signees, or it might mean they can’t do enough research on their immediate targets.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze worries that signing players earlier could “cause you to be a bit reckless.” Freeze’s program currently is facing 15 charges of Level 1 violations from the NCAA so it could be argued that reckless already is in the rearview mirror, but the simple fact that there’s now an unknown on the horizon is enough to trouble some coaches.
On the positive side, the change might add some weight to all the words slung around during the recruiting process. Some players make verbal commitments that coaches derisively call “reservations,” meaning the player has not truly made up his mind but wants to make sure he has a spot on hold somewhere. Florida’s Jim McElwain was the only coach during Monday’s SEC teleconference to acknowledge that schools sometimes play the same game, handing out “offers” that aren’t actionable.
“I truly believe it’s going to call some people’s bluff, both from the players’ side and the schools’ side,” McElwain said.
The biggest impact of the change, as usual, will be felt by the players. Let’s play out how this might look for a 17-year-old the week before the early signing period begins:
Coach A (Head coach of school that has a public verbal commitment from player): “If you don’t sign with us now, you’re obviously not really committed to us and we’re going to have to start making other plans.”
Coaches B, C, D (Head coach of school that just missed out on the verbal commitment but still would like to change a player’s mind): “What’s the rush? What if that guy gets fired after the bowl game? What happens if he gets caught cheating? What if you change your mind? Wait until February when you have all the information.”
Coach A: “Do you have a reservation or a commitment?”
Coaches B, C, D: “If they think as much of you as we do, they’ll wait until February. We’ll be happy to wait until February.”
High school coach: “We have a playoff game Friday night. It’d be great if you could focus on us a little bit this week.”
Mom and Dad: “Why are you always staring at that phone screen?”
“There is going to be a lot of pressure on kids,” Smart said.
Yeah, no kidding.
Adding an earlier signing date also forces other things to move up, most importantly official visit windows. Starting with next year’s recruiting class, players will be able to take official visits starting in the April of their junior year of high school rather than having to wait for their senior year.
While many prospects visit schools multiple times, whether for a camp or a game or just to hang out with friends they’ve met on other trips, the NCAA-sanctioned official visit generally is considered the most important visit of the recruiting process. Colleges are allowed to pay some travel costs and provide lodging and food during official visits and use those trips to introduce players to almost every aspect of campus life, and the NCAA allows prospects to make only one official visit to a school during the recruiting process.
Muschamp wonders how schools will schedule their official visits in this new environment. If coaches think a player is considering signing in the early period, they will want to schedule an official visit in the prior spring but that means there could be nine months between the official visit and the signing period. And it means that if the player waits until the February signing period, a coach who has used his official visit with that player in the spring will have missed on the opportunity to be the last voice in his ear during a January official visit.
“An assistant coach has to do great in his research to say, ‘Coach, this guy is going to commit in the summer and then he’s going to shut it down.’ ” Muschamp said. “Then you have to visit him in the spring. But a young man who is going to take it to signing day, I don’t know if you bring him in in the spring because you have to hold on for a long time and sometimes they have a hard time remembering Thursday from Friday. Now you have to hold on for nine months? That’s a long time.”
Muschamp and his colleagues are all looking for the best way to approach – and exploit – this new rule.
Smart: “It’ll be interesting to see who uses it to their advantage the best.”