NCAA legislation passed last spring instituted the first early signing period in NCAA Division I football, and the inaugural commencement of that period takes place later this month. While many college football participants and observers are anxious to see just how this all transpires, here are five things you should know going before it kicks off.
1. The Early Signing Period occurs Dec. 20-22
The lay recruiting follower usually does not know, and even the avid recruiting follower tends to forget, that the regular signing period in February lasts far beyond National Signing Day. Only in situations when prospects like five-stars Terrelle Pryor or Malik McDowell take their recruitments out past National Signing Day does the actual length of the signing period get much critical discussion.
The December Signing Period will not last the better part of two months, but it does last three days starting at 7 a.m. on Dec. 20 and lasting until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 22 of the prospect’s local time. Because of the shortened duration, I expect you will see more dispersion of signings over those three days and not the bunching up on the first day like we see in February. The prospects who have long been committed to their schools are likely to waste little time on Dec. 20 getting their letters of intent rolling, but others, like Notre Dame four-star commit Micah Jones, have set signing ceremonies for the Thursday or even Friday of that early signing period.
2. A majority of prospects will sign in the early period
While we debate the extent or the degree of changes that will occur to the recruiting process and the signing process due to the early signing period, one change that will certainly take place is that the early signing period will become the preferred signing period for the majority of FBS prospects. Nearly three-fourths of the prospects who will ultimately sign with Power Five programs are currently committed to a program, and while some will postpone until February and some will decommit, the greatest percentage will be signing between Dec. 20-22. Additionally, there are a number of prospects who are currently uncommitted and because they are enrolling early, or just because they choose to, they will be signing in the early period as well.
The traditional National Signing Day on the first Wednesday in February, then, will feel much different, and recruiting in January, 2018, will be conducted much differently than its predecessors. The decommitment trend that has been increasing in recent years is bound to see a sharp upturn if head coaches make good on threats to drop commitments who do not sign in December, and new head coaches, like those at Arkansas, Florida State, Florida, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas A&M will not have near the pool of potential prospects to recruit as they look to fill out their inaugural classes because most will already be signed before they can execute their recruiting game plans. The early signing period will spark a cataclysmic change to the way the recruiting business is done and will also affect how things like coaching changes are handled once the full effects can be seen and evaluated.
3. Waiting until February does not mean a recruit is not solidly committed
Several Power Five head coaches have already trotted out this line about a player who is not willing to sign in December not being serious about their commitment, and that assertion is pure garbage. There are plenty of reasons why a prospect would not want to sign his letter of intent in December, including the possibility of future changes within the program or with his own situation, that have nothing to do with the strength of an individual’s current commitment.
This is a case where “they’re not really commitments then,” line is being overused. In the past it has been reserved for commits who visit other schools, and in those cases it is legitimate and often true. But it needs to stay there, because this is a completely different situation. It also could be a case where coaches are purposely misusing the phrase in order to scare or guilt prospects who would rather sign in February to sign in December so those coaches do not have to make in-home visits and do all the other recruiting work involved with unsigned commitments during the month of January.
4. Not everybody thinks an early signing period is a good idea
The previous note leads into this one, and that is this: there are certainly those who do not feel the early signing period is beneficial to recruits, and others who are openly against it because they feel it hurts prospective student-athletes. Consider the prospect who is working to get his grades in order so that he will be academically eligible, but, as is the case in most high schools, his semester does not end until January. The school he is committed to can’t be sure whether he will be eligible when the December period rolls around, so they cut him loose.
Carl Reed, head coach of St. Louis-area high school power Lutheran North, which features, among many other Division I prospects, four-star defensive end Ronnie Perkins, has been among the most outspoken against the early signing period.
“I hate the early signing period because it puts too much pressure on the kid to make a decision he is not ready to make," he said. "If you, for one, look at the movement that is going to happen with (head) coaches, the staff movement that is going to come with that is also going to be extreme. So, you’re forcing a kid to sign his name on the dotted line to a decision when he has no idea who is going to be potentially coaching him. It really is a rule that is one-sided in favor of the colleges, but it is not in favor of the players.”
5. The early signing period is not just for early enrollees
This is a question I expect many recruiting followers have been afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid, but it is a legitimate question, and the answer is: the early December signing period is for all prospective student-athletes at the Division I level, whether they plan to enroll early (January 2018) or in the fall of their freshman year.
In recent years early enrollees have more frequently signed financial aid agreements after Aug. 1 of their senior year and prior to their enrollment in college. That option is still available, and Rivals No. 1 Trevor Lawrence signed his back on Aug. 2, but it seems to be an option chosen less frequently by this 2018 class and the early signing period may be a reason why. The financial aid agreements have additional restrictions for both prospects student-athletes and institutions and, I expect will be all but extinct going forward.