The first year with an early signing period transformed the recruiting landscape and diminished the importance of the first Wednesday of February, a day that had become a virtual holiday in some college football hotbeds.
ESPN recruiting director Tom Luginbill said over 2,000 players already had signed letters of intent by December, a figure that makes up over 70 percent of the 2,700-2,800 prospects who annually sign with a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
Were this year’s seniors simply intrigued by the novelty of an early signing period, or was this a sign of things to come? That’s the question coaches are asking as they adjust their recruiting approaches to the new calendar.
“I really believe that eventually this thing is going to move to where you won’t have the second signing day,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “It’ll just be one signing day in December, and then it’ll be like an open market on the back end. We’ll see. The NCAA and all those presidents will vote on how we’re going to do it, but I think it’s going to end up going that way.”
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged this made the traditional February signing day “anticlimactic”, but it also enabled him to spend January focusing on the future rather than worrying about whether all the Sooners’ senior prospects would stay true to their commitments.
“It was a chance to go see these 2019, 2020 and even 2021 recruits,” Riley said. “It’s a chance to evaluate more guys. You feel like you are using your time in a much more efficient way.”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron says he already has considered ways to adjust his recruiting approach based on the new calendar. He wants to make sure he still has enough scholarships available for the prospects who are waiting until February.
“We will be more selective in the beginning of the recruiting period next year,” Orgeron said. “We will be more selective with our scholarships at that time. We will fill specific needs then.”
Signing early does come with some risks. For instance, consider the 20 prospects who signed with Michigan State in December.
Michigan State is now going through a tumultuous period. Disgraced campus sports doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison for sexually assaulting athletes. In addition to that scandal, basketball coach Tom Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio face questions about their programs following an ESPN report last month detailing various allegations.
When that report came out, Michigan State already had most of its football recruiting class secured via the early signing period. Linebacker Chase Kline of Chardon (Ohio) says he doesn’t have any regrets about signing early with Dantonio.
“I trust the words he says, and I fully back everything he does,” Kline said. “I fully supported him, and I was not worried at all. If the situation was different, obviously I’d be very worried, but a hundred percent committed, and I fully trust Coach D’s words.”
That’s a unique situation, but there are plenty of other factors showing the potential risks of signing early.
As soon as the December signing period ended, dozens upon dozens of assistant coaches switched schools. Prospects who had developed a kinship with a particular assistant discovered soon they wouldn’t be able to play for that particular coach.
Perhaps that could persuade future prospects to avoid signing in December. Then again, maybe it won’t.
Indianapolis Warren Central wide receiver David Bell, rated as the nation’s No. 71 junior prospect by the 247Sports Composite, said he probably will wait until next February to sign because he wanted to wait as long as possible “to see if the school’s the right fit for me.” But he said he didn’t really take note of all the assistant coaches who departed shortly after the most recent early signing period.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to a school for the coaches,” Bell said. “I’m going to a school that fits me, helps me get an education and prepares me for the NFL.”
One other factor could encourage more prospects to sign later. Some recruits who waited this time around saw their stock rise after December through supply and demand as schools scrambled to complete their classes with fewer players available.
For instance, tight end Matt Alaimo backed out of his verbal commitment to Pittsburgh on the eve of the December signing period and ended up getting late offers from Auburn and Texas A&M before eventually choosing UCLA.
Running back C’Bo Flemister switched his commitment from Georgia Southern to Georgia Tech in December but didn’t sign with either school. He instead signed Wednesday with Notre Dame, which suddenly needed to boost its running back depth after Josh Adams entered the draft and Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes were dismissed from the team.
“If guys are smart and they’re looking at some of the mid-level kids who are becoming extreme priorities late in the process, I could see a scenario where kids sort of realize the leverage that they’ve got and decide to take their time and hold off,” said Barton Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports. “But I think the likely scenario is this (having most prospects sign early) will probably be very similar moving forward to sort of the new norm.”
AP Sports Writers Cliff Brunt, John Kekis, Brett Martel and Noah Trister contributed to this report.