Early recruiting has taken over college football. And it's not going to stop any time soon.
As of Friday, only 12 of the top 50 recruits in the country remained uncommitted. We're a long way from the days when coaches would huddle around the fax machine, anxiously awaiting the decisions from 10 of the top 20 best recruits nationally.
In most places, that is. In the South, the practice of taking all the possible time to make a decision is very much alive. Of those 12 players, 11 are from SEC states. Only Eddie Vanderdoes, of Auburn (Calif.) Placer High School, a one-time USC commitment, hails from outside the region.
And while it would be wise to point out that a large number of players among the 50 best in the country are from a traditional SEC state (24, not including Texas or Missouri), that proportion still sticks out like a sore thumb.
For some recruits, regardless of region, the waiting game makes sense. Coaches can leave a program, causing schemes to change, and perhaps drastically altering the way in which the player would be used. And players leave early for the NFL, opening up opportunity for early playing time that might not have existed otherwise.
But in many cases, it seems that most know where the recruits are headed, and kids are simply taking the all-expense paid trips to enjoy pretty girls and free lobster. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Southern recruits, it seems, still know how the game is played. They know the adoration, the booze, the food, the women, the cash, and everything else that comes with the all-important official visits. And those official visits happen, for the most part, in December and January.
That's not to say that non-SEC recruits don't take official visits. They do. They just normally don't take four or five of them. Most officially visit the school to which they're committed and perhaps one other.
For instance, every major recruiting service projects Robert Nkemdiche, the top recruit in the country out of Loganville (Ga.) Grayson High School, to attend Ole Miss with his brother, Denzel. We know that Nkemdiche has made at least 10 trips to Oxford since the fall, including the recent official visit on Jan. 25. Some reports have Nkemdiche actively recruiting for the Rebels. At 6'5 and 270 pounds, the consensus five-star is fully expected to choose Ole Miss.
Despite this, Nkemdiche recently took official visits to Gainesville and Baton Rouge.
Football coaches are notoriously confident, and if asked whether they'll sign a player (off the record, of course, as they're not permitted to speak publicly about recruits), most will say yes. But it's highly unlikely that the coaches at Florida or LSU thought Nkemdiche would seriously consider them. Rather, they probably realized the benefit of the positive publicity and buzz that having a prospect like Nkemdiche visiting Florida or LSU would bring to the program, not that they need it, of course.
And take the wild story that is Reuben Foster.
Foster, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound, five-star linebacker, had changed his mind several times before coming up with his final decision. First, he was committed to Alabama for almost a year, but transferred from LaGgrange, Ga., to to Auburn (Ala.) High School, just down the road from Auburn. That led to speculation he'd switch his commitment, and sure enough, he swapped schools, going from the Crimson Tide to the Tigers, in a ceremony in which he dressed his two-year old daughter in an Auburn cheerleader uniform, persuaded by then-Auburn assistant coach Trooper Taylor - the father of one of his high school teammates at Auburn High School. Auburn seemed like the school for him - he even got a huge Auburn tattoo - but he decommitted when the school let go of Taylor and the Auburn staff. Foster considered Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn, and visited all three. During his final visit, to Auburn, he left early and headed up the road to Tuscaloosa. On Monday night, Foster announced he would play for Nick Saban. He is expected to keep his word Wednesday, but in the SEC, anything can and often does happen.
But the practice isn't just limited to uncommitted recruits.
In most places, a recruit may have a signing ceremony on National Signing Day, often with his teammates at his high school. The letter of intent is signed, people cheer, and a reporter from the local paper or television station is often there.
In the SEC, however, it's not at all uncommon for a committed recruit to have a drama filled affirmation ceremony, in which he reveals the school to which he is going, even if he has been committed to a school for months. Multiple hats are placed on the table, and the recruit places his choice on his head. Multiple reporters attend.
Since verbal commitments are non-binding, every recruit is fair game. In the SEC, coaches treat it this way.
In other conferences, less so. Bret Bielema, while at Wisconsin, famously complained about Urban Meyer's "violation" of an unwritten rule that prohibited coaches from attempting to poach recruits verbally committed to another school. Meyer, fresh off his time at SEC powerhouse Florida, laughed at the notion.
Big Ten folks later came out and said there is no such rule, written or unwritten, but in practice, it seems like it still might be in effect.
In addition to the 12 uncommitted recruits, six recruits in the top 50 are committed but still actively considering other schools. Of those, four are in SEC country (not including Texas).
It only seems logical that that SEC recruiting would just be crazier than anywhere else. College football is a religion in SEC country. More popular than the NFL, Major League Baseball or NASCAR.
And with that fanaticism comes big coaching salaries and big recruiting budgets. All of the head coaches in the SEC make $2 million or more. Tennessee's recruiting budget in the 2011-12 year was $1.5M dollars, and Alabama and Auburn's were close to $1 million as well. Much bigger than any other conference. It only makes sense that coaches won't quit until the last minute for prospects.
The differences in recruiting in the SEC and other conferences are perhaps best demonstrated by the conversations had by those who cover them.
That's Scout's West Coast analyst discussing how his National Signing Day, the busiest day of the year, will be relatively calm, and wishing good luck to Scout's two analysis in Florida and the South.