According to NCAA rules, Wednesday was the first day on which college programs were allowed to send written offers to recruits. But a look at any list of the top college football recruits in the country shows that despite none of them holding a written offer before Wednesday, roughly 225 of the top 300 have already committed to a school. They've committed to a "non-binding verbal offer," over which the NCAA seems to have little hope of jurisdiction. Their commitments, also verbal, are non-binding until they sign a letter of intent on National Signing Day in February.
If the NCAA had its way, this would not be.
When the NCAA passed new legislation three years ago that bumped back the date of when written offers could be extended by 11 months (from September 1 of the prospect's junior year to August 1 of his senior year), their intent was to slow down the recruiting process. The thought was that players wouldn't commit until they had written offers in hand, and that they would take their time in investigating the schools in which they had interest.
It was a major miscalculation by the NCAA. Instead of slowing down the process, recruits are now being verbally offered and committing earlier than ever.
The major error in judgment was assuming that prospects care about written offers. As the numbers above show, many do not. A written offer doesn't necessarily guarantee a recruit a spot at a school, and a prospect cannot commit to a written offer in any more meaningful way before National Signing Day than he can to a verbal offer offer.
So what's the point of a written offer?
For one, schools are less willing to extend them to recruits of which they are not absolutely certain they want. Turning away a kid with a written offer can make for bad PR if the recruit turns to tell the media. Turning away a recruit to whom the school had extended a verbal offer can be dismissed as a miscommunication.
Before the NCAA changed the rule, if a recruit didn't have a written offer from a school, he knew that school was not quite as interested in him as other schools that did extend a written offer.
But now with the NCAA removing the ability to extend written offers until way later in the process, recruits cannot afford to wait.
They might lose their spot in the class of the school they wish to attend, particularly when programs are throwing out verbal offers by the hundreds. There's no accurate way to track every verbal offer a school has extended, but some estimates have SEC bottom feeders like Ole Miss extending close to 300 offers. That, for a class that can be no bigger than 25.
Naturally, the rule makes it very difficult for recruits to track what offers they actually have. The process of extending all of these verbal offers has even spawned a new definition of the term "Committable."
com·mitta·ble adj.: The binary measure of an offer's validity: Randy discovered that his verbal offer to State University was not committable at the time, as the school had other prospects rated higher on its board.
The reality, of course: an offer that is not committable is not an true offer. It's a mere expression of interest by the school in the recruit.
Kids with supposed verbal offers are rejected all the time when they attempt to commit. Fans rarely hear about it since schools are prohibited by NCAA rule from speaking about recruits to the media, recruits are the only source of this sort of news. On the record, at least. And most recruits, out of fear of embarrassment, won't publicly admit that they've been rejected by a school to which they hold a verbal offer. This can also backfire on a school, because the recruit may still hold animosity from the earlier commitment attempt, realizing that he was not the first choice, when the school later comes back and asks him to commit (for real this time).
Clearly, the solution proposed of verbally offering hundreds of kids is imperfect.
But schools worry that if they don't extend offers to recruits early, the recruits will not have any interest in them once the school does eventually decide to offer. They've decided that it is better to offer than not.
And indeed, many recruits make a much bigger deal out of their first offer than they should.
This is only reinforced on the recruiting trail by the schools that did offer early, which remind the recruit that they were the ones to discover him, to stick with him before he blew up, and that he was always their top option. Further, they tell the recruit that the schools offering later in the process only want them now because everyone else does.
As rapper Mike Jones said, "Back Then They Didn't Want Me, Now I'm Hot They All On Me!"
Being offered early or late has no bearing on a player's college career, but nobody ever said teenage boys are masters of reasoned decision making.
Offering Middle Schoolers
Colleges are even offering middle school players.
In July, two stories emerged about middle schoolers receiving offers. LSU offered eighth-grader Dylan Moses, after the 6'0, 218-pounder reportedly ran a sub-4.5 40-yard dash. This isn't an eight-grader who will be entering the ninth grade in a week. Moses is entering the eight grade in a week.
Not to be outdone by the SEC, Washington took it one step further and actually accepted an offer from a to-be eighth-grader. Tate Martell, of San Diego (Calif.), committed to the Huskies in late July. Provided he continues to mature physically, keeps his head on straight for the next 60 or so months, and develops, he should be a nice get for Washington.
At the ACC Football Kickoff, I had the chance to ask several college coaches about the trend of verbally offering recruit earlier and earlier each cycle, and the difficulties it presents.
According to Rivals.com, Florida State is the program responsible for offering (again, verbal) more members of the class of 2015 (rising sophomores) than any other school. The 'Noles also are the only school to hold two public commitments for the class of 2015. I asked coach Jimbo Fisher about the trend.
"It is getting crazy. It's amazing. I guess it depends on the individual. [The seventh grade] is awful early, but you know, we said juniors are early, then we said sophomores, and now we said freshmen, and we all keep doing it because the other guy does it," he said. "And then what happens, when a kid gets the first one [from another school], he thinks '[the school yet to offer] don't want me'. They remember that. It's become a zoo."
Clemson is another ACC team that frequently offers younger players, and head coach Dabo Swinney noted some of the challenges presented by the accelerated process.
"I think they should be driving," Swinney joked about the minimum age at which a prospect should be offered. "To be honest with you, it has to depend on that particular kid and situation. You just never know with some of these kids ... how dominant that are, how fast they physically develop, whatever, it's just the world we live in."
"They've got to be special," he added. "The reason I'm a little uncomfortable with that is because they still have two years of good decision-making to make, and developing, and maturing, and being quality players. But that's just the world we live in right now. But I am confident in our evaluations and how we go about the process. We're the first to offer a lot of guys. It's easy to offer a guy who's got a bunch of offers. It takes a little more conviction to be the first. I think we're doing a good job [with early evaluations]. We're certainly not perfect and never will be."
Swinney acknowledged the difficulty of evaluating the young recruits while still keeping an eye on late bloomers. He said that the process being sped up has placed greater emphasis on relationships with high school coaches and on holding a spot open in a class to accept a late bloomer.
"As it is now, these guys have to perform at a very high level as juniors to really get on the radar of these upper-tier programs," he said.
Other coaches seem to have a bigger problem with the practice.
Maryland head coach Randy Edsall does not like the practice, but acknowledged that it was a necessary evil in today's college football.
"We've offered a kid who's going to be a freshman in high school. Do I like doing it? No, I don't. But everybody else is doing it," he said.
Edsall was also the only coach to discuss the new NCAA qualifying rules that will impact the class of 2015.
"It just doesn't make sense to me because you have new rules that are going to go into effect where you've got to have a 2.3 [GPA] and a 1020 [SAT] in order to be eligible. We don't know until the end of that kid's junior year if he's even going to be on track to do that."
"The NCAA talks about education and APR? And all this stuff? And then they're allowing us to go and recruit kids and then thinking about making this the wild west where you can text a kid as much as you want? I mean, what are we doing? There's no wonder kids who are 12, 13, who think they're entitled. We're creating part of the problem. I just don't get it. Where is the leadership coming from in terms of allowing open season on all these kids who aren't mature enough to be able to handle all this recruiting?"
Jim Grobe discussed the difficulties in offering young recruits while coaching at Wake Forest when he has no idea if the player will be able to handle the work in the classroom at a school of Wake's caliber.
"I might offer some of our coaches' sons early. For us, our No. 1 priority is character. And I don't know how you're going to turn out as a person when you're in the seventh grade. We're not going to get silly and do that stuff," he said. "I have no problem offering a sophomore if we know him, know he's a great kid, great student, those type of things, but we typically want to wait and find out that he has all of the things going for him that we look for.
Virginia head coach Mike London echoed the thoughts of Edsall and Grobe.
"Some of these guys aren't even shaving yet. It's very hard to evaluate a kid in the seventh, eighth or ninth grade," he said. "Your body matures, your reasoning skills mature, your thinking process develops. I know it's important to identify them early, and they care about being offered early, but we are kind of getting way ahead of ourselves with offering so many young kids."
Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani joked that the Eagles had already offered both of [ESPN ACC writer] Heather Dinich's young children.
"That's the nature of recruiting. The physicality of football should prevent [offering middle school players], but that's how it is," he said.
Spaziani also spoke about the need to strike a balance between offering kids early and continuing to evaluate late bloomers.
"We try to keep a few scholarships open because of who we are and how our recruiting is. You know, we have to develop them. We have to have a different way of evaluating," he said.
"I think the whole thing is out of hand anyway," Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson said. "My preference on that is that we go back to the old days that whenever you offer somebody a scholarship they [could] sign [immediately]. And you'd have a date at the end you can't go past, and you'd stop all this soft commitment [stuff]. If you put it in front of them and they sign it then they're coming. And if they didn't sign it, they're not committed."
Johnson believes the sped-up process hurts one group in particular the most.
"Those [late bloomers] are getting hurt the most with the way recruiting is going right now. It's the kids who are the late bloomers, who all of a sudden get so much better between their junior and senior year and they're not touted with all the combines and all the stuff because they've kind of been hidden.
No Clear Solution
To be sure, the changed NCAA rules are not the only driving force in speeding up the recruiting process.
In fact, it can be argued that increased exposure via the increased number of camps, combines and 7-on tournaments, and highlights and film being widely distributed via the internet are more important factors than the NCAA pushing back the deadline. The NCAA has no control over those events or the distribution of player film. That's not going away.
Still, it might be time to take another look at the rule. If pushing the date back by which written offers can be extended didn't work, what about bumping it up?
If written offers could go out, say, a year earlier than the original date (and two years earlier than the current date), it would drastically curb the ridiculous practice of throwing out verbal offers to hundreds of kids, which, mathematically, can be accepted by less than 10 percent of those offered, as schools are less willing to put iffy offers in writing.
It would give players a lot more certainty earlier in the process.
But this proposed change means that the NCAA would have to acknowledge that its member institutions are indeed offering players before their sophomore seasons. It would legitimize the practice. Is the potential embarrassment in the eyes of academics worth the trade off of affording more certainty to recruits and their families? Based on previous NCAA precedent, probably not.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: