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Early enrollment means more and more of the best recruits on campus before Signing Day

Players hitting college as early enrollees is as popular as ever.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 08 CFP National Championship Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

National Signing Day is Wednesday, Feb. 7, the day when the remainder of football recruits who haven’t signed early will officially declare where they’ll be playing college football.

But some are already on campus via the process of enrolling early, which is not to be confused signing in the Early Signing Period.

Early enrolling is when high school students graduate a semester early, allowing them to enroll in college for the spring semester as opposed to the summer after graduation. This allows players to start school earlier and participate in spring practice. Early enrolling became popular during the early 2000s, and it has become quite the common practice in college football.

According to the Associated Press, all but four Power 5 teams had at least one early enrollee in 2016, an average of about four per school. There were more than 250 early enrollees in total.

So how does this work, anyway?

It starts with deciding to as soon as possible, and then making sure that a player meets and can finish the NCAA’s and high school’s graduation requirements ahead of schedule. From Athletic

Check with your counselor or principal to make sure the school allows early graduation. If it does not, you may need to transfer to a new high school, normally a private school, to finish early. Online schools are particularly flexible, but you must make sure the NCAA has approved any online high school or coursework you plan to take.

To graduate early, you must meet all the requirements in a semester or two fewer than intended. In theory, you can make up the extra courses in the last semester, but that carries more risk. The better tactic is to spread the additional credits out over as long a period as possible.

The NCAA is also cracking down on athletes who are behind and in danger of not qualifying at all, but somehow manage to graduate and meet initial eligibility requirements early. To avoid extra scrutiny, get ahead as early as possible so your early graduation does not look too good to be true.

What are the advantages of early enrolling?

First and foremost, players get accustomed to the college life and have a college class schedule sooner than those who arrive in the summer. It’s just easier than having to learn to be a college student in the fall, when games that count are happening.

These players get to be a part of the team and spend time with staffers (coaches and strength coaches, depending on the time of year) for six months before fall camp begins. Those extra months allow players to participate in a team’s offseason workout programs. This could get them to their fitness goals and target weights much quicker.

“Colleges are finding the guys that get enrolled earlier have a real opportunity to help them a lot earlier, and that’s appealing to the prospect, as well,” 247Sports’ director of scouting, Barton Simmons, said via USA Today. “It’s a full additional semester they’ve got their hands on these guys. ... It’s just an enormous opportunity for these guys to walk into fall camp and be halfway to their sophomore year.”

There are also injuries that sometimes factor in. If an injury is sustained during the spring semester, or if the player enrolls with an existing injury, the injured player can get treatment through the team. Even if those players sustained injuries before enrolling, the athletes can still benefit from physical therapy sessions through the school.

Former Florida State and Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook enrolled early as a freshman, then had shoulder surgery in the spring. Had he waited to have the procedure in July, like a normal enrollee, he likely would not have rushed for 900 yards from October through the end of his freshman year.

"If physically, they’re not going to be ready, I don’t think (enrolling early) helps a ton. But if they are physically ready, I think it gets them ahead mentally," West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said, via Fox Sports. "They’re going to be three-year starters for us. They had great true freshman seasons. If they wouldn’t have came in that midterm and got that experience in spring, I don’t know if they would have been able to grasp what to do and be able to perform at a high enough level to compete in the Big 12."

Early enrolling is so common now, early enrollees can help prep their teams for other former early enrollees.

Former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson early enrolled in 2014. He gained valuable starting experience that year.

"I missed my friends, my last semester of high school and all the memories, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Watson said via the AP. "I wanted to play as a freshman."

Watson went on to be a two-time Heisman finalist and won the Tigers their second-ever national championship in the rematch against Alabama last month.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was useful for the Tide as soon as he stepped on campus. In the week leading up to Alabama’s National Championship against Clemson in 2015, Hurts was used on Bama’s scout team to simulate Watson. Hurts went on to start as a freshman last season and took his team back to the title game, where Watson this time beat Bama.

Speaking of Alabama quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Tide in the second half to its 26-23 win over Georgia in the national title, was an early enrollee. And Georgia freshman QB Jake Fromm? He was an early enrollee, as well.

Early signing period

College football recruiting’s Early Signing Period has shaken things up in terms of a timeline. Last week, only 26% of the nation’s top prospects remained unsigned with less than a month before NSD.

While it appears that Early Signing potentially resulted in an increase in early enrollees, it’s important to point out that if you sign early, that doesn’t always mean you enroll early. We’ll see what the trends look like for next year, and whether or not early enrolling continues to become more frequent.

Top teams have steadily brought in more early enrollees.

When looking back at top-15 classes over the last six years, the number of early enrollees has gone up, but we saw that change this cycle.

In 2012, there were a total of 67 in the top 15 classes. That number increased every year, to 81, 85, 94, 97, and 110 through 2017. That was an increase of more than 60 percent in that span. This year, the number has dropped a bit, with 101 members from top-15 classes enrolling early. But that is still higher than all but one of the previous seasons.

The pattern with five-star recruits has increased, too.

In 2012, there were a total of eight five-star prospects that were early enrollees. That number dropped to six in 2013, but then increased to eight in 2014, to 11 in 2015, back to eight in 2016, but finally shooting up to 14 in 2017.

This seems to becoming a trend — in 2018, there were 15 five-stars that enrolled early, the most we’ve seen since the trend began increasing.

Some schools seem to really prioritize early enrollees.

Alabama has taken 54 from 2012 through 18, with 12, an average of almost eight per season. Alabama is so good at recruiting that it often appears to use early enrollee eligibility as a tiebreaker between two similar recruits.

Last year, we saw two schools take 11 players: Michigan and Oklahoma. Miami, which took 10 last year, brought in 11 this cycle. Georgia and Oklahoma took 10 for 2018, and OSU, Clemson, and LSU all took 9. Auburn and Texas also took eight.

Miami’s better classes in recent years have been bouyed by EEs. The Canes had nine in both 2012 and 2015. Auburn’s numbers have also been on the high side. Gus Malzahn took eight in 2015 and nine in his class last year. Other particularly high early enrollee classes include Florida’s 12 in 2016, Clemson’s whopping 14 in 2015, and Tennessee’s 14 in 2014. Georgia took 13 in 2013, five more than anybody else that year.