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College football’s early Signing Day in December: Winners, losers, and a suggestion

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The soon-to-be-implemented system will be good for certain types of colleges, but bad for many players.

High School Football: National Signing Day-Ty Chandler The Tennessean -USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA’s new college football early signing period has been officially approved.

The existing date of the first Wednesday in February will remain, but to it will be added a date right before Christmas, coinciding with the traditional junior college signing date. In 2016, that would have meant Dec. 14, but in 2017, will be Dec. 20. The new signing window would last for three days.

Why?

The NCAA says that by mid-December, most prospects are far enough along in the recruiting cycle that they have their minds made up about where they want to attend. They are tired of incessant texts and calls and want to have some certainty about their college destinations shortly after the fall semesters of their senior years.

The early signing period will provide clarity for prospects and schools.

Throughout the process, schools extend verbal offers to recruits, who in turn make verbal commitments. But neither are binding. Signing is.

When it comes time for the early National Signing Day, schools will be expected to extend binding letters of intent for their verbal commitments to sign, and those commitments will be expected to sign them.

If a school does not send a letter of intent to a prospect who believes he is verbally committed to the school, that will be a major red flag to the prospect, indicating that the school is not as committed to him as he believed. While that will be disappointing, the prospect will still have adequate time to visit other schools and find a better option by February’s Signing Day, or wait to see if the school feels differently come the traditional date.

“I think the general consensus is, there is a pool of guys that are legitimate, solid commitments,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "If you can sign them and that part would be done, it would be good. ... No one’s fighting the early signing in the discussions I’ve been a part of."

Conversely, if a prospect claims he is verbally committed but does not sign the letter of intent a school has sent him, the school will know that he is not truly committed and might be looking at other options. The school will likely do the same.

There will be some measure of embarrassment associated with these inevitabilities, so expect the overall number of verbal offers to decline slightly.

Despite the NCAA’s stated purpose of benefiting recruits, teams could benefit even more.

A few kinds of teams will especially benefit:

  • Most teams will have a higher level of certainty under the new format.
  • Teams who are good at scouting and can secure early commitments from prospects who otherwise might be poached from better programs later in the process. The new date means less time for higher-profile programs to flip late-rising prospects. This is a good thing for lesser programs and will likely increase parity to some degree.
  • Northern teams could benefit, since in conjunction with the new date, the NCAA includes a rule that prospects will be allowed to take official visits (paid for by the school, and accompanied by a parent or high school coach) in April through June. This allows schools in cold climates to show a different, warmer side to top recruits.
  • Programs who get many commitments to sign early will see big benefits. First, they will not have to focus their energy on continuing to recruit committed prospects. Second, they will be able to undergo a bit of a class reset, in which they scope out their recruiting class, see what needs remain, identify the unsigned targets who could meet those needs, and pursue them aggressively over the seven weeks leading up to the traditional Signing Day.

Athletes could lose big.

Those who have not made enough academic progress to qualify might not be able to sign early with their schools of choice and could see their spots go to less-talented players who are more certain to qualify.

Options could also be limited for prospects who are late bloomers.

Sometimes, prospects are not discovered until December or January, as programs review senior film. Under the old system, scholarships were not being filled en masse until February. With the new early date, the number of options for late bloomers could decrease.

Prospects who feel pressured to sign early could also lose out on offers from bigger schools, if they sign and foreclose the opportunity to wait for better options.

The most obvious scenario in which recruits could lose: coaching changes.

Most coaching changes happen in December and January. And under the new rule, many of them will occur after a prospect signs early.

Under the old rule, the vast majority of coaching changes are made before prospects sign in February. There are always some stragglers, and sometimes moves that are privately agreed to before Signing Day but executed after, for the purpose of recruiting, but those are not all that common.

The refrain will be that a prospect should be signing “with a school, not a coach,” but that’s not what happens in most cases. A prospect signs with the staff that has formed the best relationship with him. A player trusts a certain coach, values that relationship, and wants to play in the scheme run by that coach.

Letters of intent are usually binding, and a coaching change is not something that can be used as an out clause. The NCAA has been silent as to any exceptions or out clauses afforded to prospects who sign early. Unless addressed, this sets up to be a huge mess.

A fair proposal would be to allow prospects to designate some coaches who, if they leave before enrollment, would allow the prospect to opt out.

I suggest it be the head coach, relevant position coach, coordinator on the side of the ball for which the prospect is being recruited, and perhaps the coach who functions as the area-recruiter for the prospect’s home region.

Such a rule is especially needed for this year, as the NCAA is set to approve a 10th coaching position, which will become operative on Jan. 9, 2018. Coming job changes are not hypothetical. We know staffs will be expanding from nine to 10 come January, and many of those new positions will be filled from existing coaches at other schools.

Many have their doubts that the NCAA will enact player protections of this type, however, because the NCAA consists of its member institutions. Such a move would transfer power from schools to players.

Update May 10: It seems this option was discussed, but not implemented.

MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher spoke with Al.com about the issue.

"The (NLI) is administered by the (CCA) and I know that's an issue that continues to be studied and discussed, but I'd also note we have early signing periods in other sports with the same sort of requirements that we have in football," Steinbrecher said. "Students need to go into this with their eyes open. Part of the reason why I think so many people kind of congregated around that mid-December date by the time you get there if there's going to be changes in the program, at least at the head coach level, the vast majority of those changes have occurred by then.

"Certainly there are some changes after that, and we certainly know that assistant coaches can change at virtually any time. Students have to contemplate all of that and take that into consideration when they make a determination on whether they want to sign early or not."

Some teams could also lose.

Schools who rely on flipping recruits from other schools and closing strong on Signing Day could find life tougher.

They’d be forced to sign players with projection baked into their evaluations or risk losing those players to schools willing to sign them early. Inevitably, some of those high-upside players turn out great, but some won’t. Being unable to wait and evaluate some of these players during their senior years creates a less-efficient process.

Schools who cannot give prospects the green light regarding academic acceptance until late in the cycle — most notably, Stanford — are going to be hurt because some prospects will not be willing to wait. Head coach David Shaw once called the idea of an earlier signing date “catastrophic.” I wrote about this in 2012.

Because of Stanford's academic standards, which are much tougher than NCAA minimum requirements, it runs into many more difficulties getting recruits admitted than the average football factory. Stanford does its best to judge who will likely be admitted, but often times the process is long and drawn out through a commitment's senior year, as he continues to take certain classes that Stanford admissions wants to see.

For Stanford, an early signing period could indeed be catastrophic. It would face a situation in which talented, smart players want to sign early and take advantage of strong academics and be a part of the burgeoning football program, but could not allow them to sign because they are still far from clearing admissions. Those players, not willing to wait around, would lock up spots at other schools and Stanford's recruiting would take a hit.