The Last Signing Day Football

In February 2012, Oxford High School student Kwon Alexander dons an LSU cap signifying his intent to attend and play football there during a news conference on national signing day. The first Wednesday of February in college football has become a celebration of hat-picking suspense and hopeful speculation. Now the relatively new phenomena of national signing day as a spectacle could be heading toward extinction with the likely introduction of early signing period. Wednesday’s signing day will mark the end of an era. [TAMIKA MOORE/AL.COM]

Southeastern Conference coaches are convinced the new early signing date could affect everything involving football recruiting

Like nearly every other sport on a college campus, football now has what is being referred to as an early signing period a few months before the traditional National Signing Day in February.

The NCAA Division I Council approved legislation to create another signing day the third Wednesday in December for high school recruits. The rule is expected to be approved by the Conference Commissioners Association, which manages the National Letter of Intent program, in June. The change will go into effect starting with the 2018 recruiting class and is expected to be a major talking point at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings this week.

The early reaction by SEC head coaches is a December signing date could potentially make the made-for-television drama of what happens in February irrelevant.

With top-rated high school players verbally committing earlier, there has been less drama on signing day. Of Auburn’s 25 signees in the 2017 recruiting class, only two were seen as surprises.

A year ago, Daniel Thomas woke up at 7 a.m. to learn he had an offer from Auburn, and he immediately accepted it. But that is the exception, not the norm. More common today are stories like that of Auburn four-star signee Austin Troxell from Madison Academy, who gave his verbal pledge over two years before he was allowed to sign his National Letter-of-Intent.

“I just think it’s about strategy because there’s so many early (enrollee) signees nowadays so as a program you’re going to be used to that already,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “As long as you have been recruiting somebody for a good extended period of time, you usually have a good idea where they stand.”

Reservations vs. Commitments?

Verbal commitments have put a damper on the signing day drama. 

Prospects are allowed to give a verbal commitment to a program whenever they please, and it usually comes after an official visit to the campus. Juniors are will now be allowed to start taking visits from April through most of June.

A primary reason for the early signing period is to end the process for prospects who are already decided on their college choice. 

“There are guys that know where they’re going to go and want to go,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said. “The early signing period, it lets them get it off their plate. They don’t have to listen to all the stuff being slung around as it goes all the way to February. I think it’ll alleviate a lot of that stuff. It’ll really narrow the focus going into the February signing.”

An early signing day could alleviate recruits from flipping to other schools or reopening their recruitment. Currently, players who are already committed continue to be recruited by other schools. 

Many SEC coaches have a new phrase to describe early commitments that still take their allowed five official campus visits and have some doubt leading into the month of February: reservations.

“If a guy doesn’t sign in December, you know he’s not committed. He’s got a reservation,” Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “It’s got potential to really help everybody as a cost-cutting measure. By that time, our guys have usually committed. We’re not down to the wire except for a couple, maybe three guys. We spend the month of January basically spending money to see a guy every week. If he doesn’t sign then, that clears the picture up. He’s not really committed to you.”

Sumlin’s program currently has 95 offers out in his 2018 recruiting class.

Many coaches are using the “reservation” term to vilify prospects that they see are still flirting with other college programs while taking up one of their 25 signee spots in a recruiting class.

This “reservation” term might serve a de-facto ultimatum from Power 5 Conference programs for a prospect to either sign in December or get left behind.

“Some of the commitments nowadays are reservations, so they’re really not a commitment. You find out in December if the guy is committed to you,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “If he’s not signing in December you better rethink your numbers or continue to recruit because you’re not sure you can sign him in February. That will bring some clarity to it.”

However, the “reservation” term is very much cloak and dagger both ways. According to 247Sports.com, Auburn currently has scholarship offers out to 185 prospects for the 2018 recruiting class, and while that number seems like a lot it's not close to leading the SEC. According to 247Sports.com, Georgia has 262 scholarship offers out for the 2018 class, Alabama has 238 and Mississippi State has topped the 300 mark.

It becomes more than interesting when Muschamp, whose South Carolina program has 222 scholarship offers out for this recruiting class, referencing loyalty by using a passive aggressive term like “reservation” for a decision by a 17-18 year-old when they won’t take the offered scholarships of 197 prospects because of the 25-man limit to recruiting class by SEC programs.

“One of the big things we need to look at is if a majority of kids are signing Dec. 15, that’s really going to affect how we do things in the future,” said Muschamp, who has 222 offers pending. “Because that’s really going to become the signing day, more than an early signing day.”

With signing classes limited to 25, it's uncertain what the 197 players that hold South Carolina offers will do. 

Prospects “calling the bluff” 

As coaches begin to put together new strategies to include this new recruiting calendar and the early signing period in December, programs must evaluate how many early offers they send out and who they send them out to.

Coaches currently have to decide whether to send out a scholarship offer while monitoring two similar questions: Will this prospect immediately accept our offer, shut down his recruitment and sign in December, and will we have enough open spots for the period between the December signing period and the signing day in February?

“I truly think it’ll call some people’s bluffs, both from the player side and the school side,” McElwain said.

““It’s put in place to benefit student-athletes. It’s going to allow them to have a faster say getting the recruiting process done and over with,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “And really what it will do is hold schools’ feet to the fire in terms of whether or not they’re actually committed to the student-athletes.”

Programs outside the Power 5 are interested to see if they can take advantage of an earlier signing date to avoid programs taking away their early commitments.

“I’m in favor of the early signing period. I think it’ll allow you to know exactly where you stand quicker with players,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “They will know where schools stand with them quicker. I think that could be beneficial for us.”

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