College football’s new early signing period, explained by coaches

College football’s first-ever early signing period arrives in 2017, from Dec. 20 to 22. For college football, it represents a big change from the existing February signing day because of the accelerated timetable, though the February date is not going away.

I was really excited to call my coaching contacts and chat about how each would go about the process.

I planned to share a variety of responses with our readers. I granted coaches anonymity so they would not let their opponents know about their grand strategies, which I figured would be different from team to team.

I was wrong.

Conversation after conversation went the same. That’s still news; it’s just not as exciting.

And maybe I should not be surprised. The principle guiding the common strategy of the schools is to maximize the leverage given to them by NCAA rules.

So here is how the vast majority of college teams will attack early signing day.

“With few exceptions, we expect to sign every verbal commitment we have. This is [now] the main Signing Day.”

If a player has been offered and has verbally committed to the university, that team expects him to sign. Coaches have put in months, if not years, of work toward their current verbal commitments. They do not want to spend another second ensuring those players sign. In fact, that has long been one of their biggest annoyances with the recruiting process.

To put it another way, a lot of schools think upward of 80 percent of their recruiting classes will sign in December, with only a few players waiting until February.

The December early signing period is now the big trip to the grocery store, while February’s traditional National Signing Day is going to become the quick stop for a gallon of milk.

And you can bet the focus on the players who did not sign early will be extremely intense in the six weeks between the early signing period and the February National Signing Day.

“If we’re waiting on a test score, we might ask the commit to wait until February.”

Sometimes, a team will accept a verbal commitment from a player with the understanding that he needs to improve his ACT/SAT score or grades. Verbal commitments are not binding, so a team is under no duty to actually send a letter of intent to sign, even to a verbally committed prospect. If a kid still needs a test score or some grades in core classes, don’t be surprised if a team asks him to wait, because they don’t want to waste a spot on a kid who won’t qualify.

Other commits might be asked to wait a day.

Even with anonymity, few coaches wanted to acknowledge the possibility that they might ask a committed prospect to wait until Day 2 or 3 of the three-day signing period, but you can bet it will happen. Imagine a team wants to take one more wide receiver and is hoping to land Player A, but holds a commitment from Player B. It’s easy to picture that team asking Player B to wait until Player A is officially signed elsewhere.

A version of this happened in recent years on February’s Signing Day, too. A team would ask a recruit to wait until later in the afternoon, after a better player at the same position was signing in the morning. If the team did land the player it really wanted, the committed kid would need to quickly find a backup plan.

“If you’re verbally committed, and you don’t sign, you’re not committed,” a Power 5 coach said.

Talk is cheap, and nowhere is that more true than with recruiting. Coaches are really eager to see if some recruits who might be wishy-washy in their commitments actually sign on the dotted line.

For coaches, this is going to provide clarity. If a prospect doesn’t sign, especially if he hadn’t warned coaches that he planned to wait, then the team gets a clear message that it might need to look elsewhere to fill that spot.

“We’ll probably have five scholarships left. We won’t reach just to fill spots.”

While teams do want to sign the vast majority of currently committed players, they won’t be sending out offers to sign kids just to fill spots during December. That will still happen before the traditional February date.

“If a school hasn’t offered you by now, you’re not a priority for them,” is a line several coaches said they use.

This isn’t a lie, by the way. Some kids will be better off if they sign with smaller programs where they’ll be featured on offense or defense and given time to develop.

Small schools are going to put pressure on kids to sign and not wait for bigger offers.

A common frustration of teams that don’t normally recruit with the elites: When they do secure a yes from a top prospect, it’s difficult to carry it all the way until the first Wednesday in February.

With an accelerated timetable, those schools are feeling better about their chances to get those big fish in the boat. For that reason, they’re going to try every trick in the book to get these kids to sign and not take their recruitments into February, when the big powers can turn some of their focus to picking off unsigned players.

But big schools, especially those who have made coaching changes, will pull out the stops to get kids to wait.

There is no doubt that the early signing period benefits schools that did not make a coaching change. Twenty teams, including almost half of the SEC, changed coaches this offseason.

Those schools are working on incredibly accelerated timelines, compared to the normal plan. Many have partial coaching staffs, and in the span of two or three weeks, a new staff must determine what it has on its existing rosters, the state of its commitment list, which of those commitments are solid, which fit the new scheme, and which recruits who are uncommitted or committed to other schools might be interested in coming.

“We have no idea how this will work,” said a coach moving from a Group of 5 school to a Power 5 job. “We’re going to try to flip any kid from our former class who we think could play at this level, but there aren’t that many.”

“You’re the best player in their class. They’re not going to pull your offer if you wait until February,” is a line you can expect coaches at big programs to use on good players committed to smaller schools, in an attempt to get them to not sign early.

This could be bad for players

In the spring I wrote about some of the ways players could lose with this arrangement. The biggest concern is the lack of an out clause for players who sign with schools that subsequently change coaches. But there are other ways they could lose:

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.