On Dec. 20, high school football seniors will be able to do something they never were allowed to before: Sign a letter of intent with the college of their choice before Christmas.
Their counterparts in basketball have had two signing periods — one in November, one in April — for years, but for at least as long as more than a few diehards have cared about recruiting, football players weren’t allowed to sign until early February.
The path for that to change was cleared last spring when the NCAA Division I council passed several changes to college football’s recruiting model.
Since then, people in and around the industry have wondered what effects might be wrought.
With the big day finally near, one thing looks to be clear: Almost everyone is going to take advantage.
Colleges are making plans to welcome recruits’ signatures on Dec. 20 as if it were the old February date, and nearly every player in the area who has verbally committed to a school has indicated an intent to sign rather than wait.
The alternative would be to hold off until February to see what options remain — and some recruits who are undecided appear ready to do just that — but signing in late December may just become the new normal.
An early signing period was discussed from time to time over the years with the date of it fluctuating with various proposals.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer spoke out against a potential summer date multiple times but said he could live with the December date after it became the new law of the land in May.
“I was really opposed to a (signing day in) June and August,” Meyer told WSYX TV in Columbus. “I think December is OK.”
Along with the new signing date will come a change in when players are allowed to make official visits, too.
Class of 2018 prospects still had to wait until the beginning of their senior year to take official visits, which are paid for by the school. Many also make unofficial visits, but the prospect has to pay for those on their own.
Beginning next year, juniors are eligible to take official visits as early as April 1.
Meyer is happy about that but expressed concern about moving up the recruiting calendar.
However, in many ways the new dates for visits and signing reflect changes that already occurred.
Recruits of every pedigree — from five-star blue chips to lightly recruited three-star prospects — have been making unofficial visits as underclassmen and issuing verbal commitments earlier and earlier for a decade or more.
Filling nearly every slot in a recruiting class by the end of the summer has gone from unheard of to the norm at many schools, including Ohio State, so letting players go ahead and put pen to paper made a certain amount of sense.
Miami University coach Chuck Martin said in July he would prefer to see an even more drastic change.
“It should be before the senior year,” Martin told this news organization at MAC football media days in July. “That’s an early signing period. All these kids are committed now. How many kids in America that are juniors are committed right now? Why don’t we have them sign? Because a few of the big boys don’t want them to sign so they can poach them. No one wants to say it, but it’s a fact.”
Not that the former Notre Dame assistant blames the big schools for throwing their weight around when they need to.
“And if I was at Alabama, I wouldn’t want an early signing period either,” Martin said. “I would want to be able on Jan. 28 to go steal somebody. If we’re trying to teach kids what commitment is and what your word is, it makes no sense.”
He also noted another unfortunate reality of recruiting: Sometimes schools pull offers, even from players who have been committed for months.
“There are teams in our league that have dropped guys in January,” he said. “I’m not going to name names, but I know who they are. They just dropped them. Well, if they had signed, it protects the high school kid. It makes, no one has ever given me a compelling argument why we don’t have one, but we still don’t have it, so go figure.”
If the new early signing period is an improvement —giving players who sign some piece of mind six weeks early — in some ways, it’s still far from perfect.
Meyer lamented in late November being unsure how many players he can or needs to sign this recruiting cycle because he has an untold number of players with eligibility remaining who could enter the NFL draft early.
They don’t have to make that decision until the middle of January, so his roster might have a different look than expected less than a month after the early signing period.
“The other thing you’re going to see is the guy you keep on the back burner and try to flip him at the end, he signs on (Dec.) 20th, you don’t have those guys either,” Meyer said Nov. 13. “So it’s going to be an interesting year.”
Ah, yes, there is that issue Martin mentioned, too: Wooing players who are committed elsewhere.
Meyer speaks often of saving a few spots for late-bloomers, those who might grow into high-level prospects only as seniors.
Everyone does it, but Meyer more than most coaches has a reputation for flipping players who are committed to other schools, sometimes shortly before the old February signing day.
Among the many players he lured away from previous commitments is Dwayne Haskins, his likely starting quarterback for next season.
Two weeks before signing day in 2016, he decided to be a Buckeye rather than play for his home-state school, Maryland.
Current Buckeye defensive tackle Robert Landers, a Wayne graduate, was going to West Virginia before his senior season convinced Meyer to offer him an OSU scholarship in December 2014.
That is just two examples, but they serve as a reminder everyone has a unique situation.
So while there is no doubt recruiting has entered a new world, just what consequences — intended or not — will come remains to be seen.
Only time will tell — and it’s almost time to start finding out.