Earlier Signing Date Drums Up Recruiting Drama

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Naples Daily News (Florida)


JJ Weaver's past week as a football recruit was, in a word, "crazy."

A 6-foot-6 defensive end at Louisville's Moore Traditional School and a coveted four-star prospect in the current class, Moore had committed to Kentucky. He did not decommit from Kentucky, nor did he even imply that he might.

But he did visit Louisville recently, fulfilling a promise to athletic director Vince Tyra to meet the Cardinals' new coach Scott Satterfield. And Weaver followed that visit by saying he wanted to wait until February's late period to sign a binding letter of intent, rather than doing so this week during college football's recently implemented early signing period.

Weaver's stated reason was that he wanted to sign with friends in February, but the expected delay set off an alarm for a restless Big Blue Nation. The response he received on social media was such that it ultimately prompted Weaver and his mother Stacey Sherrell to reply on Twitter to ease concerns, insisting he wasn't going back on his commitment to Kentucky.

"That's crazy," Weaver said. "My momma was crying about it, everything. She thought people were going to come after me, do something to me. But it's good. Everything is perfect now."

Weaver ultimately opted to sign in December after all, telling the Courier Journal that he now plans to sign at his school Wednesday, the first of three days in the early signing period.

It was the latest in what has been a dramatic buildup in Kentucky for this week's early period, which is in only its second year of existence.

Satterfield caused angst for recruits when his staff revoked scholarship offers for players who had committed to Bobby Petrino's previous coaching staff. One of those players said he'd been "thrown for a loop," as he'd planned to enroll for spring semester at Louisville.

Two more of the state's premier prospects recently reversed field despite making public commitments on social media — Jared Casey of Ballard flipped from Oregon to Kentucky; Wandale Robinson of Western Hills decommitted from UK in favor of Nebraska. Western Kentucky joins the fray while scrambling to compile a class under new coach Tyson Helton.

Football recruiting has never been short on theater. The latest examples locally illustrate the unpredictable drama that can happen when teenagers change their minds while being heavily courted by football coaches whose high salaries are dependent on landing the best players.

Coaches get fired or change jobs. Players reconsider their choices. Still, the pressure applied by programs to secure commitments earlier than ever — oftentimes in haste for the athletes — has invited risks and awards in an early signing period that has been met with mixed outcomes.

To wait or not: 'Hard discussions'

For years, college football's recruiting calendar was built around signing day in early February. Recruits would receive scholarship offers and make verbal commitments, but until pen was put to paper on a letter of intent, none of the decisions were final.

Recruiting would thus continue, even with prospects having committed, and weeks leading up until signing day were filled with headlines about players switching from one school to another.

In April 2017, the NCAA's Division I council approved sweeping changes to football recruiting, including changes to the recruiting calendar in addition to a December signing date.

"The entire package of rule changes is friendly for students, their families and their coaches," said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement at the time.

While still in its early stages, football's early signing date in December hasn't curbed that drama as much as simply moved it up the calendar.

"When we only had one signing day, there were surprises on that day too," UK coach Mark Stoops said. "For us and everybody, every team in the country, believe me. I was at Florida State, and we were holding on to our tail on signing day.

"Sometimes we got some good surprises, and sometimes we got some surprises. ... I like it this way because if we get that surprise or somebody doesn't sign then you know you've got to go look for another guy. You've got time to get that fixed."

This comment by Stoops was in response to a question about recruiting in general and was not referencing Weaver or any one prospect.

His point, however, remains clear in representing a college coach's view: If a committed player doesn't sign in December, can you still consider him to be committed?

Prospects in football now have the option of signing early or late, like you see in men's basketball. Recruits can sign in November for basketball, but they will often wait until April, and that's generally regarded as routine.

Football isn't there yet.

The early signing date has created — perhaps unintentionally — additional pressure nationwide for a high school prospect to more quickly commit to a school. Sometimes, those public pronouncements don't hold up, just as they did not for Casey and Robinson.

The next step is then to complete the process by signing in December or else risk losing a spot that might not be available in February.

"There certainly are some benefits (to the early signing period), but the idea that this would relieve pressure on the prospect or in some way give them more control of the process I think is a misconception," said Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247 Sports. "I do think that there is more pressure on prospects. The decisions become tougher, and I think they lose some leverage and lose some control when a kid that is verbally committed still has the opportunity to sort of collect some late interest in January that disappears, because now these kids are pressed to sign regardless of what may await them after the start of January."

Some players will be viewed as good enough for a college to hold a spot if he wants to wait. Some will not, and the uncertainty of a player wanting to wait understandably creates a dilemma for a college coach.

"Those are hard discussions," said newly hired WKU coach Tyson Helton, "but it depends on how bad do you really want the guy. Are you willing to wait? And you've got to tell yourself, 'Well, if we wait, is this guy really going to be there in January?'

"Everybody is going to be hounding the kid, too. ... You have to have the hard discussion that says, 'Hey, if you do go (visit) somewhere, you need to understand that this spot may be potentially taken. If you're going to go look, we have to at the end of the day do the best thing for our football team and our football program.'"

During the first recruiting cycle with an early signing period, at least 80 percent of committed NCAA Division I prospects signed in December, according to Simmons.

Stoops put the percentage higher for commits in Power Five programs, saying it was more than 90 percent last year. Of UK's eventual 24-player signing class in 2018, 20 of them signed on the first day of the December period. Four more were announced in February.

"There may be a few loose ends to tie up," Stoops said. "If we have a scholarship or two, there's definitely still some good players that will be left on the board that we'll have to recruit. But the pressure is all in December. You get done with the games, and then you want to get it wrapped up by the 19th."

Since before the inception of an early signing period, Stoops has been publicly in favor of it. Helton said he has been as well.

Coaches, after all, can lock down the bulk of a signing class in December, thus allowing more time to evaluate the next year's crop of prospects.

You are either on board or not, and schools must plan accordingly.

"Being a football coach, if I had an opportunity to know what my team was going to look like in December, I'd take it," said Ballard High School coach Adrian Morton, whose player Casey plans to enroll at UK for spring semester. "I can't really blame those guys. We're talking about teenage boys here. I wouldn't say the players are losing leverage. It's what's best for both parties, I guess you'd say."

Who benefits from the change?

Presumably, the early signing date in football should benefit programs like Kentucky and Louisville, which have historically been at risk of losing commitments late to prestigious programs that happened to have openings prior to signing day.

"In terms of just being able to sign the best class possible, I think it helps every program except for the very top of the food chain," Simmons said of football's early period, "because ultimately the programs at the top of the food chain start the domino that leads to everyone poaching kids from a tier below them.

"So for programs like Kentucky and Louisville, who are Power Five programs but may still be down the pecking order a little bit in their conference from a Clemson or an Alabama, there's less peril in babysitting those recruits through January, sweating out which school was going to come and try to make a run at them."

An additional problem for any program, however, has to do with timing and coaching transition that happens every year. Not only does new Louisville coach Satterfield have precious little time to build numbers before December's early signing date, but his cutting ties with committed prospects who didn't fit what he wanted obviously left little time for those players to make an alternate plan before the early signing date.

In-state offensive lineman Jack Randolph from Franklin-Simpson High School, for example, had been planning to enroll for spring semester at Louisville.

"Now it's thrown me for a loop," Randolph said. "I'm having to come up with a high school schedule for next semester and having to regroup."

Louisville, with just three committed players — including Manual running back Aidan Robbins — will likely need the late signing period to shore up Satterfield's first signing class, and he'll be recruiting from a smaller pool of prospects.

The same goes for Helton at WKU, who has had about three weeks to piece together the Hilltoppers' plan for the early signing period. He faced the same last year at Tennessee, where he was the offensive coordinator on head coach Jeremy Pruitt's initial staff in Knoxville.

"The new signing period is obviously a lot tougher on new staffs. That's where it's hard," Helton said. "If you're an established staff, it's a really good deal, because you pretty much know who your guys are. You sign them up, then you come back in January on the second round of recruiting and you're out there looking for 2020 and 2021 kids."

The list of available players in the late signing period might also include Weaver's Moore teammate Kalon Howard, a receiver/defensive back prospect who only recently got a test score he needed to qualify academically. He is an example of the kind of late-bloomer prospect who starred as a senior and can get overlooked in the rush to complete classes early.

To this point, Howard has been offered the opportunity to join UK's team as a preferred walk-on, according to Moore coach Rob Reader.

"I'm pretty sure he's going to take that offer," Reader said, "and I think UK stole one there with that young man. He's a heck of a football player. He led our team in tackles and was second on our team in sacks."

Helton added that since the relationships with coaches are starting earlier, most Division I signees know where they want to go by the December signing period.

Reader agreed.

Although Weaver knew where he wanted to go, the creation of an early signing period caused drama and pressure that wouldn't have existed previously.

It's still new, and the debate over whether the early date will be good for college football and its players is only just beginning.

"The reason I see it as a net negative is it accelerates the process," Simmons said, "which is something that the NCAA and colleges have been trying to fight forever. Every time someone rolls their eyes at an eighth-grader being offered, it's ultimately a product of legislation like this that necessitates that early recruitment.

"That's a negative, and I think ultimately, we should be creating rules that benefit the student-athlete above all else."

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December 18, 2018


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