If you peruse various rosters this spring—and of course you will—you’ll notice one definitive trend: There are more freshmen enrolling early in college than ever before.
It’s a trend that has been gaining steam for years, although it’s no longer a rarity. In fact, it’s pretty much common practice. And with coaches, teams and players paving the way for a new process, the NCAA is right to work toward an early signing day period.
The rest of the sport is pretty much already there.
It’s not around the corner, but it’s coming. Talks of an early signing day have been swirling, and soon such discussion will be put into action. The financial aid agreements that are now available starting on August 1—an option for seniors who plan to enroll early—are a precursor of bigger things on the horizon.
That bigger thing could change the landscape of recruiting in its entirety. It’s not that easy, of course, although Susan Peal, the NCAA associate director of operations, didn’t exactly slowplay her hand when discussing the matter.
"I think everyone wants an early signing period," Peal said to Mitch Sherman of ESPN.com. "It's just trying to nail down what's the appropriate date for that."
Well, not everyone. At the very least, one prominent head football coach is against this movement.
Speaking with Kyle Bonagura of ESPN.com after spring practice over the weekend, Stanford coach David Shaw expressed his displeasure over an early signing period, highlighting the potential issues that could arise from it.
I might be alone in this, I think it's terrible. I think it's terrible. The reason [for an early signing period], in my opinion, is coaches don't like when kids commit and switch late.
What's going to happen is, if a kid wants to change his mind late after the early signing period, he's going to appeal and that appeal is going to go through because the committees that decide those appeals, they always give in towards the student-athlete.
Shaw is right. Not in his identification of it being “terrible”—with all due respect to his valued bank of football knowledge—but that commits, in certain situations, will likely change their mind.
Look around, though. This is an issue that we have right now with the current signing day structure, and it will continue to be a problem in unique situations regardless of timing.
It doesn’t matter when a decision is made. A small percentage of players will have a change of heart when they decide on a school and coach. This isn’t an early signing day problem; it’s a 17-year-old-making-the-biggest-decision-of-his-life problem.
These things happen. They will continue to happen, and it will be understood why it happens. Rearranging the process won’t suddenly open the floodgates. It won’t stop these issues altogether, either.
Aside from the indecisive player, Shaw cited his peers as one of the many deterrents of an early signing period. Simply put, he believes coaches are tired of a tiring process. "People can make whatever argument they want, it boils down to that. ... Coaches don't want to keep recruiting an entire class all year," Shaw said.
He’s right about this, too. But the reality of the situation is coaches aren't alone.
Players are also absolutely drained by the end of a recruiting cycle. Heck, coaches and players are drained at the beginning and middle of this cycle.
It’s an exhausting, invasive process that is starting earlier than ever. And if a high schooler is content to make this final decision early—having heard every last pitch roughly 500 times along the way—why not give him the option? Why force him to deal with the endless stream of phone calls, text messages and mailbox filler?
There’s also some security in committing early. Regardless of what happens over the next few months for the player—be it an injury, underwhelming performance or change of heart on the other side—a signature could serve as a security blanket of sorts. At the very least, it will provide peace of mind for all parties involved.
More than just the benefits it could create for the players, families and even staffs, an early signing period is a way to catch up to the direction college football is heading. Regardless of whether this legislation is realized or not, the era of early enrollees is upon us.
And this path won't be changing course anytime soon.
Focusing in on the SEC—the nation’s most dominant recruiting conference by a significant margin—the uptick in early commits over the past few seasons is noteworthy. Tennessee had 14 early enrollees in 2014 alone, and the trend across the conference is pretty clear over the past five years.
It’s a win-win for the players and the coaches to get the kids in early. The coaches are able to work with their kids well before they will be officially called upon while also getting them in one of the more advanced strength programs in the country.
The players can get acclimated with the college and football lifestyle they will embrace for the next three to four years. They can also make their depth chart push early on.
Such pushes to arrive early have altered the recruiting timeline. The nation’s top players are no longer waiting until February to announce their decision. They’re ending it earlier—or at least attempting to—by verbally committing to a program well before crunch time. And by the time national signing day rolls around, they’re already hard at work.
This, more than anything, is why an early signing period makes sense. Not because it will elevate the burden placed on the high schoolers forced to deal with it far longer than they should have to—although it can’t hurt—but because the sport is already there. Now it’s time to catch up.