By Alex Norman
This coming Wednesday (February 6) is officially National Signing Day, the day that high school football players announce where they plan to play in college and further their education.
There are crying parents, cheering teammates, and enough cap dances to fill one of the domed stadiums they hope to play in once their time in college is over.
But times have changed… and change has brought with it positives and negatives to one of sports great traditions. Too often these days, people want to be absolutists. Something is either perfect or completely wrong. That’s a shame, because there are always two sides to each conversation.
The new ways that the annual rite of passage for high school football players occurs certainly has shaken the sports of college football to its core.
In late 2017, college football began what is called the early signing period. This allows prospective college football players to choose their school in advance of the traditional first Wednesday of February. It took place over a three day span in mid-December.
Now, there had already been avenues for players to matriculate to college earlier than the month after the typical high school graduation. Some high school football players chose to take extra classwork to complete their degree early, which would allow them to enroll in college that January. These “early enrollees” would be on campus months before the rest of their signing class. That meant extra time to learn the playbook, work in the weight room, and participate in spring practice.
But typically there were only a handful of players per signing class that would take advantage of that opportunity.
The new early signing period meant that kids could make their decisions known, and not have to wait around for another six weeks before signing their national letters of intent.
The impact was immediate. A large majority of prospects chose not to wait until February. At Georgia, there was an embarrassment of riches in that early signing period in 2017. Knoxville Catholic’s Cade Mays, a five-star offensive lineman, picked the Bulldogs. Others followed suit. That initial haul led to Georgia having the number one recruiting class in the nation.
This recruiting cycle (Class of 2019) has also seen a large majority of recruits choosing to sign early. At Tennessee, 19 recruits signed during the early signing period, leaving approximately 6 spots left open for Wednesday.
The early signing period means that families aren’t barraged by coach’s phone calls, fans social media posts, requests to take visits, etc. over the holidays and January. The kids know where they want to go, so why not get it over with?
It also allows kids that don’t sign to know where they stand with schools and gives them time to look elsewhere if the situation is not working out for them. In turn, coaches will know in advance if they need to look elsewhere for a wide receiver.
But the early signing period isn’t all sunshine and puppy dogs.
First of all, you can get a lot of coaching turnover after the early signing period. Typically, a coaching staff is filled out in February. But there has been an increasing amount of turnover between mid-December and February. At Southern Cal, Kliff Kingsbury was hired as OC, then left to take over the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals. Players that signed with Southern Cal because of Kingsbury, only to learn he was then leaving town, would either be stuck in LA, or have to fight to be release from their NLI.
And for fans, the thrill is now gone from National Signing Day. There was always a great buildup to that first Wednesday in February. Fans would stay glued to their computers all day to find out who was faxing their paperwork. Tennessee used to have a day-long event on their website, with Bob Kesling, Mike Keith and others hosting the festivities.
But a three day period right before Christmas just isn’t the same… and by the time National Signing Day rolls around, it has turned into an afterthought.
Overall I think the changes to National Signing Day have been a positive to the student-athlete. And that’s the most important thing…
But it’s just not the same…