The first Wednesday of February used to be the biggest day on the calendar for college football recruiting. Now it is an afterthought.
The December signing period, which is now when nearly all major prospects finalize their plans, is still relatively new but is causing enough headaches for busy coaches that many are trying to think of an alternative.
“It’s become the primary signing period for football,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “February is seemingly now when they plug holes. It’s a secondary thing.”
Indeed, over 95% of the nation’s top 250 high school senior prospects had signed with schools before Wednesday, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports. That continues a trend that began as soon as the early signing period arrived in December 2017.
The difference now is that the transfer portal has made December busier than ever. The early signing period for this class began Dec. 21, a little over two weeks after the portal window opened and just as bowl games were starting.
Before the College Football Playoff championship game, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and TCU’s Sonny Dykes both called for changes to the crowded college football calendar. Smart noted the arrival of a 12-team playoff in 2024 will only make things busier.
“I think with the playoff system coming up, it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens: Are you going to be playing games while you’re trying to sign guys in the early signing period in December?” Smart said. “It’s gotten more competitive than ever.”
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who was critical of the early signing period when it first took effect, has said it should be moved to clear up that December schedule.
Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said a “high majority” of coaches have recommended moving it. Berry said coaches like having an early signing period but want it at a different time.
“I think everyone right now knows this is ridiculous,” Berry said. “Where we’re at right now is total chaos. The whole college enterprise is in total chaos right now – and it gets worse every year.”
The question is exactly where to move it.
Berry suggested having the early signing period shortly after the end of the regular season so that it doesn’t come at the same time teams are making bowl trips and signing transfers. The most recent portal window was open from Dec. 5 to Jan. 19.
“This is in discussion phase, but (coaches) would maybe like to have one weekend to bring in high school players and then have the signing date just after that,” Berry said.
Aresco said he hadn’t polled conference coaches on the issue yet but suggested having the early signing period after the playoff — or just eliminating it entirely.
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips said he is inclined to keep the early signing period where it is because the other options don’t make any more sense.
Phillips noted there isn’t much support for having the signing period during the regular season. He also noted that having high school seniors and transfers finalize their decisions at the same time at least gives them a sense of what’s going on at each college they are considering.
“It’s not a hard stance,” Phillips said. “We continue to talk with other leagues. I’m talking to other commissioners about it. I know coaches are doing the same in our league. But right now there doesn’t seem to be a better alternative.”
High school coaches wouldn’t mind seeing changes.
Dan Sabella of Don Bosco Prep at Ramsey, New Jersey, said he has mixed emotions about the signing period. He’d like to see it moved earlier so prospects could get their college selection process out of the way before their senior seasons. But he acknowledged that could cause some top seniors to skip their final prep seasons, a potential consequence Berry and Phillips also mentioned.
Sabella also brought up one way in which the early signing period has made things tougher for prospects.
“It’s helped the higher-profile players but has hurt the guys who aren’t being recruited as much or who have really good senior years,” said Sabella, whose program has New Jersey’s top prospects for 2023 (Texas A&M-bound offensive lineman Chase Bisontis) and 2024 (defensive lineman Jordan Thomas). “It’s really taken away a lot from the senior year.”
Dana Zupke of Pinnacle High School in Phoenix agreed. Pinnacle has t wo of Arizona’s top three 2023 prospects in tight end Duce Robinson plus Southern California-bound offensive tackle Elijah Paige and quarterback Dylan Raiola, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in the 2024 class.
“If you don’t show something by your junior year, it’s really hard to get a scholarship by your senior year, I think because of the early signing date and because recruiting has been accelerated more and more,” Zupke said.
Coaches at the high school and college level both see drawbacks in having the early signing period in late December. The problem is finding a better solution.
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