An early signing period in college football has gone from proposal to reality.
For the 2018 recruiting cycle already underway, that means a 72-hour signing window beginning Dec. 20, and then the traditional signing date on the first Wednesday in February. It's a great unknown for Southeastern Conference coaches, who typically dominate the recruiting landscape.
"It's going to be different because of the manpower and the hours that it takes," LSU's Ed Orgeron said. "It's a war out there, and now you have two of them. A lot of teams will be practicing for some very important bowls, so you've got to balance your time between the new signing day and the practice and preparation."
Orgeron was asked if he liked the NCAA's new recruiting calendar.
"I have no choice now," he said. "I have to deal with it. It's something that if I could have voted for it, I would not have. It just puts a lot of different strain on your staff."
The biggest plus to an early signing period is that prospects who know where they want to attend can sign and end the recruiting process, yet several SEC coaches envision multiple unintended consequences.
"You're going to have guys having to make an intense decision possibly during the week of their (high school) playoff run," Georgia's Kirby Smart said. "Finals can be during that time. There are going to be a lot of different pressures. You will have the schools they're supposed to go to providing pressure, and you will have other schools asking you to wait and see what happens to a staff or coach and telling you that you can make a more informed decision come February.
"It's a time when we're not used to having that much intensity in recruiting."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen wonders if the busier of the two signing days will occur before Christmas. Florida's Jim McElwain believes the earlier period "will call some people's bluff, both from the players' side and the schools' side," and South Carolina's Will Muschamp agrees.
The SEC's spring meetings are this week in Destin, Fla., but the league's football coaches already have been outspoken on this topic.
"I wish we hadn't changed anything in the recruiting calendar," Muschamp said. "This will help us with the young men who are coming to South Carolina no matter what, and if you feel good about your class and can sign those guys in December, you can move forward to some of the other classes, but some of the commitments nowadays are reservations, so you will find out in December whether a guy is committed to you.
"If he's not signing in December, you better rethink your numbers."
SEC coaches are mixed about the early signing date, with Kentucky's Mark Stoops, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss in favor. Tennessee's Butch Jones admitted he would have preferred it more when he was at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, because he would have encountered fewer February surprises of Power Five conference schools swooping in with a late scholarship offer and snagging a recruit committed to his program.
Smart admits he's not "either way" on the December signing period, adding that he wants to see how this first cycle plays out.
"I think we're dealing in a world we haven't dealt in," Smart said, "which means there are probably things we haven't thought of and repercussions we haven't thought of. It will be interesting to see who handles it best."
Where SEC coaches are in complete agreement is their opposition to the notable change that will occur in the 2019 cycle. Prospects in this 2018 class must abide by current NCAA legislation, which allows a student-athlete to begin taking official visits no sooner than the opening day of classes of his senior year in high school.
Recruits in the 2019 class can start taking official visits during their junior year, beginning April 1, 2018.
"The early signing date is great, but the calendar changing and pushing things up is hard on high schools and hard on high school coaches," Sumlin said. "If we're going to have May and June visits, that's going to be rough."
Said Freeze: "I'm not a fan of the early visits, because you're tripping kids before they've even had a sixth-semester transcript. I wish that was not a part of it."
Alabama's Nick Saban is widely viewed as the greatest recruiter in the sport's history, having assembled top-rated classes nine times in the past 10 years, but even he is moving forward with a lot of concerns.
"I think evaluation is important, and I think the sooner you have to make decisions on these guys, the greater opportunity you have to make mistakes," Saban said. "I still think June is going to be a really important time for a lot of these guys, and the biggest fear of having an early signing date is that it would become the signing date. I don't know that accelerating the calendar and letting these guys visit in the spring is a good thing.
"We talk all about the opportunity we're giving guys early, but we're also eliminating opportunities for some late bloomers."
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