The early signing period for college football opened Wednesday and in many ways it looked the same as usual.
There were surprising last-minute flips by blue-chip recruits, pick-a-hat commitment ceremonies held at high schools across the country and Alabama signing the nation's top-rated class.
Hanging over it all, though, was the impossible to quantify but hard to ignore influence of NIL money impacting players' decisions.
This was second signing class since the NCAA lifted a ban on college athletes being able to earn money for the use of their names, images and likenesses. There still there are no clearly defined, detailed and uniform rules regulating how third parties can pay athletes.
“I think there's major concerns with what's going on in college football,” said Penn State coach James Franklin, who emphasized he supports athletes being able to cash in on NIL opportunities. “Right now, there's really no guardrails. There's not a whole lot of guidance, and there's not a whole of governance.”
Penn State has a recruiting class ranked in the top 15 in the country, according to 247 Sports' composite rankings.
It is still against NCAA rules to use NIL payments as a recruiting inducement or offer pay-for-play deals. But with money and NIL deals flowing to athletes through booster-funded collectives, it seems nearly impossible for the NCAA to enforce those rules.
“We all want something if we can get it” said new Nebraska coach Matt Rhule, who returned to the college game after three years in the NFL. “You can see (NIL is) being misused and mishandled in a lot of places."
While coaches complain about bad actors, nobody names names and NIL is now part of the recruiting conversation, whether coaches like it or not.
“The reality is this day and age you have to make decisions on how you’re going to handle this," Southern California coach Lincoln Riley said.
Riley said he believed USC lost recruits to other schools because of NIL deals, but he added that “everybody did."
Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said of NIL deals: “If that’s the only reason they want to come to Notre Dame, we’re not going to be the right place for them.”
The Fighting Irish were on the short end of two surprising flips pulled off by Oregon.
The Ducks received commitments from five-star defensive back Peyton Bowen of Texas and four-star running back Jayden Limar from Washington. Both had been committed verbally — and very much nonbinding — to Notre Dame.
Oregon coach Dan Lanning and his staff also flipped four-star defensive back Daylen Austin from an LSU pledge and four-star quarterback Austin Novosad from a Baylor commitment.
“I think it’s great to be in a place where you can be innovative and ahead of the curve, but I think anybody that really knows college football right now knows there’s a lot more to recruiting than NIL,” Lanning said. “Nobody picks the place just because of those factors ... it goes back to relationships."
Oregon also signed five-star Matayo Uiagalelei, who picked the Ducks over Ohio State and Southern California. The California linebacker is the brother of former Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.
The Ducks secured the top-rated class in the Pac-12 — and top 10 in the nation — despite losing out on five-star quarterback Dante Moore earlier in the week. Moore, from Michigan, was a late flip to UCLA.
Not every coach is leaning into NIL.
“We built this program on NIL. We really did,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It's probably different than what you're thinking, though. We built this program on God's name, image and likeness.”
TIDE ON TOP
NIL might be changing recruiting, but the leaderboard of best classes looks familiar.
The Crimson Tide landed two five-star defensive linemen, Qua Russaw and James Smith, from the same Montgomery high school to lock up a class that will challenge the 2022 Texas A&M signing class for the highest score ever generated by the 247 composite.
Alabama also pulled off a late flip, getting five-star offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor from Iowa to renege on a longtime commitment to the Hawkeyes.
At a signing ceremony at his high school, Proctor told reporters he felt as if he was settling with Iowa and that NIL deals were not the deciding factor.
“It’s not about the money because if people knew about the money situation, they wouldn’t be talking about it,” Proctor said, according to the Des Moines Register. “But I wanted to go play football at a prestigious school. (There’s) a lot of competition down there and ultimately it’s going to make me better.”
There is more recruiting left to be done. What used to be the traditional signing day during the first week of February has now become secondary, with a few blue-chippers still on the board and the majority of scholarships already filled.
But Alabama can be declared the recruiting champions for the 10th time in the last 13 years.
LIKE A HURRICANE
Mario Cristobal's first season as Miami's coach was a 5-7 dud, filled with ugly losses.
That had no effect on the Hurricanes' first signing class with Cristobal having had a full year to recruit. If this is a glimpse of what's to come, the U. might be back soon.
Miami's class slides in behind Alabama and Georgia in the top five. It is also right there with Texas, which landed quarterback and No. 1 overall recruit Arch Manning, the nephew of Peyton and Eli Manning.
Cristobal, the former Miami offensive linemen, signed two five-star offensive tackles in Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola.
“Miami used to dominate the (NFL) draft. Dominate,” Cristobal said. “Signing days result in better draft days.”