The first-ever early signing period for college football recruits starts Wednesday, and the newness of this event has led to quite a bit of uncertainty over what to expect.
Coaches have spent the past few weeks scrambling to lock up their longtime commitments and bring new recruits into their class.
High school seniors — both committed and uncommitted — have been touring campuses as they try to come to a final decision in their recruitments.
Recruiting analysts have been debating the merits of the early signing period, whether it’s necessary, who it benefits, and whether December is the best time for it.
Here’s what you need to know about this week’s signing period, and what UK fans should expect:
What is it?
The 72-hour early signing period starts Wednesday morning and lasts through Friday night, an addition to the recruiting calendar that was instituted to give committed players a chance to go ahead and put an official end to their recruitments a few weeks before the regular signing day in February.
College coaches in favor of the early signing period have talked about the benefit of locking up their commitments earlier in the process (before other, possibly “bigger” programs have a chance to flip those commitments) so they can work on filling out their class with a few final additions.
High school seniors will start sending in their signed letters of intent Wednesday morning, and most (perhaps all) college programs will have a majority of their 2018 recruiting classes in place by the end of the day.
The signing period for junior-college transfers also starts Wednesday.
As of Tuesday morning, Kentucky had 20 commitments for the class of 2018, and the Cats aren’t expecting to add many more to that list.
Coach Mark Stoops, who has long been in favor of the early signing period, said this month that he’s expecting to take only 23-24 players in this class. So, if all 20 of the Cats’ current commitments sign this week, that would leave only three or four open spots to fill.
UK has also hosted several remaining targets for official visits to Lexington over the past couple of weekends, and it appears probable that its 2018 recruiting class will grow between now and the end of the week.
The Wildcats lost one commitment Tuesday morning when wide receiver Meechi Harris of Xenia, Ohio, announced he was re-opening his recruitment.
Kentucky still has commitments from one quarterback, one running back, two wide receivers, two tight ends, four offensive linemen, two defensive linemen, three linebackers, three defensive backs, a kicker and a punter.
Those class rankings will change as UK and other programs continue to land commitments and signees for 2018, but it looks like the Cats will finish with no worse than a top-35 class nationally.
What is UK expecting?
It’s the first time this has happened, so no one really knows for sure what’s going to take place over the next few days.
UK’s coaches, Stoops included, have said that they expect the vast majority (or perhaps all) of the Wildcats’ 20 commitments to go ahead and sign this week.
“This is the first time we’ve gone through this. It is different. So we’ll see,” Stoops said a few days ago. “I anticipate signing a majority of the class, and that’s the way we’re approaching it now.”
The players themselves have said largely the same thing. There was some confusion among some recruits during the fall about exactly how the early signing period would work, but UK’s coaches have been doing in-home visits since the beginning of December, educating their commitments on the process and encouraging them to sign early.
Most of the Cats’ recruits have publicly said they will sign Wednesday, including junior-college quarterback Terry Wilson. Nearly all of UK’s commitments were in Lexington this past weekend for recruiting visits.
What if they don’t sign?
If a recruit chooses not to sign with a school this week, he can still do so in February.
The regular national signing period, which starts Feb. 7, is still in place, and any recruits who come out of this weekend uncommitted will be able to officially sign then.
It will be interesting to see what happens if any UK commitments choose not to sign during this early period. What the Wildcats’ coaching staff elects to do in such a scenario will likely depend on the talent level of the recruit in question.
Some of Kentucky’s current commitments are still being looked at by major college programs, and delaying the signing process would allow those players to continue to be recruited by those schools for a few more weeks.
Bottom line: If the player who chooses not to sign early is highly coveted by the Wildcats’ staff, they’ll keep recruiting him. If the staff can find a similarly talented player elsewhere, the unsigned player could be cut loose.
The debate has raged all fall as to whether the new signing period would truly benefit the affected recruits and whether December is the best time to do it.
Some have called for an earlier early signing period, perhaps before the start of the season (like in basketball), which would give everyone a chance to get the recruiting process out of the way before actual football begins. Others have said an early signing period is unnecessary altogether and creates two headaches on the calendar instead of one.
“I’m still in favor of it,” Stoops said last week. “I think it cleans it up for us to lock these guys down and get it cleaned up. Next Wednesday, I’ll be very happy about that and then you’ll know if there’s any snags.
“You have a way to get it corrected in the next month and recruit other guys or other positions should you get any surprises.”
Alabama Coach Nick Saban was a vocal opponent of the early signing period before it was approved, and his opinion hasn’t changed.
A good chunk of his Friday news conference last week was spent bashing the addition to the recruiting calendar.
“I didn’t like it when we did it. I don’t like it now,” Saban said. “I don’t think it’s in the players’ best interest. I don’t see how it benefits anybody. It’s really stressful for everyone. We’re all trying to get ready for bowl games and playoff games, and we’ve got a signing date right in the middle of when we’re practicing.
“Two things happen: I see more players getting pressured by some schools to sign early so that they don’t get an opportunity from maybe a bigger school later, which I don’t think is in the player’s best interest.
“Then other guys are trying to make a decision about signing early or not signing early, and they’ve got all these new coaches and new coaching staffs sort of bum-rushing them to get them not to do that so they get a chance to recruit them.”
Saban also implied that his views are not unique.
“I have not talked to a coach that’s happy with it,” he said. “Now, maybe they wouldn’t say what I just said. … It is what it is and we’re managing it the best we can.”
Follow the action
UK is planning to hold a Mark Stoops news conference around noon Wednesday, and it’s expected that the Wildcats’ top recruiter, Vince Marrow, and other assistant coaches will also be available for comment on their early signees.
Kentucky.com and the Next Cats recruiting blog will have updates on UK’s class throughout the day, and check out Thursday’s edition of the Herald-Leader for a full recap of college football’s first early signing day.
2017-18 football signing dates
Early period: Dec. 20-22
Junior-college mid-year transfer period: Dec. 20-Jan. 15
Regular period: Feb. 7-April 1