UK Football

College football’s new early signing period brings benefits, drawbacks for Kentucky

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops was initially a proponent of an early signing period but now is having second thoughts.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops was initially a proponent of an early signing period but now is having second thoughts.

On the surface, an early signing period for college football like the one that was made official Monday seems a perfect fit for Kentucky.

But college coaches got more than just the added early date with the new rule.

With it come some big calendar hurdles and complicated logistics that have UK’s Mark Stoops and other coaches raising questions and concerns.

“If you’d just asked me prior to the vote, I was really opposed to it because of the way it was all packaged,” Stoops said in a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader on Thursday. “Again, it wasn’t just one simple early signing period.”

After six players committed to Kentucky bolted during an eight-day span before the 2015 signing day, Stoops was one of the vocal minority in the Southeastern Conference calling for an early signing period similar to other NCAA sports.

“We recruit these guys for over a year, year and a half, two years, whatever it may be,” Stoops said in 2015. “And if they give us their word and want to come to Kentucky, then give them the scholarship and let them sign it, and that protects both them and you.”

There are still parts of the new rule that Stoops believes will benefit Kentucky, which has been able to zero in on talent early and make offers before other Power Five schools get involved.

Stoops credited “our relationships with kids and getting an early start and that starts with what our coaches are doing right now with their own eyes and their evaluation,” he said in his office while nearly all of UK’s assistant coaches were out on the recruiting trail. “Our coaches work very hard at it. I think there are pieces that will benefit us.”

There is the benefit of saving time and money for schools, not having to secure 25 players in the weeks leading up to the regular February signing day. College programs will know more clearly what their position and personnel needs are after signing players in December.

But Stoops has several issues with some of the calendar uncertainties that will come with the new 72-hour signing window starting Dec. 20.

“There are a million scenarios and a million things to look at,” explained Dan Berezowitz, UK’s director of football recruiting operations, on the calendar concerns. “There’s all kinds of factors that will go into next spring.”

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Take a position-by-position look at Kentucky’s 2018 recruiting targets.

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Some of the calendar changes allowing for earlier official visits in the recruiting cycle (from April to June starting during a prospect’s junior year of high school) make it tough to keep commitments on board, too. Previously, players could start taking official visits at the start of their senior season.

“That’s a long time to hold them to December,” UK’s coach said of players taking official visits in April now. “It’s new and I don’t think we’ll make any hasty decisions. We’ll just take it each recruit individually and do what we feel is best to build that relationship, to get a commitment and hold them.”

That calendar change won’t matter much for the UK commitments who live within driving distance and don’t mind making multiple trips to Lexington. But players who live farther away might make one official visit early in April (a date UK likely will land on because of Keeneland and spring practices) and then not again.

A lot can happen in the eight or nine months between official visit, commitment and signature, especially if a recruit still has four more official visits he can take.

The flip side of waiting until later in the spring cycle is that a player might opt to use all five of his recruiting trips early and then UK might miss out on getting him on campus completely.

Another scenario affects athletes who play spring sports and might not be able to make visits easily.

Also, teams participating in conference championship games or early bowls will have to figure out ways to get coaches out on the road for the two weeks they’re allowed to make in-home visits and into the homes of all potential Dec. 20 signees.

And then there are other worries, like the academic ones expressed by Arkansas’ Bret Bielema recently on a podcast with Fox Sports.

The Hogs head coach noted another recent ruling, in 2015, that made the sixth semester of high school one of the most important for college eligibility, and that it now can be when those players are taking official visits.

“In the sixth semester, the most prominent semester of that kid’s career, he can take five visit weekends, and tell me what that does for his academic performance,” Bielema argued.

“All of a sudden, we’re taking spring visits because a couple students said they’d like spring visits. Give it a one-month window or do something. Three months? Especially April and May? That’s the prominent academic time.”

Other coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer have discussed their dislike of accelerating the recruiting process in general.

Kids who haven’t necessarily passed their standardized tests or seen their bodies fill out are making official visits, many argue.

“You’re going to see more transfers and more mistakes made in recruiting than ever if they keep pushing this thing up,” Meyer said at a news conference in October.

Will all of it turn out better or worse for a school like Kentucky? Might all of the hand wringing be over nothing?

Ask Stoops after a couple of new recruiting cycles.

“I was opposed to (the rule) in the end, but as I’ve always said and my answer will always be: We’ll play within the rules that they give us.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader