February 10, 2006

Early signing period a must

The college football recruiting process has outgrown a single signing day. This past recruiting year is proof positive. As the process becomes more competitive and cutthroat as job stability for head coaches shrinks, one day just doesn't cut it. There needs to be an early signing period for high school football players. Period.

Quick, name a major BCS team that wasn't affected this year, positively or negatively, by a de-commitment. Southern Cal? The Trojans won our recruiting title on the strength of de-commit Kenny Ashley and are waiting to see if wide receiver Vidal Hazelton becomes another de-commitment statistic.

How about Florida, our No. 2 team? The Gators lost wide receivers Damon McDaniel and Damian Williams in January, and let's not forget quarterback Jevan Snead. The Gators also made a late run at Notre Dame cornerback Raeshon McNeil.

Florida State, Georgia and Texas, our No. 3, 4 and 5 teams respectively, each had brushes with the "d" word. In addition to McDaniel, the 'Noles got cornerback Patrick Robinson and defensive end Doug Thacker from Florida and Virginia Tech, respectively. Georgia saw Miami come after athlete Tony Wilson, saw Maryland make a run at linebacker Akeem Hebron and lost two-star defensive end Greg Billinger to Vanderbilt, although technically the Dawgs told him if he visited Vandy his offer would be pulled, one way to avoid de-commitments. And for Texas, we all know about Snead and running back Emmanuel Moody, a gain and a loss for the Longhorns.

But perhaps no team in the country gained more from de-commitments than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have five players signed in the 2006 class who had been committed elsewhere and are trying to make it an even half dozen with Hazelton. Linebacker Bani Gbadyu, wide receiver Cedric Jeffries, offensive lineman Antonio Logan-El, running back Brent Carter and quarterback Pat Devlin all switched commitments to play in Happy Valley.

The highest-ranked player to de-commit this year was running back Michael Goodson, who verbally committed to Oklahoma State and reportedly committed to Southern Cal and Texas A&M at different times before signing with the Aggies.

The quarterback position illustrates the problem. Devlin, Snead, Josh Freeman, Mitch Mustain, Greg McElroy, Nick Stephens and Alex Cate all committed to a school only to de-commit later. Six of the top 20 or so quarterbacks in the country de-committed this year, and quarterback is the one position where kids usually make an early decision and stick with it. Thank you, Ryan Perrilloux, for pushing this trend further.

So what's the problem if a kid wants to change his mind? The problem is that it makes the rich richer and weakens some of the mid-level BCS teams, while also encouraging kids to go back on their word. It sends the wrong message to players and frustrates coaches to no end. It also puts undue stress on recruits and their families as coaches continue to bombard them with calls, e-mails, text messages and visits after they've already committed.

Survival of the fittest is a way of life in the United States, and if the rich get richer, you may ask, "So what?" For those programs that have recruited a player for months on end, accepted his verbal commitment and stopped recruiting his position, watching a big-time BCS school swoop in during January with an offer can begin to cripple a program. An "A List" recruit to one school can be a "C List" recruit to another, but if that other school strikes out on their A's and B's, they know they can always get C.

The recruiting process and making a decision to attend a college should be a process that allows a player to grow up. It should be a process that enhances his willingness to stand by his word and honor his commitment. However, with adult men (coaches) telling him that it's OK to back out of a commitment, it sends the wrong message.

Seventeen-year-old kids are still very impressionable, and much of their future reasoning and logic can come from encouters with adults they respect. If those encounters promote dishonesty, as often happens when a recruit begins to look around at other situations while still committed, it sets the wrong example.

And let's not forget the stress factor. I've talked to players who have had sleepless nights, have been physically ill and who have simply caved under pressure to situations they don't feel are right for them. Having that much pressure on you during your senior year, a year that is supposed to be one of your most memorable and enjoyable, can crush you emotionally.

But this is football, so enough of this rainbow and teddy bear garbage, right? We don't want to hear about feelings and morality, we want to see the top players signed with our school on LOI Day no matter what the cost. Those schools who don't recruit committed kids are just setting themselves up for failure. And those schools who lose a verbal commitment just didn't do a good enough job keeping that player happy. Right?

Wrong. Things are very close to getting out of hand when it comes to de-commitments, with players sometimes doing so just to gain attention or help their coach or family friend move up the ladder from high school football to college. And with more high-profile de-commitments this year than any other in memory, an early signing period needs to be a priority.

My proposal has an early signing period from Aug. 15-22 each year. If a player is committed to a school and feels strongly enough about that commitment, he signs during that week. End of story. He's no longer recruitable as his letter is binding. And if he says he's committed but doesn't want to sign, then how committed is he?

So what about official visits and such? Each player is allotted five such visits to see which school is right for him. In this day and age, more and more parents and coaches are able to get their kids on numerous unofficial visits during the spring and summer. One player this past year saw more than 20 schools before summer practice kicked off. For those in such a fortunate situation, they might feel comfortable enough to waive their right to five visits by signing in August. For those who aren't in the same fortunate financial position, they can still take their visits and sign in February.

What an early signing period is about is choice. If a player wants to end the process early and doesn't want to worry about recruiting during his senior year, he has the option to sign early.

Now to address the biggest question. What if there is a coaching change after a player signs? This is where it gets tricky and where the always forward-thinking NCAA will probably balk at the idea. My proposal allows for a player to be freed from the letter he signed in August, if he chooses, in the case of a head coaching change. That's it, that's all. Too many players can play multiple positions in college these days so the loss of a position coach is too vague. The same holds true with the coach who is recruiting him because many teams use more than one coach to recruit a player.

If this early signing period were installed with the simple provision above, all of the aforementioned players would most likely end up at the school they originally committed to. But things will never be as simple as I state them, as many other situations can arise.

What if a player was promised he'd be the only one recruited at his position?

What if a team the player liked quite a bit before hired a new head coach that he also liked before?

What if circumstances arose that made it pertinent for a player to stay closer to home?

What if the head coach remains but he hires a new offensive coordinator whose scheme is far different than one that plays to the strengths of the player?

What if a freshman on the roster of the team you signed with turns out to be a star and playing time suddenly looks hard to come by?

Questions like these are plentiful and each is important. But remember, I'm proposing the opportunity to sign early, not mandating it. It still happens in this day and age -- a student athlete who cares as much or more about fit and academics in college than football.

Would an early signing period change things? I think it would and in a positive manner. Players would learn more about the word commitment, the non-word de-commitment wouldn't be uttered nearly as much and I honestly feel that GPA's might even rise a bit without the distraction of numerous phone calls and visits. Coaches could focus more on recruiting players rather than protecting the ones they have committed and less schools would be crippled by the BCS powerhouses coming in on their players.

This is a hot button topic, and fans of some schools will certainly disagree. And certainly those who follow the recruiting process closely might feel it would be a tad less exciting with less de-commitments. But isn't the end result worth it?

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