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The 6 biggest lessons of the Early Signing Period era

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The introduction of a December signing period has crunched the recruiting calendar and created competing incentives.

Recruiting signing ceremony Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The class of 2020 will be the third crop of college football recruits to sign under the NCAA’s Early Signing Period, a process by which players can sign with their college of choice in the third week of December instead of the traditional first week in February.

This option to get the process over with eight weeks earlier might not seem like that big of a deal. But it’s already produced several wide-ranging effects.

1. Most signees in FBS will sign early.

About 70% of recruits signed early in the 2019 class, up from about 65% in 2018. With the process becoming more and more accepted, expect this number to continue to rise.

And almost all of the players who sign in the Early Signing Period do so on Day 1. While the ESP is technically three days, the Wednesday that kicks off the ESP is the new de facto National Signing Day, and the traditional NSD is, in effect, the new catch-all signing period for those who did not sign early. The traditional NSD now seems to be a way for coaching staffs (especially new ones) to try to make up for lost time.

2. The ESP becoming mainstream has put some players in a bind.

From the recruit’s perspective, the timeline to pick a college is shorter. For those who know where they want to attend school and have an offer from that school ahead of time, this is not really a problem. Some recruits just start the process early, get locked in on both a staff and a school, and are ready to go.

But for others who are unsure, the pressure the ESP brings on can be difficult.

Should a recruit commit to the best offer he has during the ESP? Or should he wait for the traditional National Signing Day? If he waits, it could turn out to be a costly gamble. With upwards of 70% of players signing early, his spot in his school of choice’s class could belong to another player if he waits. But it could also result in him receiving an offer he perceives as better — one that might not have been available to him in December.

This can be doubly stressful for players who had a breakout senior season. How can they be sure that schools have watched their film? What if the list of offers they in December is likely to be different than what they might have come February?

3. Coaches are the ones applying a lot of that pressure on players.

Coaches of smaller schools who are zeroed in on a prospect they believe is elite for the level of their program are going to try like heck to get the prospect to sign early. This is especially true because coaches know that once the ESP passes, bigger and/or better programs who missed on their top targets will circle back around. That school might give the recruit the green light to commit, as opposed to slow-playing him like before. So the smaller school’s coaches will want a signature as soon as possible.

Conversely, pressure will come from the big schools. They’ll pitch the player that the team might not have a spot for him in the class at the exact moment, but if he waits, one could open up. They’ll tell the player they want him on campus, either again or for the first time, to truly get the feel for how he fits their culture. The player might be the Plan C for the bigger school, but Plan Cs are important, because As and Bs fall through. Not getting stuck with a player who does not have the talent to play at your school is important.

Coaches use the timing of the situation to recruit against other schools as well. For instance, a school wanting a prospect to wait to sign will tell a player that if the school wanting him to sign early really wanted him, it would hold his spot. And the school telling the prospect to sign now will tell him that the school wanting him to wait doesn’t really value him because it is unwilling to give him his spot in the class during the ESP.

Of course, all of this pressure is created because there are no do-overs, at least not by rule. If a player signs with a school and that school has a coaching change just a few weeks later, there is no automatic out clause. The player would have to seek a release from his Letter of Intent, which is not automatic.

This pressure not to sign elsewhere increases when a coach with whom a player has an existing relationship ends up at a new school. Those coaches will want players to follow them to the new gig, and they have an obvious pitch: they made the move for a reason, so the recruit should too. Or at least they should take their time to think about it.

4. Coaches face their own pressure, too.

The pressure on the coaches, who are paid millions of dollars, is not the same as what is pressing on the recruits. But there’s still pressure. Coaches are going to want the vast majority of players who are verbally committed to them to sign in the Early Signing Period.

“If you’re verbally committed, and you don’t sign, you’re not committed,” a Power 5 coach told me before the first ESP, in 2017.

The coaches want to be able to believe that the hay is in the barn with verbal commits. They do not want that process to drag until traditional National Signing Day. If a player is unwilling to sign early, the school knows he is not fully committed. The school probably has more recruiting to do. It has to determine what more must be done to land the player, if that’s worth it, and if the school should move on to another target.

The main exception would be if a player’s academic eligibility wasn’t certain. Then the school might want to wait, which also might turn off the player or push him elsewhere.

Coaches are also under a lot of pressure to make the right decisions when it comes to extending more offers to players who are not their top choices. They have to measure the market and gauge whether their top uncommitted choices will sign with them, and whether to extend an offer to a lesser player for the ESP. Sometimes that means asking the backup plan to wait a day or two to see how the dust settles.

It’s a complex juggling act that, if handled poorly, can leave coaches empty-handed or with hands full of players of questionable talent levels.

There’s also pressure to get the majority of the class sewn up in the Early Signing Period because doing so allows the majority of the coaching staff to shift its focus to the following class. The schools that work ahead can be hosting “junior days,” forging relationships with rising seniors and even gaining commitments from them. The staffs who still have a lot of work left to do for the traditional NSD are behind the eight ball.

5. Administrators now have reason to make a quicker decision about whether to fire a coach.

Timing of coach firings, if they are to be made, is now an even more important consideration for administrators.

Waiting until after the final game to fire a coach does not leave a school much time to conduct a search and get a new coach and staff in place in time to recruit for the ESP. If it is sure it wants to fire its coach, the school needs to do it earlier so that it can begin its search, or, if it is willing, conduct the search behind the existing coach’s back.

Given the difficult situation the ESP places new coaches in, it would make sense for administrations to exercise more patience. We’ll see how that develops.

6. The pressure on new coaching staffs is strongest of all.

These staffs take their jobs with one or two weeks to recruit before the ESP. This leaves them scant time to examine their current class, determine who is a fit, recruit those players the new staff does like, and convince them not to head elsewhere, all the while trying to put together a visit weekend and bring in other prospects.

And the dirty little secret in the industry is that some of the higher rated players a new staff does sign are available to be signed because other schools spotted red flags the new coaches simply did not have time to discover or vet. That can lead to sky-high attrition rates, and it leaves those staffs behind schedule for their first full class the next year.Transitional classes were already tough on new coaching staffs, but now, with two weeks instead of seven or eight, forget it.

This pressure is compounded under the new format because some smaller schools will have convinced their better players to sign early, before new coaches at the big schools can have a real chance to convince them to flip. Under the prior system, coaches at the smaller colleges were having to hold on to their prospects for far longer.

An issue all staffs, existing and new must also plan for is the transfer portal. Incoming transfers do count against the scholarship cap, so schools must consider how many players they will sign, and how many scholarships they will leave open for transfers. If the staff knows which players are coming, this is pretty easy. But if they are banking on hope, then this becomes much tougher.

All around, the recruiting landscape is a little different under the ESP.

The ESP relieves pressure on some recruits, increases it on many more, and can be a bit of a headache for coaching staffs and administrators. But it can also be a major help for successful programs’ efforts to sustain their success, because getting the class rounded out allows the school to turn the page to the following class that much earlier. Meanwhile, schools in transition struggle to catch up to those on the lead lap.

Will the NCAA look to change the Early Signing Period format in the coming years, perhaps moving it up earlier to provide more of a gap between the ESP and the traditional Signing Day? That’s one idea. We’ll have to see how these trends develop.