College football’s national signing day was more than a week away, but P. J. Fleck, the coach at Minnesota, had little reason to care.
He had finished recruiting this year’s class before Christmas.
“We don’t even talk about signing day anymore, we’re so December-driven,” Fleck, already focused on who might play in Minneapolis in 2021 and beyond, said as he glad-handed his way through 10 Texas high schools last Tuesday.
As recently as three years ago, the start of the traditional national signing window — this year, it is on Wednesday — was a coast-to-coast high school spectacle of news conferences, pep rallies and marching bands. Then a rule change allowed football players to sign over the course of a few days in December, which sparked a seismic reordering of the calendar, altering how coaches, recruits and parents navigated a pressurized, intensely public process.
One consequence is already clear: The so-called early signing period is no longer early at all in the competitive world of recruiting.
Only a handful of elite players remained available entering Wednesday, more than six weeks after hundreds of high school athletes made binding commitments to colleges. Many players, looking for the edge in the fall that can come from spring practice, have already begun classes on their new campuses.
“The fax machine and February signing day are dinosaurs,” said Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor for 247Sports, a website that rates and tracks prospects. “They are what used to be, not what currently is.”
The early signing period proved popular from the start: In 2017, according to the N.C.A.A., nearly three in four Football Bowl Subdivision recruits signed their national letters of intent — formal agreements that cover attendance and financial aid — in December. In 2018, that figure surpassed 80 percent. (The option has not been used as often among Football Championship Subdivision teams, which saw less than half of recruits sign early during the first two years under the new rule.)
Although the N.C.A.A. has not finalized its data for this recruiting cycle, the trend appears to have continued, especially among the football juggernauts. Alabama and Clemson each opened the 2017 round by inking agreements with 15 players; this December, Clemson signed 24 recruits, while Alabama picked up 22. Ohio State, formidable from the dawn of the new rule with 21 recruits, managed 24.
“From year one to year two, from the coaches’ side of it, they probably learned a lot as far as how many offers to make early, how many to hold back for February,” said Susan Peal, the N.C.A.A. official who directs the national letter of intent program. “They were learning that process along the way.”
Indeed, Mack Brown, North Carolina’s coach, said in an interview this week that the early signing period was “the biggest difference” when he returned to coaching after a five-season hiatus.
Coaches were among the first backers of an early signing period for football, though Brown noted that some had envisioned a more limited system that would have allowed, for instance, only early enrollees to reach formal agreements in December.
Instead, as Brown put it, “the floodgates were opened.”
For coaches, early signings offer greater assurance that needs will be filled; that they have short-circuited any late efforts to sway a wavering teenager; and that they can ease or end the recruiting campaigns that often stretch for years.
“You know what your real needs are instead of finding out in February,” said Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh’s coach, who said his program might not sign a single recruit on Wednesday.
For Narduzzi, December signings are becoming the norm: “It shouldn’t even be called the early signing day.”
The story is similar at Minnesota, which finished last season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. After signing defensive backs from the South, a wide receiver from Kansas and a punter from Australia, Fleck has a single scholarship remaining, perhaps for a graduate transfer, but will not add anyone on Wednesday.
“For me, it’s been a philosophy of take the calendar, what fits best for us, how can we work the calendar to be an advantage of us in how we run our program,” said Fleck, who urges his recruits to sign in December. “For us, it’s all about getting a jump start on the next year.”
And for players and their parents, early signings can be release valves, in part because the 657 schools that participate in the letter of intent program, which covers all collegiate sports, agree to stop recruiting a student who has made a written commitment.
That is no small matter for sought-after athletes: Some, who might have earned offers when they were eighth graders, receive scores of text messages a day from coaches, who also make frequent visits to homes and schools.
“If the kid knows where he wants to go and has known for a while, then why not?” said Gabriel Sewell Sr., whose four sons have signed with Division I football programs in recent years. “The recruiting process during both signing periods can become ruthless.”
One son, Noah, finished his search in December, when he signed with Oregon.
“When he verbally committed, you could see there was a weight taken off his shoulders,” Sewell said. “Once he put pen to paper, you could tell he couldn’t wait to get onto campus.”
Despite their surging popularity, early signings can pose significant challenges for programs that play bowl games before Christmas. Narduzzi noted that, because Pitt did not play its bowl until Dec. 26, he had easily been able to visit — and shore up the loyalties of — almost all of the players who had verbally committed to his program.
On the crucial, tone-setting first day of the signing period on Dec. 18, 16 players chose Pitt, a respectable figure, though trailing the 22 that College Football Playoff-bound programs averaged.
But the four teams that played in bowls that overlapped with part of the early signing period, already schools with lower profiles, averaged 13 signees on that first day. (Pitt was among the teams that benefited: A defensive back who had been committed to one of the teams, Charlotte, announced hours before signings began that he would play for Narduzzi instead.)
Brown, who was hired in November 2018, has also argued that the early signing period leaves programs with new leadership facing recruiting predicaments, with just-installed coaches scrambling to fill their rosters under a tight deadline. He has embraced the existing rules, partly out of competitive necessity, but has voiced support for changes that include the addition of a signing period in June. Other coaches, including Fleck, want to allow recruits to sign on the spot.
Students who sign early in any sport, the N.C.A.A. acknowledged, are slightly more likely to petition for a release from their agreements.
But even amid modest calls for revisions and even as February signings seem to fade away, Brown, a head coach for more than 30 seasons, expects the signing day will stick around, at least for a handful of players and coaches.
Some players will always hold out for offers from other schools. Coaches, perhaps unexpectedly spurned by a recruit, will always need to fill gaps. Someone, for one reason or another, will almost always resist signing on the dotted line in December.
“There’s always going to be a place for a February signing day,” Brown said.
He just won’t be a part of it this year. He signed his players in December.