Nearly two dozen local high school football players are expected to take advantage of the new NCAA early signing period and make their college commitments official beginning Wednesday, but some coaches still have reservations about moving the signing day six weeks earlier.
The signing period for high school football had been in early February until April when the NCAA adopted a Dec. 20-22 window for signing national letters of intent. Players can still sign during the later date beginning Feb. 7.
Most of the top players had committed long before December, so having them sign letters of intent in December cleans up what many believe has been a messy, strung-out process. Coaches don’t have to continue courting their top recruits for an additional six weeks and the players no longer have to endure pressure from other coaches trying to flip their commitments.
Many coaches agree this clarifies the recruiting picture for players and college coaches, especially regarding the blue-chip prospects.
“I think it definitely helps those kids,” St. Frances coach Henry Russell said, “but I also think it helps the kind of lower-level kid as well. It brings a lot more clarity because you know how many spots which schools have left and what they’re looking for. It’s a little more solid picture of what the recruiting landscape is.”
However, Russell and other coaches are concerned about the players just below the five- and four-star recruits. They might have a number of reasons for not signing until February but might lose their offers if they don’t. College coaches could question their commitments, thinking they might be shopping around.
“If a kid doesn’t sign, I think you’ll see schools saying, ‘OK, you didn’t sign with us [so] we’re going to keep looking. You may not be the kid we want,’” Russell said. “We’ll see how it plays out this year. There’s a lot of unknowns I think.”
Those midtier players, however, will get their answers earlier than in the past. While some might not find a home at as high a level as they had hoped for, Russell said his coaching staff has had players with no offers in early February receive offers after the top prospects were signed and college coaches had a chance to sort through what they still needed.
Broadneck coach Rob Harris likes the early signing period because of that.
“What happens is so many people want [national signing day] to be this big event,” Harris said, “and they stretch it out and stretch it out (to February) and it kind of leaves everybody in limbo, not just colleges but it also kind of leaves out those kids who are right there on the edge, who are waiting and waiting and waiting and they’re so nervous they don’t know what to do. You’ll have signings in December and commitments that are now binding which let the schools know, ‘OK, I have these kids, so now I can go to this kid and this kid,’ and they can make firmer offers to those fringe kids.”
Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com, said the top players had an advantage in the recruiting process until this change.
“What it's done is really even the playing field quite a bit when it comes to power between the kids and the schools,” he said.
“The kids had all the power for the early signing period [before]. They could do whatever they wanted to. They could take official visits, unofficial visits, string along a school and flip at the last second. Now they really can't do that as easily. If you don't sign this week, particularly with a school you're already committed to, it gives the colleges a better opportunity to recover.”
Another concern from the players’ perspective involves the frequent changes in coaching staffs — and not just head coaches. Franklin coach Anthony Burgos said while it’s ideal to commit to a school and not a football program, players have relationships with the assistant coaches who have been recruiting them, sometimes for more than two years, and many want to play for those coaches.
“I think one of the problems for the big-time kids is that there’s so many coaching changes that happen in January,” Burgos said, “so I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes, because for the first time in this early time period, I want to see what those big-time kids are going to do. Are they going to commit early not knowing the future?”
Compounding the problem this year has been the lack of time for official visits. Because recruits were not allowed to make official visits — paid for by the college programs — until the start of their senior year, late December and January had become the optimal time to visit. The NCAA has also changed that rule, allowing official visits between April 1 of the junior year and late June beginning next year, but that was too late for this year’s seniors to take advantage. Many have taken unofficial visits, but these usually don’t provide the same opportunity to evaluate all aspects of the college.
Even though the new signing day was approved by the NCAA in April, it’s been a bit of a crunch for high school coaches to get everything in order this fall as they’ve met with the usual parade of college coaches who always come through their buildings after the season ends. A handful of Baltimore-area coaches didn’t even know until this week that there was a December signing period, but none of them has a blue-chip recruit this year.
Archbishop Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt said he’s heard a lot of trepidation among the college coaches he’s spoken with, because they’re not sure what will happen, especially if someone they expect to sign doesn’t.
But one part of the early process seems popular with college coaches, including Penn State’s James Franklin.
“I think in major college football, for a long time now, I'd say 85 percent of your recruiting class has been committed for nine months,” Franklin said last week at the Fiesta Bowl media day. “So there's an aspect of it towards the end where you're just kind of going and checking on a guy that you really don't need to be checking on. He's solid. His family is solid. His high school coach is solid and they are coming, but you still feel like you need to keep going back and dotting the i's and crossing the t's.”
One of the 100 percent committed players is Gilman defensive end Thomas Booker, who will sign with Stanford on Wednesday. He’s glad he doesn’t have to wait.
“There have been some [coaches] that have kept on contacting me,” Booker said of attempts to flip his commitment. “I haven’t signed yet, so of course there’s time for them still to do that. That’s part of their job and I understand. Now, they’re legally bound to be gone. That’s an NCAA rule, so I’m feeling kind of good about that. It takes away a lot of stress.”
That’s one of the reasons Schmitt likes the early signing period.
“The earlier those kids can put the phones down and concentrate on training and getting ready to play college football, the better,” Schmitt said. “The way the recruiting process has moved up so much, a lot of kids are making their decision in the summer before their senior year — and I think this is really the reason why this [early signing date] happened — why make them wait until February to finally sign?”
Most of the players signing — including McDonogh defensive tackle PJ Mustipher with Penn State and Calvert Hall linebacker Chance Campbell and St. Frances offensive lineman Jaelyn Duncan with Maryland — will sign at home this week but will take part in school ceremonies in February that honor all of the programs’ football signees. In addition to those signing letters of intent, St. Mary’s linebacker Timber Berzins (Navy) and Archbishop Spalding offensive lineman Cody Winokur (Army West Point) plan to make their commitments official this week.
Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.
Planning to sign this week
Baltimore high school football players who plan to sign national letters of intent during the new Dec. 20-22 early signing period for football.
Peace Addo, St. Frances, Duke
Caleb Biggers, Calvert Hall, Bowling Green
Thomas Booker, Gilman, Stanford
Evan Boozer, Loyola Blakefield, Temple
Chance Campbell, Calvert Hall, Maryland
Jaelyn Duncan, St. Frances, Maryland
DeJuan Ellis, McDonogh, Virginia Tech
Randy Fields, St. Frances, West Virginia
Malik Hamm, City, Lafayette
Qadir Ismail, John Carroll, Villanova
PJ Mustipher, McDonogh, Penn State
Ugo Obasi, Milford Mill, Virginia
Darius Pickett, McDonogh, Villanova
Brandon Savage, Milford Mill, Norfolk State
Reggie Sutton, Calvert Hall, Rutgers
Isaiah Watson, Calvert Hall, Eastern Michigan