Niyo: Early signing adds dash of intrigue to UM, MSU recruiting

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit Cass Tech football coach Thomas Wilcher said he likes the new early signing period, but admits there are positives and negatives to it.

It feels a bit like a high-stakes game of poker, and everyone will have to lay their cards on the table eventually. But at least until Wednesday, when college football’s first early-signing period promises a significant show of hands, the truth is everyone’s bluffing.

This is a new twist on the old recruiting game, as high-school prospects and college coaches can take advantage of an NCAA rule change approved last spring that introduces a 72-hour window in December to sign National Letters of Intent.

It won’t replace the traditional February signing day, but it might overshadow it, with a majority of recruits signing sooner rather than later and Michigan’s “Signing of the Stars” event feeling more like an encore, if it happens at all.

“What’s so fascinating about all of this, though, is nobody knows what anybody’s going to do,” said Tom Luginbill, the national recruiting director and college football analyst for ESPN. “The kids don’t know, the coaches don’t know, the programs don’t know. And as a result of all that, I think you’re also going to have a lot of unintended consequences.”

That’s usually the case with new rules, and Luginbill isn’t alone in saying so, wondering aloud how the early period might affect smaller schools or late-blooming prospects. With the process accelerated, some could get left behind.

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“Am I in favor of it? Yes. And do I think it’s something good for the kids? Yes,” said Detroit Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher, who expects to have three of his FBS-bound recruits signing Wednesday morning, while others wait until February.

But, he adds, “there’s some good things to it and some bad things,” and just how that balances out, or how that tug-of-war plays out between competing schools — and also between coaches and prospective recruits — remains to be seen.

The early signing period will give longstanding commitments a chance to put pen to paper and end the process seven weeks earlier than normal, which most everyone agrees is a positive.

“They want it over with, we want it over with,” said Matt Dudek, Michigan’s director of recruiting, “and you save time and money in doing so.”

His counterpart at Michigan State, Sheldon White, says his own son, Cody, who was a standout freshman receiver for the Spartans this fall, would’ve been one of those early signees a year ago. He was the first player to commit in Michigan State’s 2017 class, and both he and his high school coach, Walled Lake Western’s Mike Zdebski, made it clear to other schools there was no hedging on that.

“So the positive part now is those kids get to focus on what they need to focus on,” said White, in his first full year as the Spartans’ director of player personnel and recruiting.

“They can really lock in on their academics and just finish up their senior year without interruption.”

Now or later

But for others — recent commitments who still have official visits available, or the so-called “silent commitments” who haven’t gone public with their plans — it might be a different story. Luginbill says roughly 70 percent of the prospects ranked in ESPN’s top 300 nationally are verbally committed to a school, “but I would be surprised if that many kids signed.”

White says Michigan State plans on having all 20 of its verbal commitments sign this week — including seven who plan to enroll early in January — while Dudek says “nearly all” of Michigan’s 17 commitments will sign, as well.

“We’ve had some guys communicate with us that they’re going to sign in February, but they did that very early on and we knew that,” Dudek said, referencing prospects who haven’t yet taken their official visit to Michigan’s campus. “They want to be able to take their visit and then sign. It’s not like they’re visiting other places and running around. … We’re more than fine with that.”

Not everyone will be, however. And as Dantonio said earlier this fall, generally speaking, players who’ve given a verbal commitment to a school but don’t sign in December “probably aren't really committed – that’s the reality of it.”

All across the country, “those kinds of harsh discussions are happening right now,” Luginbill said, as coaches tell wavering or undecided recruits there are no guarantees a scholarship will still be available by the time the February signing day arrives. Classes will fill up, and schools will become more selective.

“I mean, put yourself in the position of the coach,” Luginbill said. “You have a job to do, a program to build. You can’t be waiting on somebody with no guarantee, you’ve got to go out and replace that guy.

“So now things fall back on the prospect who this entire time has been able to control and manipulate the process, and now they can no longer do that.”

Guessing game

Or can they? Elite prospects still will keep coaches waiting — and guessing — until the February signing period. And with fewer players unsigned, the attention will only intensify on some of those recruiting battles.

The Spartans might sign all of their current commitments this week, but Dantonio and his staff will continue to pursue other recruits to fill out the remainder of the 2018 class. Among them: Tommy Bush, a four-star receiver from San Antonio who many analysts predict will end up at Texas but is still taking official visits Georgia, most recently — and doesn’t plan to commit until the Feb. 7 signing day.

The Wolverines will be doing even more of the same, and Dudek admits it hasn’t been easy navigating uncharted waters. Schools have scrambled to pack in visits — recruits are only allowed five “official” campus trips paid for by universities — before and after a “dead period” that runs Dec. 18-Jan. 11.

“This first cycle has been exceptionally difficult for all involved,” Dudek said. “But I think that next year a lot of the kinks will be worked out.”

"Nearly all" of Michigan's 17 verbal commitments are expected to sign during the early period, says Matt Dudek, director of recruiting.

That’s partly because the recruiting calendar is changing, with high school juniors allowed to take official visits from April to June beginning this spring. Previously, official visits were only allowed during a recruit’s senior year.

Ideally, that’ll allow recruits to get a head start on paring down their short list, while also giving schools a chance to get players on campus earlier. That’s important for out-of-state recruiting — players routinely make unofficial visits on their own dime to local colleges — and Luginbill is only half-joking when he says, “This is gonna be the single greatest thing to ever happen to the University of Nebraska.”

But here’s the other thing about all these changes. When the debate over adding an early-signing period began, a major issue was deciding where to put it on the calendar. Doing it in August or September would mean recruits signing before their senior years, before either side is ready to commit, in some cases. And before the annual coaching carousel starts spinning: In the last month, we’ve seen 20 head coaching changes at FBS schools.

Doing it now, though, hardly eliminates that issue, as Wilcher says, “because they get to sign a kid and then the coaches get a chance to jump ship.” Or get pushed overboard, in some cases, as assistant coaches who do most of the heavy lifting in developing relationships with recruits get pink slips or find promotions elsewhere.

Dominoes will fall

Some head coaches surely are delaying staff changes until after the early signing period, Luginbill says. And with an NCAA rule change allowing FBS programs to hire a 10th on-field assistant coach, effective Jan. 9, “that’s going to start a whole other set of dominoes on the hiring front,” Dudek agreed.

“I think it’s gonna be really significant,” Dudek said. “There’s going to be a lot of (coaching) moves made in college football after December 20.”

In the meantime, count on this happening as well. Come late January, we’ll hear from recruits or parents or high school coaches about scholarships getting yanked from committed players.

As always, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. But since coaches can’t comment on prospective recruits, that’s not the way it’ll play out in public. That’s already playing out in one case with Tennessee’s new staff reportedly pulling an offer for Michael Penix, a three-star quarterback from Tampa who’d committed to the Vols’ previous coaches back in April. And Luginbill says the onus is on the recruit’s support group — parents or coaches or others — now more than ever.

“They need to get that prospect to understand, ‘Hey, listen, the downside to not signing is you might lose some options,’” he said. “The upside to signing is you’re locked in, you can get it over with, and you can move on. But understand there’s consequences to every action.”

Intended, or otherwise. The silly season for recruiting is upon us, and the only certainty is that it’s about to get longer.