Two weeks into the annual January scramble for recruits ahead of signing day, with one week to go before a dead period resumes, listen closely. Do you hear the noise?
It’s the sound of relative silence. It’s all quiet on the recruiting front.
Data gathered by the NCAA indicates that 90 percent of incoming FBS newcomers and 70 percent of elite prospects nationally took advantage of the new early signing period. It made for a harried month of December for coaches and recruits alike.
But January, despite the annual exodus of underclassmen to the NFL draft and a turbo-charged coaching carousel in the wake of the addition to every staff of a 10th assistant coach, has unfolded in anticlimactic fashion.
This is probably the new normal, a product of repeated calls for change to the recruiting process over the past decade that led to the significant reform passed in the spring of 2017 and still in the midst of implementation.
Just four players in the top 25 of the final ESPN 300, released Thursday, are unsigned. A few old-fashioned battles loom before Feb. 7 for the likes of Florida prep cornerback teammates Patrick Surtain Jr. and Tyson Campbell, offensive tackles Nick Petit-Frère and William Barnes, and wideout Tommy Bush.
For Alabama, the perennial champ of all things college football, several spots remain unfilled.
Most top programs, though, have largely moved on to evaluating the Class of 2019 — a concept foreign to fans who have long enjoyed a post-Super Bowl burst of excitement before offseason reality arrives.
It’s different, that’s for sure. But is it better?
“I think we clearly made some progress,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, chair of the Football Oversight Committee, which drafted the majority of legislation in the package of recruiting reform. “One person’s opinion — I don’t think we went far enough. But I don’t think we can take the next step without a lot of buy-in and without more opportunity to see how this is working.”
Opinions this month among administrators, coaches and prospects vary on the subject of change in recruiting. Most in the coaching community have shown more acceptance for the early signing period than the looming early official visits, set to begin in April.
And a series of new proposals, up for vote this spring before the Division I Council, signal the possibility of additional reform.
“You’re always looking for a better way,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “As coaches, we’re always looking to crack the code. For the most part, these changes have been well received.
“But is there going to be a need for some adjustment down the road? Absolutely.”
The first experience with a December signing period — and the resulting shifted priorities of January — have already begun to change opinions in coaching. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, for instance, strongly opposed the early signing proposal a year ago.
Yet, the Buckeyes, with the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, signed 21 prospects last month, including 15 who rank in the ESPN 300. And they’ve added pledges from elite cornerback Tyreke Johnson and defensive tackle Tyler Friday in January. The quieter past three weeks have allowed Meyer’s staff to focus on selective objectives.
Turns out, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing.
“I think it remains to be seen,” Meyer said. “We did very well, but we’ll see what happens down the road.”
Evidence of the new order in recruiting is visible all around this month.
On Thursday, second-year Houston coach Major Applewhite met with the media to discuss the Cougars’ 25-man class. They’re done recruiting. The expectation is that Feb. 7 will pass quietly.
Much like January, in fact.
For coaches accustomed to a furious first month of the new year, 2018 has provided some sense of relief. Gone are the days of monitoring long-committed recruits for weeks after bowl season. More than any other result of the changes in recruiting, the absence of that “babysitting” period resonates well with coaches.
Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst said his signees appreciated it, too. The Badgers added 19 players — every one of their commitments — on Dec. 20. In past years, Chryst said, he recalls committed recruits who discouraged his coaches from visiting in January. Still, they went.
This year, there was truly no need to waste time.
“I think we’re all getting used to the calendar,” Chryst said. “And this coming year, with the early visits, it’ll be interesting how that impacts it. I think none of us really know, but you have ideas and thoughts. You just have to go through it and see. But yeah, it’s been good.”
The big picture, of course, extends beyond the traditional signing day. Changes in December and January will ultimately be judged by their impact on the full calendar. Next up are the early visits for juniors — from April 1 until late June.
Coaches have expressed concerns, according to administrators at the NCAA convention last week, that the period for early visits is too long. Others would like to see the early visits rolled back entirely.
Even if the coaches are against early visits, Bowslby said, “recruits and their families are in favor.”
Also in April, leaders in college athletics will vote on a proposal that would transform the spring evaluation period into a contact period. If passed, it would allow assistant coaches to visit with prospects at their high schools from April 15 to May 31, nullifying the current “bump rule” that limits contact off campus in the spring to a quick greeting.
Another proposal would throw out the rule that prohibits college coaches from talking publicly and on social media about prospects.
For all of this change, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he was hopeful that legislators keep their priorities in focus.
“I want to make sure we treat our current student-athletes properly,” Sankey said. “That they’re supported.”
No doubt, if the hub of recruiting activity continues to shift away from January toward December, current student-athletes figure to miss out on training time with their coaches.
It’s a notion to which Bowlsby raises an eyebrow and suggests that an even earlier window for prospects to sign should be considered. He won’t necessarily get agreement from Sankey, but both commissioners said they believe the entire package of change deserves another look.
“My expectation is we’ll review nationally after a couple of years,” Sankey said, “And I hope that [it] is a meaningful review that considers all these factors — and a number of others I won’t bore you with.”
Go ahead, we’ve got time. It’s still January.