Analysis: Recruiting reform creates opportunities, questions for Notre Dame football

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

College football took one giant step toward an early signing period.

On Friday, The NCAA’s Division I Council adopted legislation that will pave the way for an early signing period in December. The only problem is the NCAA doesn’t govern the National Letter of Intent. That responsibility falls on the Collegiate Commissioners Association, which will reportedly meet in June to finalize the deal.

Consider the NCAA’s move a verbal commitment to an early signing period. What the NCAA did accomplish on Friday was wide-sweeping reform that impacts the recruiting calendar, official visits, summer camps and clinics, recruiting class sizes and more.

A potential early signing day will certainly garner the most attention, but the biggest impact for Notre Dame will likely come in the form of earlier official visits. Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston has been a proponent of a sped-up recruiting calendar that better reflects the fast-paced recruiting cycle that has developed in the last decade.

“One of the most compromising positions we’re in is in spring recruiting when they say you can go into the school and do an evaluation,” Elston said last August. “You can’t talk to the kid. You can’t see the kid. You can’t spend time with the kid. You can’t spend time with the parents.

“By July the kids have made their decision. Theoretically, unless they come on your campus you haven’t met with them, haven’t met the parents. It’s really a very challenging situation. I think they need to reboot the whole recruiting calendar and speed it up. An early signing period, an opportunity to official visit earlier.”

Under the current system, coaches are allowed to hit the road for an evaluation period, which starts April 15 this year and runs through the end of May, but the NCAA prohibits college coaches from having contact with recruits during those visits. In order to work around those rules, football programs have pushed harder for recruits to make unofficial visits earlier in the process.

As of Friday, Notre Dame had already hosted at least 45 recruits in the 2018 class who have received scholarship offers from the Irish.

That pace has produced a class of 12 verbal commitments for Notre Dame. The Irish have started to work ahead so much that earlier this month they hosted a sophomore weekend designated for 2019 prospects.

But because those trips for 2018 recruits must be unofficial visits, the financial burden falls on the recruits and their families. The situation has led to schools like Notre Dame hosting recruits on virtually any day kids can get on campus. And recruits who can’t afford to make the trips with their family often rely on making visits with their coaches, their seven-on-seven teams or other third-party groups.

When the new legislation on official visits goes into effect for the next recruiting cycle, Notre Dame will be able to host recruits on official visits beginning April 1 of their junior year through the Sunday before the last Wednesday in June. It’s a nearly three-month window that could prove widely beneficial for a program that recruits nationally.

Many of the unofficial visits in the spring come from recruits in the Midwest who don’t have to break the bank for a trip to Notre Dame. Those who travel from farther away often package a number of trips in the Midwest together. For instance, rover target Shayne Simon visited Notre Dame on Thursday. Before he heads back to New Jersey, he will have also made visits to Ohio State and Michigan.

The benefit is clear for the recruit. He can now make official visits, which include travel costs paid by the college, earlier in the process. For Notre Dame, it allows the Irish to become a player earlier in the recruitment for those who would previously have to wait until Sept. 1 of their senior year to make an official visit.

Early signing

If and when the early signing period becomes official, the ramifications remain unclear.

Recruits won’t be required to sign in December if they’re already committed, and schools won’t be required to offer recruits that option. At the very least, it should allow for more clear communication between a recruit and the school.

If a recruit is verbally committed prior to December and isn’t given the option to sign early, he should probably start looking elsewhere. The process would introduce a step to help prevent recruits from having their scholarship offers revoked by coaches a week before signing day.

But that’s a morally murky situation that hasn’t come into play under head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. What the Irish will have to decide is how to handle an early signing period. It might not be that different.

“I think each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it,” Kelly said on signing day in February. “I think some will come off the board at that time. I think we're kind of getting our hands around it a little bit. We're expecting some to sign early. But I think our mindset is we're going into it business as usual. We're all going to have to fight till February.”

The ability to fight into February drastically impacted Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class. The Irish added six commitments in the month of January to solidify a class of 21 players. Five of those late commitments were previously committed to other programs before signing with the Irish.

Four of Notre Dame’s late commitments could have feasibly already signed with other programs if an early signing period existed. Safety Jordan Genmark Heath (California), wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (Missouri), safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah (Virginia) and punter Jonathan Doerer (Maryland) gave schools their verbal commitments before the end of October last year.

If recruits decide en masse to take advantage of an early signing period, it will be imperative for programs like Notre Dame to put itself in a stronger position by the end of the calendar year.

The major downside of an early signing period is the amount of change that takes place between mid-December and the first Wednesday in February. The unpredictable coaching carousel might make recruits less likely to lock themselves into a school before signing day.

Camp control

While Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh famously pushed the boundaries of recruiting rules with satellite camps, Kelly decided it was in Notre Dame’s best interest to pass on the barnstorming. Bringing kids onto Notre Dame’s campus — and not trying to impress them with camps in different parts of the country — became the main focus.

The new NCAA legislation will essentially kill satellite camps. Coaches will only be allowed to participate in camps and clinics on 10 days in June and July that must take place on campus or at the usual practice or game facilities.

What Notre Dame will have to decide is the balance between bringing official visitors on campus in June and hosting the traditional Irish Invasion camp.

The Irish Invasion has become the central recruiting event of the summer for Notre Dame with a one-day camp at the center of it. However, the new recruiting rules prevent an official visit from taking place as part of a camp or clinic.

All Irish Invasion participants have been on unofficial visits in the past, but will the event have to take on a different look to take advantage of official visits?

Capping classes

The new legislation that will likely impact Notre Dame the least comes in the form of limiting the size of recruiting classes to 25 prospects.

In the past, programs were able to exploit loopholes in the rules by encouraging recruits to enroll early in the middle of the school year or go through a process called “grayshirting,” which delays a scholarship until the following January.

This past recruiting cycle ended with Michigan signing 30 recruits, which included 11 early enrollees, and Alabama signing 29 recruits, which included 16 early enrollees and three grayshirts, according to 247Sports.

Notre Dame hasn’t signed more than 25 recruits in a class under Kelly. The last time the Irish surpassed 25 came in Charlie Weis’ first full recruiting class with 27 signees in 2006. | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks during a press conference Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, at Notre Dame in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

The NCAA's Division I Council adopted legislation on Friday that changes football recruiting in the following ways.

• It changes the recruiting calendar to allow for an early signing period in December (effective Aug. 1). Only the Collegiate Commissioners Association can create new National Letter of Intent signing periods.

• It adds a period for official visits that begins April 1 of the junior year and ends the Sunday before the last Wednesday in June of that year. Official visits can’t occur in conjunction with a prospect’s participation in a school’s camp or clinic (effective Aug. 1).

• It prevents Football Bowl Subdivision schools from hiring people close to a prospective student-athlete for a two-year period before and after the student’s anticipated and actual enrollment at the school. This provision was adopted in men’s basketball in 2010 (effective immediately, though schools may honor contracts signed before Jan. 18, 2017).

• Football Bowl Subdivision schools are limited to signing 25 prospective and current student-athletes to a first-time financial aid agreement or a National Letter of Intent. Exceptions exclude current student-athletes who have been enrolled full-time at the school for at least two years and prospective or current student-athletes who suffer an incapacitating injury (effective for recruits who sign after Aug. 1, 2017).

• It limits the time for Football Bowl Subdivision coaches to participate in camps and clinics to 10 days in June and July and requires that the camps take place on a school’s campus or in facilities regularly used by the school for practice or competition. Staff members with football-specific responsibilities are subject to the same restrictions. The Football Championship Subdivision can conduct and participate in camps during the months of June and July (effective immediately, though schools may honor contracts signed before Jan. 18, 2017).

• It allows coaches employed at a camp or clinic to have recruiting conversations with prospects participating in camps and clinics and requires educational sessions at all camps and clinics detailing initial eligibility standards, gambling rules, agent rules and drug regulations (effective immediately).

• It allows Football Bowl Subdivision schools to hire a 10th assistant coach (effective Jan. 9, 2018).