Love it or hate it, Notre Dame masters new football recruiting signing period

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Amon-Ra St. Brown is living in a bubble, largely free of urgency and leverage from the outside.

The nation’s top wide receiver prospect and No. 3 high school senior football player overall per Rivals.com, will do on Jan. 7 in San Antonio, Texas, what elite prospects have done for years — announce his college choice at an All-Star game and sign a month later officially in February.

The youngest brother of Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown doesn’t have to worry about a team running out of scholarships. He doesn’t have to worry about having a change of heart in late January. The likely future USC Trojan, with Notre Dame still a slim outside possibility, is suddenly an anomaly, though.

All around him in the college football recruiting world swirls an eddy of uncertainty — courtesy of the new early signing period for college football. It’s the first deviation from a singular national date, the first Wednesday in February, since 1981.

Analysts predict as many as at least 50 percent and as much as 70 percent of the senior class will sign by the end of this week.

What is definitively known about the new, seemingly controversial wrinkle is that it’s a three-day window that opens Wednesday and closes Friday night.

Also a given is that the NCAA Division I Council voted it in last spring, with the motivation being the chance for recruits to shut down unwanted distractions/communications six weeks early and to cut down on how much babysitting coaches would have to do with verbally committed prospects — an expensive and time-consuming process.

Beyond that, the implications are largely subject to interpretation.

And the extreme range in reactions from college coaches and analysts to the change hints at the consequences — intended and otherwise — that may not be fully realized until a few years of experiencing the newness.

“I think overall this is good for college football,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “But I understand why some coaches, like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, are coming out against it.

"They like to go after other people’s stars and turn them in January. If most of them are signed, it changes the way they do business.”

“It’s already a process that is filled with half-truths,” offered Steve Wiltfong, national recruiting director for 247Sports. “Now with the two dates, there’s even more of a mystery.

“What are we policing here? What’s the upside of it? I don’t see one, but I’m still trying to feel my way through it. Maybe I’m overthinking it.”

College coaches don’t have the luxury of confusion. Love it, hate it, or something in between, they have to figure out how to make it work for them. And in this first cycle, Notre Dame appears to be way ahead of the curve.

The Irish coaches adjusted their recruiting calendar in the spring, summer and fall months, then went all in on the closing process, visiting both firmly committed and uncommitted prospects in a frenzied travel stretch that began hours after the Irish fell on the road, to Stanford, in the Nov. 25 regular-season finale.

The upshot?

On Wednesday, Notre Dame is expected to sign all 20 of its verbal commitments, with that number likely to swell to at least 21 Friday, when wide receiver Braden Lenzy is expected to rejoin the class — for good this time.

Defensive back Kyler Gordon could push that number to 22, meaning just three spots for the Irish to figure out over the final six weeks of the 2018 cycle.

Even without those potential additions, Notre Dame stands at No. 5 in the Rivals team recruiting rankings, behind only Ohio State, Miami (Fla.), Georgia and Texas. (247Sports has the Irish seventh.)

If the Irish are still in the top 10 on Feb. 7, it would be their highest ranking since finishing third in the 2013 cycle, a month after playing Alabama for the national championship. Incidentally, three players remain in the current Irish roster from that cycle — All-America left tackle Mike McGlinchey, starting tight end Durham Smythe and backup offensive lineman Hunter Bivin.

“For me to stand here and say (Dec.) 20th was great and then 10 guys don’t sign, obviously then it wouldn’t be great to have that date,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, an avid proponent of the early period. “But I’m very confident with the work that we’ve done that the 20th is going to prove to be a really good day for Notre Dame football.

“And that all the work we did to have these guys signed on the 20th and committed to Notre Dame is going to leave us with the opportunity to start looking toward just a few players that need to be signed in February and moving ahead in the calendar to (2019 and 2020 classes).”

Some coaches may argue that it’s easy for Kelly to love the new rule, and that the Irish and others had a built-in advantage.

Forty FBS teams lost a weekend in the closing stretch because of playing in a conference championship game, playing a makeup game, playing in the standalone Army-Navy game or playing in the first weekend of bowl games.

Four teams played on two such weekends.

Then there are the schools that went through a head coaching change. Of the 20 FBS programs that did so, 15 of them on Monday night stood at No. 59 or lower in Rivals’ team recruiting rankings, including Power 5 schools Florida State (59th), Tennessee (60th), Nebraska (61st), Arkansas (63rd), Ole Miss (71st), Arizona State (84th) and Oregon State (88th).

In the last recruiting cycle, four of those eight were top 25 classes and none ranked lower than Arizona State’s No. 50 standing. Florida State was No. 5.

Only Oregon, which elevated co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, found itself in the top 20 (ninth) heading into the early signing period.

“Firings happened earlier this season because of the early signing period,” Wiltfong said. “(Arkansas’) Bret Bielema got fired as he was walking off the field in the last game of the season. Other guys got fired before the season ended. It’s only going to get worse.

“And it will be interesting to see when the assistant coaches’ carousel moves. Before that was in February, right after signing day. Now are you going to have assistants fired and/or jumping to other jobs right around Christmas?”

There may not be uniformity there. Just as there may not be uniformity in whether schools pressure or encourage their recruits to all sign early. And just as some schools will stick to their traditionally more-deliberate recruiting paces.

And there’s never been uniformity in the flipping/poaching process, which now has been shortened and reduced. Kelly has had a significant net gain in flipped recruits vs. those pulled out of his classes, but it hasn’t been easy.

Geography plays a huge role in that equation.

Per The Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate, six schools got over two-thirds of their recruits in the past decade from their respective home states — Baylor (86.8), Texas (82.9), Texas A&M (76.9), TCU (73.1), UCLA (67.4) and USC (66.7). So putting out a fire or starting one is relatively easy.

That’s also true for ND’s Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl opponent, LSU, with 54.1 percent. The national average is 32.4 percent.

Notre Dame is one of four schools among the 65 Power 5 that drew less than 10 percent of its recruits from within the borders of the state where it’s located (7.73 percent). Only West Virginia (6.81 percent) has a lower percentage. (Oregon State 8.47 and Louisville 8.27 were the others).

“It’s going to take a while to figure out all the plusses and minuses of this process, but at this point I think the only thing wrong with the early date is that it should be even earlier,” Lemming said.

“I would do Sept. 1 and put in the stipulation that if the head coach leaves, the players are allowed out of the commitments.”

Wiltfong would like to see the new early period done away with all together.

“You know how to stop coaches from calling a young man if he doesn’t want that? Tell them not to call,” Wiltfong said. “Why does that have to be governed?

“And if a college coach doesn’t like having to babysit their commits for an extra month? Well they’re well-compensated to babysit their commits an extra month.

“For years, there was one date when every school and every player had to have their cards on the table. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked. And if it was working, why change it?”

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Former Notre Dame wide receiver commit Braden Lenzy is once again considering the Irish after dropping his Oregon commitment earlier this week. He will be in town for an official visit this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Tigard Times/Dan Brood)