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Early signs call for signing early

On Monday morning, 17 young men will wake up with little doubt in their mind that a year from now they’ll be in South Bend gearing up for their first week of college football practice. They have a good idea of what it will look like, sound like, smell like and feel like. That picture has been painted for them several times by Notre Dame’s coaches, just as other coaches across the country painted similar pictures of their own campuses and locker rooms. Many of them have been pursued for more than a year and have pictured themselves in each of those paintings before making a decision. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer to make it official.

Brian Kelly, and the majority of NCAA coaches, are in favor of an early signing period for recruits.

The college recruiting timeline has shifted forward dramatically in recent years, and there’s no reason football shouldn’t join the majority of NCAA sports with an early signing period. For better or worse, more recruits than ever are choosing their future home at least a year in advance. Nearly three quarters of the best high school players in the country (14 of 247Sports’ top 20 players and 71 of the top 100) have already sifted through years of suitor’s notes and picked a winner.

Many of them did so with a deep sigh, believing that the full-court press from coaches, media and fans with questionable boundary issues was behind them. With six months to go before signing a national letter of intent, the barrage is only going to get worse.

“Those young men are 17 years old, 18 years old, and they're getting bombarded with professional recruitment for months on end,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day in 2011. “I think the early signing period allows that to end at a period where the young man can make a decision and go. That's why I'm in favor of it.”

Kelly isn’t alone. In 2009, 73 percent of FBS coaches said they were in favor of a plan to allow recruits to sign a letter of intent during a one-week period in December. Players would get six weeks of their lives back, and coaches could focus on recruits that were still on the fence rather than trying to make sure their committed players weren’t swayed elsewhere.

The Conference Commissioners Association, the body that governs these decisions, smartly shot down that plan. The December signing period would force assistant coaches to carry a heavy recruiting burden when they should be finishing their regular season and preparing for bowl games. It doesn’t provide a very significant break for recruits either.

The NCAA sports that have an early signing period — football is one of only five that doesn’t — hold it before their regular season gets rolling. That would mean August for football, which scared many people away in the past for being too early. What if a player changes his mind? What if coach lost his job that year? And what if all we’re doing with an early signing day is bumping up the whole recruiting process by a couple of months and putting the same pressure on a younger group of kids?
Well, the recruiting process is creeping earlier and earlier regardless of when the prospects are allowed to put their plans in ink. Greer Martini can tell you that. If a coach loses his job, most schools are happy to release recruits from their letter of intent. And the overwhelming majority of players that make oral commitments stick to them. Those that don’t are more likely persuaded by the trial lawyer/used car salesmen breed of “professional recruiters” Kelly referred to than by their actual convictions. If most of the country’s top talent is ready to make their college choice by the time they start their senior year of high school, why not let them get it out of the way in August?

When the first national letters of intent were signed during the early 1980s, players weren’t allowed to sign until May. As the recruiting process became more fine-tuned the date slid backward to the beginning of February. In the coming year the NCAA plans to rethink its currently confusing schedule and list of rules that govern when and how coaches are allowed to recruit, which would eliminate the last real obstacles to setting up an early signing day for football.

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