Ed Orgeron was asked about the big game.
On this particular Sunday morning, the big game was, of course, Super Bowl 52, scheduled for later in the evening between the Eagles and the Patriots.
“What game?!” a joking Orgeron boomed. “We’ve got recruits in. We’re recruiting!”
A group of high school prospects wrapped up weekend visits to LSU’s campus on Super Bowl Sunday. It was an important day for coaches to send them and their families back home with smiles three days before Wednesday’s traditional national signing day.
There is important change from years past in the group.
The visitors were 15- and 16-year-old high school sophomores whose signing days are two years away. Not, as has been custom, a collection of senior talent getting one final, close-the-deal sales pitch.
“That’s what January has become — it’s become an opportunity to get a jump on the junior and sophomore classes,” said Barton Simmons, 247Sports’ national recruiting reporter. “We’re going to see earlier offers, earlier commits and earlier official visits. Senior seasons are starting to mean less and less.”
The acceleration of college football recruiting moved into a new stratosphere this cycle, an unintended consequence of the new early signing period. Having filled much of their current signing classes in December, coaching staffs used open-contact periods in January — previously relegated for last-second recruiting of high school seniors — to welcome onto their campuses 2019 and 2020 recruits.
LSU brought in nine top-100 prospects in the 2019 class for unofficial visits on Jan. 26-28, and the Tigers welcomed in at least three 2020 recruits this past weekend.
This is happening across college football, no matter the level, said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
“It gives you a chance to get ahead on next year’s class. There’s always work to be done,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “It makes it an easier transition for the next year.”
The early recruiting was only made possible because of the high number of prospects who signed in the first early signing period, Dec. 20-22.
According to ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill, about 2,700-2,800 prospects sign in a typical year. During the early period, 2,003 high school players signed with Bowl Subdivision schools, Luginbill said. That leaves about 700 players, with about half of those verbally committed.
In short, don’t expect Wednesday to be like any other signing day you’ve seen.
“The player pool has shrunk from a pool to a puddle,” Luginbill said during a teleconference earlier this week.
The number of early signees exceeded projections from many recruiting experts and college football officials. Prospects signed at a high rate on all levels, Berry said. Signings were highest at the major college FBS programs (more than 70 percent) but only dipped to 68 percent, he said, in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“Of the 2,000 (signees), very close to around 900 prospects actually signed with Group of Five programs,” Luginbill said. “So the early signing period made an impact outside of the Power Five conferences as well.”
Many of the nation’s top prospects did not wait until February.
Nearly 75 percent of the players in 247Sports’ composite top 200 signed. Of the 51 unsigned, 21 are committed. Just 13 of those players were committed to a school before the early period and chose not to sign.
Those numbers can be deceiving. Several of those highly touted recruits were midyear enrollees who began school in January.
Still, the figures are significant among the highest-ranked teams. Eight of the top 15 teams in 247Sports’ composite rankings signed at least 19 prospects, including LSU’s 21, the second-most of any top 15 squad. Those top 15 teams signed an average of 17 players, or 70 percent of a 25-man class.
“The only thing I was surprised about was how eager they were to sign,” said Mike Scarborough, publisher of Rivals’ TigerBait.com. “Almost all of (LSU’s commitments) were wanting to sign in the early period and be done with it. I thought maybe two-thirds (would sign), but more signed.”
Only one player committed to the Tigers before the early period did not sign: Evangel safety ArDarius Washington.
Among teams ranked in the top 15, 11 programs had at least one commitment not sign. Auburn and Oregon led the group with five uncommitted recruits who chose not to sign, all of whom remain pledged to that school.
The Ducks’ situation can be explained through a head coaching change. Coaching changes prevented many commitments from signing early. Take for instance Florida State. The Seminoles signed just seven players but have eight commitments.
At UL-Lafayette, the Ragin’ Cajuns purposely did not sign a single player in the early period, a decision new coach Billy Napier made when he took the job just five days before the signing period began.
“I would equate it to marrying a girl that you’ve never met before,” Napier said about Cajuns commitments potentially signing in December with a new coach.
LSU has room for four signees in its 2018 class. As Wednesday approaches, here are the six targets to watch.
Berry does not expect the high number of early signings in Year 2. Players and coaches alike were “scared not to do something this year” when the early period rolled around, he said. He expects “different modifications” in the approach from both sides.
Some players were pressured by coaches and rushed into signing, recruiting experts said. Afraid their spot in a certain class would disappear in February, players signed in December to secure their place.
“It lowers the leverage for the student-athlete,” Simmons said. “They don’t have the opportunity to go out and see their best offer. They’re pressured into signing without seeing all the cards presented to them. I don’t know that it is an advantage for the athlete.”
The timing isn’t always good for the prospects either. Tulane coach Willie Fritz offers a good example of this.
Several players signed with the Green Wave before they even used their official visits to the school.
“One (group) it was tough on are the students,” Fritz said. “Some of these guys are playing through signing week. They had no free weekends to visit.”
The timing isn’t great for coaches, either.
Many staffs were preparing for bowl or playoff games while juggling recruiting visits during the open-contact periods starting Nov. 26 and running through Dec. 16. The yearly mad rush ahead of the original signing day — in mid-to-late January — moved up six weeks.
“I will say that it did put a lot of stress on the staff to go visit 21 guys in three weeks,” Orgeron said. “You’re not visiting Friday-Sunday (for on-campus weekend visits), so you have a little time to get all those home visits in. The staff was working 24/7 to go recruit and coach at the same time. It takes away from some of the preparation for the bowl. You have to be highly organized.”
Willie Fritz is one of the lucky ones.
Those at the bottom of the “food chain” thrived from the early period, Berry said. Power 5 programs, in the past, had made a habit of plucking prospects committed to small schools to fill their classes.
That could still happen, but many of those players are already signed.
“I really like it,” Odums said. “It allowed a lot of big schools to get what they want, and then you can see who are left.”
Now is the time for evaluation, Berry said. The early signing period — and the stricter 25-signee limit — was “one step” in an overhaul of the recruiting structure, but there is more to come.
“We might take another baby step when this is all said and done,” Berry said, “but we need to step back now with all the changes and see what the changes have done to the recruiting environment.”
What’s that baby step? A potential new two-to-four week dead period, possibly in February, Berry said.
A man with a passion for recruiting, Orgeron said he is against more dead periods. He actually wants the NCAA to remove the dead period that begins in mid-December and ends in mid-January, allowing contact with juniors, at least.
“It would give us an advantage to go out and talk to the guys and meet the parents before we have them on an official visit,” Orgeron said. “I want to recruit. I like recruiting.”
Many of the top 15 teams in 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings signed most of their players in the early period.
*The number listed is the total number of current commitments. The figure in parentheses is the number of prospects who committed before the early signing period but did not sign and remain committed.
**Includes Evangel safety ArDarius Washington, but he is not expected to sign with LSU.
The figures below are according to ESPN.
- Prospects who signed early: 2,003
- Unsigned prospects: ~700
- Uncommitted prospects entering signing day: ~360
The nation’s most sought-after prospects mostly signed early. These figures are based off of 247Sports’ top 200 players.
- Signed: 149
- Uncommitted: 30
- Committed: 21*