Early signing period creating plenty of uncertainty
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By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) DaShon Bussell says he has not decided whether to sign with his school in December or wait until February. The Western Michigan-bound receiver likes having the option.
The senior from Knoxville (Tennessee) Catholic has that choice thanks to a new set of NCAA recruiting rules that took effect this year. Under the policy change, high school seniors can sign national letters of intent from Dec. 20-22 in addition to the traditional signing period that starts the first Wednesday of February.
"When you sign, you're just done," Bussell said. "There's no more stress, nothing to worry about, really."
A December signing period allows prospects to finish the college selection process early, and coaches will be able to spend January and February focusing only on unsigned prospects rather than worrying about their entire class.
But it also creates plenty of suspense for coaches unsure about how this new process will work.
"I think it's going to be very stressful twice as opposed to very stressful once," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
Coaches are trying to determine just how many seniors will actually sign in December.
"I would expect anyone that's committed to us to sign with us in the early signing period," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Otherwise they probably aren't really committed is the reality of it."
It may not be that simple.
More than 70 percent of the nation's top 250 prospects as determined by composite rankings of recruiting services compiled by 247Sports already have verbally committed to a school. How many of those recruits will make it official next month? Even the people who analyze recruiting for a living aren't quite sure.
"We have no idea," said Mike Farrell, director of recruiting for Rivals. "And talking to college coaches, they don't have any idea either. Talking to recruits, a lot of them say they're going to skip the early signing period and wait until the end anyway, but that's now. I think once you're talking about December, when coaches do in-home visits and it's more of an active recruiting period, I think you're going to see a lot of pressure put on kids to sign early."
Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports, said he believes "a fairly significant majority" of committed prospects will sign next month.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he didn't try to pressure anyone to decide early, but he did want to find out when each of his targets was planning to sign.
Getting a direct answer was often difficult.
"Back in the summertime we tried to figure out through information gathering through prospects," Saban said. "Were you going to be an early signing guy? What's your plan? Or will you go to the February signing date like always? It was very difficult because a lot of players weren't really ready to make a commitment to that. They hadn't decided what they were going to do."
That hasn't changed as December has drawn closer.
"You talk to a young man one week and (he says), `I'm signing in December,' and you're scheduling a visit," South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. "And all of a sudden it's, `You know what coach? I'm going to wait until February' the next time you talk."
Colorado coach Mike Macintyre noted that his team was welcoming "a lot more" official visitors on football weekends because of the early signing period. He credited his support staff members for handling the arrangements and making sure coaches could focus on the games.
The new rule is putting pressure on teams such as Florida and Tennessee, who are conducting coaching searches with the early signing period just a few weeks away. Tennessee athletic director John Currie called it "new and uncharted territory for all of us to some extent."
"It is a variable that is new, but the core values in how we make decisions remain the same," Currie said.
Not only are schools wondering how many elite prospects will sign early, they're also interested in the fates of lesser-known recruits currently linked to Group of Five schools.
For instance, a sleeper prospect from Louisiana might be committed to, say, Tulane right now while holding out hope that LSU could make a late offer. Does he sign with Tulane in December or wait to see if his dream school might have room for him in February? And if a committed player chooses not to sign with a school in December, will a coach simply move on and try to sign someone else instead?
"It will be interesting to see how it all plays out Dec. 20," Southern Mississippi coach Jay Hopson said. "There's certainly a lot of unknowns in it."
The December signing date does enable coaches to have of their recruiting work done by Christmas.
"The good thing is you get part of that class out of that way and get it done so the coaches can really focus on the final part of the class in January, where you're not having to go back and deal with 12, 15, 18 guys you're still trying to hold on (to) as other people are trying to get back in on," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
For the high school players, constant text messages and calls from suitors can go away sooner. And Bussell noted the December signing period also provides a showcase for early enrollees who head to college each January.
"They can have a signing day now," Bussell said. "When they'd left early, they really just signed by themselves. Now they can have the crowd and do whatever they wait for it. I think that's exciting because that's every kid's dream, to sign in front of people."
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli, Joedy McCreary, John Marshall, Charles Odum, Joe Reedy and John Zenor contributed to this report.
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Updated November 19, 2017