ATHENS — Kirby Smart and I agree on something. Stop the presses, right?
From the outset of discussion about an early signing period for college football a while back, I was adamant that an early period, should they adopt one, should come in late July or early August. That way, prospects who already had their minds made up about where they wanted to go to college could go ahead and sign before their senior seasons in high school and not be distracted by the behemoth that is recruiting.
As usually happens when something seems to make perfect sense, the NCAA went in a different direction. They settled on late December — or Christmas week — as the best time to do it.
And so, that’s what will happen for the second straight year on the third Wednesday in December. Georgia and the other 129 FBS schools will conduct an early signing period for football. And for the Bulldogs at least, it stands to be a gigantic haul. Again.
Here’s the other side of the early period: Nobody, coaches, school administrators, the NCAA — expected the new period to take off like it has. Most of the kids now want to sign in the early period now, like they always have in basketball. Last year, 20 of the Bulldogs’ 26 recruits — or 76.9 percent — signed in December. Smart estimated Monday that “90 to 95 percent” of this year’s class will ink on Wednesday.
Which is fine. Great, in fact. It’s fantastic to go ahead and get the “hay in the barn” before Christmas, especially if you’re recruiting at the level Smart and the Bulldogs are at the moment. The trouble is, there’s a whole lot of guessing going on. And that means there could be repercussions on the back end.
There’s a reason nobody can tell you definitively how many recruits Georgia is going to sign this year. Smart himself can’t tell you. He, too, is dealing with a subset of unknowns. There are juniors who are considering turning pro; some current players are sweating out fall semester grades; still others are contemplating transfers.
Landing on the all-important 85 number in scholarships without having to yank offers or run off players is increasingly difficult.
“You still don’t know who’s coming out,” Smart said during his Sugar Bowl media day news conference Monday. … “There’s a lot of question marks on that. I don’t think we knew the ramifications when we moved it up of dealing with the juniors. The other argument is to move up the junior declare date early because they have to decide before the bowl game whether they’re going to play or not anyway, and a lot of them aren’t. So make them declare and you have a more definitive number going into your early signing date. But there’s debates about both and there will be issues with both.”
Georgia has several underclassmen undergoing the NFL’s draft evaluation process. Smart did say Monday that the Bulldogs won’t be losing any players to draft preparation, as has been a trend around the country this year. Most notably, senior cornerback and Jim Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker has vowed to play for the Bulldogs against Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Likewise, Smart said he hasn’t been told yet of any juniors making the decision to leave.
But attrition is a much a part of college football as marching bands and Saturday kickoffs. It’s inevitable. There will be academic, medical and transfer casualties.
“You’re making a decision before you know your entire roster, before you know grades, before you know juniors, before you know transfers,” Smart said. “It’s really tough to manage that number. And we’re experiencing that right now as we are 48 hours away from signing date.”
Granted, those unknowns — more actually — would still be there with an August signing period. The difference, though, is now the NCAA allows prospects to take official visits during the spring, a high percentage of prospects have long had their minds made up. If you’re far enough down the road with a recruit to have him on campus during the spring, and he’s wiling to sign before his senior year in high school, then why not sign it and seal it and do away with all the posturing?
Regardless, there remains the traditional first-Wednesday-in-February signing period for those who haven’t made up their minds yet or who want to see how a season or a coach shakes out. As it is now, that’s a mere six weeks after the early one.
Lest we forget, Georgia is still prone to doing some damage on the traditional National Signing Day. Last February, the Bulldogs bagged cornerback Tyson Campbell, defensive lineman Jordan Davis, linebacker Quay Walker, defensive back Otis Reese and defensive lineman Tramel Walthour. Four of them played extensively this fall, two of them starting.
“I do think that the gap between the two signing days is too small,” Smart said. “A lot of the kids that we’ve had committed have been committed since August, and you wouldn’t have this dynamic of everything jumping on top of you.”
It is ridiculously complicated, not to mention arduous, for these coaches. Not that anybody is going to feel sorry the 10 millionaires who must manage the madness, but just from an organizational and prioritizing standpoint, it’s crazy balancing act. The in-home visitation period for recruiting opened the week the Bulldogs were preparing to face No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship. The early signing day falls during the first week of Georgia’s on-campus preparation for the Sugar Bowl.
Oh, the Bulldogs will muddle through somehow. In fact, they’ll thrive. These are what some folks call “rich-people problems.” All indications are Georgia is going to ink another Top 3 national class.
But there should be a lot more order to the chaos than there is.