Ever since the recruiting calendar changed in 2017, nearly all high school prospects have opted to finalize their college plans in December rather than waiting for the traditional February signing date.
That trend is being put to the test this year.
Over 20% of Football Bowl Subdivision programs have changed coaches since the start of the season, which means the early signing period will begin Wednesday as plenty of verbally committed prospects and their new coaches are still getting to know one another.
One of those new coaches – Florida’s Billy Napier – says he’s going to take a cautious approach this week while looking toward February.
“The reality is you’re getting in the game and there’s like three minutes left in the fourth quarter,” Napier said during his introductory news conference. “I think the last thing we need to do here is make some mistakes. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t sign many at all, to be honest with you.”
Recruiting analysts are skeptical that more signings end up taking place in February.
Adam Gorney, national recruiting director at Rivals, said 80-85% of FBS recruits generally sign in December and it shouldn’t be far off that mark this time.
“With all the coaching changes, it might be a tick less, but it should be around that number somewhere,” Gorney said.
Twenty-eight of the nation’s 130 FBS schools made coaching changes this year. According to NCAA data, there have been only two years since 1947 that featured more than 28 coaching changes.
Wiltfong notes that the desire to have new staffs in place before the December signing period caused many schools to act early in firing coaches. The Big Ten was the only Power Five conference that hadn’t announced a coaching change by mid-November.
“The early signing period has definitely had an impact on that,” Wiltfong said. “You probably (otherwise) would have seen coaches still would have gotten to finish the season before they were let go Thanksgiving weekend.”
Coaching changes hit programs that produced seven of the top 12 classes in the last signing period, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports: LSU, Oregon, Southern California, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Miami and Florida.
Those seven schools all filled their vacancies within the last two weeks, leaving prospects little time to decide whether to stick with commitments. Some have changed their minds.
Several prospects have withdrawn verbal commitments to Oregon since Miami hired away Mario Cristobal. The most notable one was offensive tackle Kelvin Banks, the nation’s No. 15 overall recruit according to the 247Sports Composite. Banks has since committed to Texas.
USC hired Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma on Nov. 28. Oklahoma hired Brent Venables a week later. In that brief time, the Sooners’ 2022 recruiting class has lost four top-150 prospects in defensive linemen Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy (16th) and Derrick Moore (79th), running back Raleek Brown (33rd) and linebacker Kobie McKinzie (144th). Brownlow-Dindy is now committed to Texas A&M, Brown to USC and McKinzie to Texas.
No wonder Venables spent part of his introductory news conference emphasizing the need to secure the rest of that class.
“My No. 1 goal is to get on the road recruiting, make sure that this ’22 class that’s due to enroll here in the next few weeks is where it needs to be, and then all the while in between visits, visiting with our current players,” Venables said.
Players aren’t the only ones facing major decisions. Coaches also must learn more about the prospects they inherited, which explains Napier’s approach toward the early signing period.
“For me, I think it’s important in recruiting that both sides understand each other and have had time to build relationships, to have conversations, to know who’s going to coach them, to fully understand what the plan is,” Napier said. “I think it goes both ways in that regard. I think it’s an injustice to them and an injustice to us to all of a sudden just hurry up and elope here right at the last second.”
Napier is replacing the fired Dan Mullen, who was criticized for the lack of star power in Florida’s 2022 recruiting class.
Gorney said Napier and new LSU coach Brian Kelly both seem intent on reshaping the recruiting classes they inherited, which could keep them busy up until February.
“It feels like everybody that Dan Mullen was involved with, (Napier’s) not going to be all that interested in,” Gorney said. “There might be some that remain, but a lot of those kids are looking elsewhere. Florida might be one of those situations and LSU might be one of those situations where a lot of those kids wait until February just because Napier and Brian Kelly have come in there and sort of decided to go in different directions in a lot of places.”
Napier was pretty open about how he is approach putting together his recruiting class under these unusual circumstances.
“You can expect us to be very conservative, very patient, trying to position ourselves for post-signing day to evaluate all the players who are left over, all the players who are in the transfer portal,” Napier said. “And then when we do have our entire staff and organization put together, position ourselves for some really strong weekends in January and then try to close strong in February.”
The question is how many top prospects will still be unsigned by then.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.