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Murphy: Early-signing period for college football is great for players
Georgia
Georgia running back D'Andre Swift runs for a touchdown against Auburn during the SEC Championship game on Saturday in Atlanta. Photo by Doug Chellew - photo by Photo for The Times

Having an early signing period for college football players is the right thing to do. Long rumored as a possibility, it’s now baked in the cake with players being allowed to end the recruiting process before Christmas.

Starting Wednesday, many of the nation’s premier high school seniors will make their choice official, a major life decision that prior to this fall only took place on one day in early February. 

Once the three-day window to sign early ends Friday, most of the nation’s top programs will have a pretty good idea what the 2018 freshman class will look like. 

No. 3 Georgia, for example, will likely have 13 of its 18 verbal commits signed by the end of the week, according to Rivals.com. The Bulldogs, who are now preparing for the Rose Bowl against No. 2 Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals, anticipate the nation’s top prospect at quarterback, Justin Fields, as well as top-rated running back, Zamir White, will be locked up for the Red and Black by the end of the week. 

Georgia is not an exception in this regard. According to 247Sports, all programs in the top 25 nationally expect at least 12 players to sign this week, which drastically reduces any unnecessary suspense of players flipping commitments late in the process or taking more campus visits once the high school season is finished. 

Having an early signing period also makes sense for early-enrolling players, like offensive lineman Warren Ericson, who will sign with Georgia just days after winning the Class 7A state championship with North Gwinnett High. He will enroll at Georgia in January.

On Wednesday, the national media parade will commence with players making permanent decisions and holding signing festivities. Others, who need more time to think about it, will be able to sign Feb. 7 — but National Signing Day is now expected to be much less suspenseful than in previous years.

Whichever move is best for the players, it finally puts the young men who put their physical well-being on the line in control, in stark contrast to the coaches who make all the money. It’s still to be seen if players who fail to sign during the early signing period will have scholarship offers pulled for more firm prospects.

It will likely come down to the risk-reward of keeping a scholarship on the table for a player who is still on the fence and taking other campus visits. Players have long been at a disadvantage with the possibility of signing with a school, only to have the recruiting coach bolt afterward for another job.

In 2015, Georgia junior linebacker Roquan Smith gave his commitment to UCLA on ESPN, only to find out minutes later that the coach who recruited him was going to work with the Atlanta Falcons. The Bulldogs’ coaching staff was able to relay that information to Smith before he signed the official documents with the Bruins. 

That was a close one!

College football programs are in many regards inconvenienced by the timing of the early signing period. For Georgia, coach Kirby Smart will be taking a big chunk of time to pose for pictures with signees and shake hands while also having a game plan to put in place to face the Sooners. 

Defending national champion Clemson is much the same. The Tigers on Wednesday will lock up a signature on the letter of intent from the country’s top-ranked player, Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville High, and top-ranked defensive end Xavier Thomas, out of IMG Academy in Florida, barring a major surprise.

The Tigers, right now, are getting ready for No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. 

Signing early scholarships is not totally new to the recruiting process. Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason was an early graduate in the 2016 class who did so shortly after the end of his senior season playing in 2015 in Lake Stevens, Washington. His financial aid agreement was his binding documentation.

Once Fields signs his paperwork Wednesday with Georgia, which he has declared on social media is the plan, it will make for a crowded quarterbacks room in 2018 for the Bulldogs. Jake Fromm has Georgia in the playoffs and in the running for its first national championship since 1980, so it’s likely he’ll go into next year as the starter. With only two years of eligibility remaining, it makes sense that Eason would seek a transfer to a school where he can start after sitting a year to bolster his draft stock for the NFL. 

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is adamantly opposed to an early signing day, suggesting it puts his team at a disadvantage with trying to juggle bringing in prospects while at the same time preparing for a run at the national championship. However, it’s not likely Saban will earn a lot of sympathy from the college football coaching fraternity — he’s seeking his fifth championship since 2009.

The only reasonable opposition to the early signing period from a coaches perspective is those eight schools playing a bowl game during the three days of this week’s signing period. Most had only one weekend to bring prospects on to campus for official visits this month, which is open season for courting top talent. 

With the early signing period part of the college football landscape, the next step is giving players the option to be released from a letter of intent if the coach decides to leave or is fired after receiving the official paperwork. I firmly believe a player shouldn’t be bound to play at a school where a coach was able to move for his own career advancement and financial gain. 

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

Still, we’re seeing big steps in the right direction. Finally, players have a little leverage in the recruiting process.


Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com or @Bill_Murphy379 on Twitter.

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