Get used to it, coaches. The new early signing period helps level the playing field for recruits

2:35 | College Football
Andy Staples explains new college football rules
Monday June 5th, 2017

DESTIN, Fla. — The wine list at Seagar’s Steakhouse paled in comparison to the whine list a few yards away in a theater meeting room at the Hilton Sandestin. Last week, one SEC coach after another stepped into that room and complained about the new early signing period that will allow high school players to sign letters of intent six weeks earlier if they’d like.

“I think it’s kind of reckless, really,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said of the package of recruiting rules changes passed in April.

"You have to do a great job looking in the crystal ball," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "It puts us at a disadvantage.”

“When you guys come up with it, tell me,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said when asked what the advantage is for the players.

To hear the coaches tell it, the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee and Division I council passed a bunch of new rules—including the early signing period—to make changes for the sake of making changes. But when they say they can’t imagine whom an early signing period might help or that they can’t see how it helps the players, they’re not being entirely honest. They know exactly how the early signing period will help the players.

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For decades, coaches have had a huge upper hand in the recruiting process. They knew how the system worked. For the most part, the recruits and their parents had no idea. Sure, a few of the best players could dictate terms and string along the coaches, but this lopsided information dynamic allowed coaches to dictate the terms of the process to the vast majority of recruits.

Recently, services such as Rivals, Scout, and 247Sports have pulled back the curtain on the recruiting process and allowed players and their parents to become educated. Still, coaches controlled one vital piece of information—whether their scholarship offer actually was an offer.

Now, coaches have to put their cards on the table six weeks earlier. Some of them hate that.

Most programs hand out more than 100 scholarship offers but aren’t allowed to sign more than 25 players a year. Obviously, they need to offer more than 25 players because not everyone they offer will sign. But do they need to offer 231? That’s how many players claim offers from Minnesota in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports database. Do they need to offer 265? According to rivals.com, that’s how many class of ’18 players claim offers from Ole Miss, whose coach thinks allowing players to sign six weeks earlier is reckless. Even if we correct for the possibility that some of the players are claiming offers they don’t have—let’s estimate that number liberally at 50—it’s still an astounding number of offers.

Before this recruiting cycle, coaches could watch the dominos fall through December and January and either cut loose committed players or ask them to take a grayshirt, which would require them to delay enrollment until the spring of the following year. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh made headlines in January of ’16 for pruning his recruiting class of committed players. Alabama’s Nick Saban has made headlines in multiple years for having the grayshirt conversation with players close to National Signing Day. (Grayshirting as a practice is fine; the problem is when coaches spring the conversation on a player just before National Signing Day when the player has fewer options.)

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When programs sent the FedEx envelopes containing scholarship papers in the first week of February, that’s the first time the players learned whether their scholarship offer was real. In most cases, they were. But on Dec. 18 and Dec. 19 of this year, when some players go looking for those envelopes, they’re not going to find them.

This irks some coaches for several reasons. First, coaches hate change. Second, they hate anything that makes their lives more difficult. Third, many hate anything that offers a modicum of power to the player. In this case, knowledge is power.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The knowledge of whether a scholarship offer is real will help inform the recruit’s decision-making process. To illustrate, let’s consider the case of fictional cornerback Johnny Lockdown. Lockdown is a three-star cornerback from Columbus, Miss. He’s a three-star because he hasn’t had time to hit the camp circuit hard, but Mississippi State coaches have seen him plenty because he grew up a few minutes away. They love him. He has an offer from the Bulldogs, and they’re absolutely going to send him scholarship papers on Dec. 19.

Auburn, meanwhile, is intrigued by Lockdown, and he loves Auburn because his dad’s favorite athlete was Bo Jackson. Lockdown’s film is great, but Tigers coaches couldn’t get him to come to camp so they could take a closer look. They’ve offered to keep up with the Joneses, and the kid tried to commit over the phone. They only have one spot left for a corner and also have offers out to Tommy Picksix (a four-star player from Atlanta who is deciding between Auburn and Georgia) and Freddie Pressman (a five-star from Huntsville who has a long offer list but appears to be leaning toward Alabama).

Based on their evaluations, Auburn coaches have Picksix and Pressman rated slightly higher than Lockdown. So what do they do? If they send paperwork to all three, they know Lockdown will sign. The other two might wait until February, and then what? Auburn wouldn’t have a spot for either. If they send paperwork to Picksix and Pressman, neither might sign. Or Picksix may decide he wants to be done with and sign. If Pressman also signs, great. That’s a five-star longshot. The Tigers will make room in the class for him.

But here is Auburn’s problem in this case. Lockdown is going to open that FedEx envelope from Mississippi State and find a National Letter of Intent. He’s got an offer from Auburn, and he’s going to wonder where his paperwork is. When he learns he isn’t getting any, that’s going to hurt. And of course Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen and his staff will further drive home the point that the paperwork in hand proves that Mississippi State really wants Lockdown while Auburn clearly doesn’t. But Auburn does want him—as long as Picksix and Pressman don’t sign. Bulldogs coaches will make the bird-in-the-hand argument. Tigers coaches will try to soothe hurt feelings and beg for more time.

What will happen? No one knows. But it will be fascinating.

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Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was one of the few SEC coaches who didn’t complain about the early signing period. (He complained about other stuff like official visits in April.) In the early signing period, Bielema senses an opportunity. “A couple things that will be a byproduct of this early signing day are really good things,” Bielema said. “Those kids that kind of get left out to dry in the last week—that’s going to change. That’s going to change [coaches’] tunes.”

Bielema knows that most players will sign in December, just as most basketball players sign in November rather than April. We spend more time covering the small percentage of recruits who flip or string along coaches, but the fact is that by December, most recruits are happy with their school choice and most programs are happy to have them. For prospects 1–20 in a 25-man class, players and college coaches will want to be finished with the process by December. It’s those bottom five prospects in each class that will make it interesting. If the No. 24 player in Alabama’s class would be the No. 2 player in Bielema’s class, he’s going to recruit that player hard and send an NLI on Dec. 19. If Alabama doesn’t send one because Crimson Tide coaches are waiting to see what other offered players choose, then Bielema can initiate the Telly Savalas recruiting protocol.

Of course, Chad Morris at SMU might do the same thing to the No. 23 player in Bielema’s class. Everything is relative in recruiting, and the drama will move down the food chain. In the end, the players will have to decide what is best for them. Do they sign with the program that obviously wants them, or do they hold out and wait for a spot to open in a more prestigious program? No matter what, they’ll have more information to guide them thanks to the passage of the early signing period.

The coaches, who would rather keep the most vital piece of information to themselves, will just have to get used to it.

A random ranking

Wonder Woman opened on Friday to great-for-a-DC-movie reviews. This feels quite promising. I’ve always been partial to DC universe characters over Marvel universe characters, but aside from the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan Batman movies and the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, the film treatments of these characters have been either bland and humorless or annoyingly campy. (These people even managed to screw up Suicide Squad, which had an idiot-proof premise.) Meanwhile, Marvel characters have gotten fine showcases helmed by directors who understand that the audience is supposed to have—ya know—fun. But hopefully this represents a shift for the DC characters. This renewed optimism has inspired me to rank the original members of the Justice League.

1. Batman

2. Wonder Woman

3. Superman

4. Martian Manhunter

5. Green Lantern

6. Aquaman

7. The Flash

First-and-10

1. Three former Penn State administrators will serve jail time for their roles in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Former president Graham Spanier, who was convicted in March of endangering the welfare of a child, will serve two months in jail and two months under house arrest. Former vice president Gary Schultz, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to a count of child endangerment, will serve two months in jail. Former athletic director Tim Curley, who also pleaded guilty to a count of child endangerment, will serve three months in jail.

2. A day after the SEC modified its graduate transfer rule, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire announced that he will transfer to Florida. Zaire has one season of eligibility remaining, and he will compete with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks for the starting job.

At its spring meetings, the SEC altered a rule that banned programs from taking graduate transfers for three years if a graduate transfer didn’t meet certain academic benchmarks. Florida had two graduate transfers, Mason Halter and Anthony Harrell, who failed to meet those benchmarks in 2015. The new SEC rule reduces that penalty from three years to one.

Zaire also considered Texas and Wisconsin, but common sense says he’s headed to Florida because the Gators offer the best shot at winning a starting job. Franks was better than fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask during spring practice, but Franks didn’t run away with the job. Incumbent starter Luke Del Rio also will join the fray in preseason camp after his recovery from shoulder surgery.

3. The Big 12 announced a distribution of $34.8 million per school at its annual business meeting Friday. That puts the league financially ahead of the ACC and Pac-12—especially considering that unlike schools in those leagues, Big 12 schools can sell their third-tier media rights individually.

By the end of the Big 12’s current media rights deal, the league should be distributing more than $40 million a year to each member school. We’ve discussed this before in this space, but the Big 12 is not as weak as most people think. It is quite healthy financially, and a better performance on the football field between now and the end of the current rights deal in 2025 could be enough to keep it together. Texas and Oklahoma would not get to boss around the schools in any other league, and if the Big 12 champion becomes a fixture in the College Football Playoff, the league could look like a better deal than the Pac-12 or ACC (depending on how the ACC Network fares). So don’t bury the Big 12 just yet.

4. Kansas State has released receiver Corey Sutton from his scholarship after Sutton’s case drew national attention late last week. Sutton sent a series of tweets pointing out that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder was blocking him from transferring anywhere on scholarship—including FCS and Division II schools. Snyder explained to reporters Thursday night that his policy is not to release any player who wants to transfer. In that same interview, Snyder appeared to accuse Sutton of failing two drug tests (Sutton denied this to ESPN). Coaches are not allowed to reveal the results of drug tests.

To avoid looking any stupider—and probably to avoid a lawsuit—Kansas State officials granted Sutton a full release Friday.

This is your weekly reminder that the NCAA’s transfer rules stink. They could be fixed easily, but the schools don’t care enough about athletes to change them.

5. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has a good idea that would help officials enforce the illegal man downfield rule that they consistently ignore: just use video replay. It would take about five seconds to determine whether someone wearing a jersey number between 50 and 79 was more than three yards beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball was thrown. If he was, assess the penalty. Replay officials are supposed to review every play anyway. If they suspect a lineman went too far before the ball was thrown, they can buzz the official. A few seconds later, they could assess the penalty.

I’m not in the camp of the coaches who want to change the college rule (linemen are allowed three yards past the line of scrimmage) to match the NFL (one yard from the line of scrimmage) because the college rule makes for a more interesting game. But for defenses to have a chance, the three-yard rule must be enforced. A defensive player who sees the center five yards down the field is going to stop covering his receiver and play the run. But often the offense will throw anyway and not get flagged. That needs to change, and Muschamp might have found a way to change it.

6. An Oklahoma fan named Kenneth Holzhammer asked Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield for a retweet last week. If Mayfield came through, Holzhammer promised to tattoo an image of Mayfield on his body. Mayfield held up his end of the deal, and boy howdy did Holzhammer uphold his end.

7. We knew Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was on the hot seat, but it feels different when Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward goes on The Paul Finebaum Show and stokes the flames.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. On one hand, Woodward is only saying what all his constituents are thinking. On the other hand, this sort of thing could cripple Sumlin’s recruiting efforts in the short term and make it tougher to win going forward if he wins enough games this season to keep his job.

Elsewhere in the SEC West, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long took the opposite tack with Bielema, who is 10–22 in SEC play in four seasons in Fayetteville. Long told Jason Kersey of SEC Country that there is no hot seat at Arkansas. “The leader is more than just winning games—and I know some fans don’t wanna hear that,” Long told Kersey. “Trust me, it doesn’t mean we aren’t competing with every fiber of our being to win in the toughest conference and the toughest division of that conference. But when you look at what Bret’s doing, we’re building a program that’s built on an outstanding foundation.”

8. The woman who has accused former Colorado assistant Joe Tumpkin of physically abusing her for two years has filed a lawsuit against the university seeking $3.5 million, The (Boulder) Daily Camera reports. The suit alleges that Colorado officials were aware of the issues and tried to cover them up. Michael McKnight told the accuser’s story for SI.com in February.

9. Boise State revealed its 2017 uniforms last week.


10. According to senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting, only one school has turned down a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay. Fitting reveals which one in this clip from his talk at the SVG College Sports Summit.

What’s eating Andy?

I’m celebrating college football’s slowest news month by going on vacation. Punt, Pass and Pork will return on July 3.

What’s Andy eating?

This was supposed to be about grilled cheese and The Truman Show. I had hoped to write about one of those gourmet melt places operating out of an Airstream trailer in Seaside, the ritzy enclave in Florida’s Redneck Riviera that doubled as the all-too-perfect town created for unwitting reality star Truman Burbank.

But when I arrived at 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, I found the windows closed and the sandwich presses off. Google and the place’s own Facebook page told me it stayed open until 10, but they had lied. There would be no rumination on a pressed meatloaf sandwich as I pondered whether we’re all starring in some massive reality show designed for the entertainment of some unseen viewer. The existential gave way to the practical. My back stock of restaurant reviews was depleted. Real life would keep me from eating anywhere interesting between that night and the publication of this column. I had to find something.

But that’s the beauty of traveling hungry. Sometimes, the lights from a sign catch the eye. On the drive to Seaside, I had noticed a place called Craft Bar as I passed through Santa Rosa Beach. I Googled it just to check the hours. They stayed open until 10, and they weren’t lying. But would they serve anything worth writing about?

I walked inside and saw a lot of a wood and a wall of carefully curated beer taps. Good start. The stereo blasted the Soundgarden and Weezer songs that soundtracked high school. I ordered a Duclaw Hell on Wood barleywine and opened the menu. Classed-up bar food. My spirits sank. Boring meals do not make good copy. But I kept reading.

I rallied when I saw they served a pimento cheeseburger. The pimento cheese revolution has turned one of my favorite tailgate spreads—and the only reason for mayonnaise to exist—into the latest trendy burger topping/chip dip. Ten years ago, you’d have to drive to South Carolina or make it yourself to get pimento cheese on a burger. Now, pimento cheeseburgers are popping up everywhere. That’s a wonderful development.

Andy Staples

This is especially true if they’re as good as the pimento cheeseburger at The Craft Bar. A thick half-pound patty sits on a brioche bun, and the warm cheese drips in and around a nest of caramelized onions. Bacon costs $1 extra. Spend that dollar. The pimento cheese is the only condiment necessary, and the cheese, bacon and beef melds into a massive savory bomb.

Save the spicy ketchup for the thick, fresh-cut fries. Some places consider fries an afterthought. I consider them a vital piece of the burger experience*. At The Craft Bar, the fries only enhance the burger.

*Yes, I realize that this is a complete 180 from the way I evaluate barbecue (only the meat matters). I’m full of contradictions.

I was already pleased with my pivot away from the grilled cheese truck that can’t properly advertise its hours at this point. I figured that glass of Hell on Wood would serve as dessert. Then I took one more look at the menu. Tucked in the bottom corner under the heading Sweets was this description: “candied bacon brownie and bourbon ice cream.”

Andy Staples

Candied. Bacon. Brownie. And. Bourbon. Ice. Cream. This is the sort of thing that should be shouted from the roof, not buried in the corner of the menu. And the description doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It is indeed a large, soft brownie with candied bacon baked inside. It does come with a heaping scoop of bourbon ice cream. It also comes drizzled with a syrup and caramel mix that has BB-sized malted milk balls floating on top. It is exactly as amazing as you’re imagining. The salty of the bacon and the sweet of the brownie work the same magic on the taste buds that Reese’s has exploited for years with the peanut butter cup. The bourbon ice cream adds a deep sweetness and a chilly counterbalance to the hot brownie. It would have been exquisite even without the tiny malted milk balls, but much like the fries with the burger, the small touches show the place cares about the food and doesn’t consider it a salt delivery vehicle that will make you buy more beer.

The Craft Bar I visited is one of four. In the past three years, the places have sprung up across Florida’s panhandle. They stretch from Panama City Beach to Destin, and a fifth will open soon in Pensacola. Hopefully, rapid expansion won’t dilute the quality of the food. But a place with this kind of relentless competence—great service, great beer selection, tasty, repeatable recipes, a clear aesthetic and sonic vibe—can succeed on a grander scale.

The Craft Bar’s neighbor down the street in Seaside could learn something from this. Relentless competence requires getting the little things right. If you can’t even correctly tell your potential customers when you’re open, you probably don’t do anything else particularly well, either.

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