Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Early signing date, visits would shift landscape

By NU Athletic Communications

By Brian Rosenthal /Huskers.com

Ty Darlington is a Florida native, the son of not only a football coach, but also a former Oklahoma cheerleader. His mother is from Oklahoma, and Darlington admits he has “Oklahoma roots” within him.

A successful high school football player, Darlington garnered several NCAA Division I scholarship offers, including from Oklahoma, Auburn, Stanford and Nebraska.

“The fact of the matter was I had been to OU several times because of my family out here and everything,” Darlington said in a phone interview from Norman, Oklahoma, “and I had been to Auburn in the southeast, I had driven there a couple of times.”

The summer going into his senior season, Darlington decided that because he knew scholarships were filling up, he needed to decide on a school. So he committed to Oklahoma.

Darlington has no regrets. He said he had a wonderful experience with Oklahoma, where he became involved with the Student Athletic Advisory Committee. His peers elected him one of the representatives of the Big 12 Conference through the autonomy subgroup in the NCAA, and he served the last two years at the NCAA Convention.

Still, Darlington wonders.

“Looking back, it was a phenomenal experience and everything,” Darlington said. “But I was really disappointed that I was not able to go see Stanford. I never got to go see Stanford, I never got to go see Nebraska. I had to make that decision because I felt like I needed to.”

Sure, Darlington could have waited until his senior season and taken paid official visits then, but he felt he needed to make a decision much sooner. So he did. Had he visited Nebraska or Stanford, he would've needed to pay his own way.

“I couldn't afford to go take an unofficial visit and pay my way out to Palo Alto or Lincoln,” Darlington said. “I didn't really get to make a fully-educated decision. I was happy with the decision I made, but I definitely felt like I could've gotten a little bit better recruiting experience.”

Pernell Jefferson faced a similar situation. A touted linebacker from New Orleans, Jefferson wanted to focus on his senior season and didn't want to take official visits during that time.

“After the season, I was in other sports,” Jefferson said, explaining the difficulty in finding time to take official visits, “and you only have so many weekends where you don't have practice and things like that, where you can go out and see the college for what it is.”

That, he said, is part of the reason he committed to Oklahoma early in the recruiting process. Given the period he had given himself for official visits, and the current set of recruiting rules, he felt he made the best decision at that time.

He wishes circumstances could have been different.

“I think taking an official visit earlier would've helped me a lot in the recruiting process,” said Jefferson, who eventually switched his commitment and signed with Nebraska.

“When I committed here, I didn't see my first Nebraska game until my freshman year versus Fresno State (the first game of the season),” Jefferson said. “That's because I came in January and signing day is in February.”

That timeline soon could change.

If a proposal by the NCAA Division I Council passes at its Thursday and Friday meetings in Indianapolis, it would dramatically change the world of football recruiting. Players would be able to sign binding National Letters of Intent during a 72-hour period in mid-December, in conjunction with the midyear junior college signing date. The current signing period in February of a high school student's senior year will also still exist.

The biggest part of the proposal, however, would allow for earlier official visits. The first opportunity would begin April 1 of a student-athlete's junior year through the Sunday preceding the last Wednesday in June.

In addition, new recruiting dead periods would occur from the Monday before the last Wednesday in June through July 24, and from August 1 through August 31. The December dead period, beginning Monday of the week that includes the initial date of the midyear junior college signing start date, would last through Thursday of the week of the annual AFCA convention. This would provide the coaches and prospects 62 additional days of off-time.

If adopted, the proposal would go into effect for the 2017-18 recruiting timetable. It also would allow Football Bowl Subdivision schools to hire a 10th fulltime assistant coach, as football has one of the highest coach-to-student athlete ratio of all sports.

Darlington has spent the last few months working as part of an NCAA Division I Football Recruiting Ad-Hoc working group. Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst is the co-chair of the working group, along with Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen.

“He's done a fantastic job, as far being thorough and prepared and getting us the materials and very eloquently stating his opinion and not dominating the conversation,” Darlington said of Eichorst. “He's done a very good job of soliciting feedback from every guy in the room, from all the administrators and university student-athletes. He values what everyone has to say.”

Based on his personal experience and studying of facts, Darlington favors the package of legislative reform – the December signing date and the earlier visits, especially.

“All the high school prospects coming in, it gives them a chance to make a more informed decision,” said Darlington, whose brother, Zack, is a junior wide receiver at Nebraska. “It gives them a chance to get to see the places where they're going without having to break the bank for all the moms and dads to have to pay their way. Or even worse, to have to rely on a third party who can sort of get their claws into them and pay their way.”

The NCAA Division I Council's proposal addresses the concern of third-party involvement. Schools could hold camps and clinics only on 4-year college campuses, and during a total of 10 days in the months of June and July. The days would not need to be consecutive. Educational sessions regarding NCAA rules on initial eligibility, gambling, agents and drug use will be required. Coaches could also have recruiting visits with prospective student-athletes during this time.

Allowing earlier official visits will ideally help limit third parties' involvement in recruiting, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

“I think the opportunity for earlier official visits will help fairly extensively,” Bowlsby said. “Right now, without them, as you probably know, you're seeing young men show up at multiple camps on unofficial visits without any visible means of paying for the camp or transportation or lodging. Usually it's their 7-on-7 team or something like that picking up the tab, and there's plenty of room for shenanigans.”

As far as Darlington is concerned, an earlier recruiting calendar is the byproduct of coaches more often aggressively pursuing and offering student-athletes at younger and younger ages.

“Look, this is the reality of the situation,” Darlington said. “If you didn't want this to happen, then don't start recruiting kids and offering kids when they're in the eighth grade. The coaches moved up the calendar, and now we're trying to change some rules to get student-athletes a better chance and make the legislation match the reality of recruiting.”

Nebraska coach Mike Riley agreed, saying the proposed legislation is a move “to kind of match the rules with what's going on in reality.” The entire process, he said, has accelerated greatly over the last decade.

“I think it would lessen the number of visits during the season, and I think it would be kind of nice to have that definition for both the high school player and the school,” Riley said. “So I think there are some positives to that. I think this early signing date through the years has become inevitable in some fashion.

“Let's get official visits earlier. You got a lot of visits that come in the spring anyway, and the fact then you could pay for them and get part of your signing group, I think that all probably fits with the reality that is going on, anyway.”

Research shows that Power 5 schools in the 2016 and 2017 Rivals Top 10 recruiting classes have offered scholarships to an average of 212 prospects (they only have a maximum of 25 initial scholarships to each give) over this two-year period. Approximately 51 percent of the verbal commitments to these schools occurred by July 1 before the prospects' senior year.

The majority of Big Ten Conference coaches are in favor of the proposal, as is Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

Big Ten member institutions are recruiting student-athletes, not merely athletes, and Delany feels it's important they receive ample time to make a correct decision in the recruiting process, just like regular students.

“It seems to me now most players, most young students, are making choices before they visit campus, at least officially visit campus at the expense of the institution. It seems to me that's backwards,” Delany said. “Any time you make a choice, whether it's a consumer choice or a student choice about college, you should be armed with good information. The best way to get good information is visit.

“As an order of business, that should happen first. Then, in the event there's a match with academics and athletics, there should be an opportunity to have the student commit to the institution. For almost two-thirds of Division I athletes, that opportunity exists. It doesn't exist in water polo or football, but the vast majority of students have this choice. The vast majority of students have a chance to visit before they make that decision.” 

For example, in the 2016-17 season, 18,103 prospective student-athletes in other sports had the opportunity to sign early (11,867 did), but 4,024 students in the sport of football did not have that choice.

What is important to realize is the early signing period is not by any means forcing or encouraging student-athletes to make hasty decisions and sign early. Recruits still have the opportunity to wait and sign on the traditional February signing date if they so desire.

However, “It's to the student-athletes' benefit if they want to go ahead and get it out of the way and not have to worry about phone calls and text messages,” Darlington said.

Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, said he's been very engaged with athletic directors and coaches in his league and others on the matter of early signing days and visits.

Overall, the MAC is “strongly in favor” of the proposals put forward, Steinbrecher said.

“We think they'll help address some of the challenges we have in the system right now, bring greater transparency,” Steinbrecher said. “The ‘for-instance' would be maybe you have a kid who's being told all along that they're one of Institution X's top recruits, and then you get to the February signing date and the prospect isn't offered a letter of intent. Under the current system, you don't have a big opportunity to come up with Plan B.

“Well, under this situation, you're being told by Institution X you're one of our guys, and come up to that first signing day, and you don't get offered, well, OK – you've got more time now to make other official visits or have other discussions and recalibrate where you think you need to be come February. I think it will in fact allow students involved to make more educated choices on where they end up and go.”

This proposal is the most comprehensive and progressive package of football recruiting legislation in the last 25 years, and Eichorst, in his fourth year leading the Nebraska Athletics Department, has been a major player.

Bowlsby commended Eichorst for his service on the Football Oversight Committee and leading both the recruiting ad-hoc working group as well as the camps and clinics subcommittee.

“He's just been a rock star in terms of going out and talking to people and trying to come up with legitimate change that is also responsive to what he heard from people out there,” Bowlsby said, “from student-athletes, from prospects, from coaches, from university administrators. I think it's fair to say we wouldn't have made the progress we've made so far without his leadership.”

Delany agreed, saying Eichorst has worked very effectively in a complex situation with other conferences, athletic directors and coaches, and has been consistent in his effort to gather information, access it and help find ways to compromise in order to improve the overall welfare of college football.

“It's always uphill when you're working inside the NCAA in the area of recruitment,” Delany said. “It's always uphill. But he's been terrific. He's been focused on making college football better.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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