SALT LAKE CITY — The first Wednesday in February had become a college football holiday as players made the first day of the scholarship signing period a celebration that included everything from hat selections to helicopter rides.
But there is a new wrinkle in the game this year, as the NCAA instituted an early signing period to athletes that gives players 72 hours to make that commitment official.
On the eve of the first early signing period for football, local coaches have more questions than answers about what this will mean for recruiting and whether it is a good thing for either student-athletes or the programs they hope to represent.
“I think everyone is still learning about it,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s still new to everybody, obviously.”
Whittingham said that affection for the new signing date, which occurs while FBS teams are preparing for bowl games and while FCS playoffs are occurring, may depend on where a team is at in the pecking order.
“What I can gather from it is that it benefits the schools that maybe don’t have the ability to select whoever they want,” he said. “And maybe it’s a bit of a detriment to schools that are at the very top of the thing. That’s my early take on it, but, again, it’s my first time through.”
Utah State head coach Matt Wells has been pleasantly surprised at the number of players taking advantage of the early signing opportunity.
"If you asked me three weeks ago, I'd have said just a couple will sign," he said. "Now all of a sudden, we'll only have a few left (unsigned). ...I think this is going to become the new signing day."
BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb said that deciding how to approach the early signing period has been complex.
“There is some uncertainty for us,” Lamb said. “We’ve had to work through some concerns. We’ve had to decide how much pressure to put on recruits to actually sign early. If a committed player doesn’t want to sign early, then clearly there is a problem with the commitment, in the way we’ve decided to define commitment.”
One issue is that, in the past, players have been able to offer a verbal commitment to one school, but still visit other schools without it being an indication of waffling or disloyalty. The reality is, however, many coaches know that verbal commitment to some players means something different than others. “Commitment really means, ‘You’re the best option I currently have,’” he said.
It is a delicate situation to try to discern which teens just need more time to decide or sign, and which players are only committed until something better comes along.
“It’s not as if we’re angry,” he said. “It’s just a cue for us that this player is not 100 percent for us. We’re not sure now with this new decision, do we continue to recruit this player? Do we continue to count on this player?”
Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren said there are a lot of unknowns for FCS programs.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “We don’t know how it’s going to play out, how many guys are going to be left. For us, everybody isn’t willing to sign on the first signing days. We’ll see who the big schools go after, who signs, and then, if (those schools) fall back to a lot of the guys we are interested in. It will be interesting.”
The coaches agree that it’s created a bit more urgency and pressure in recruiting while teams are still playing.
“It’s a lot more stressful,” Warren said. “We’ve had a lot of late nights and long conversations. It’s sped up the process a little bit.”
Wells said he prefers to juggle recruiting with bowl preparation.
"It's been warp speed," he said of the past month. "Playing in a bowl game, recruiting, to me it's been really fun, challenging and energizing. It's really rewarding to see the class signing (this week). ...It's a great problem to have."
Lamb said that BYU feels like the change will be positive because it brings certainty six weeks sooner.
“We’re all really excited about it,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to end the process of recruiting for those players who want to end it. For us as coaches, we can’t wait to call them Cougars and start working on the next steps for them.”
That's exactly what led Lone Peak offensive tackle Connor Pay to make his commitment to the Cougars official Wednesday morning.
"It's nice to solidify your future," said the 6-foot-5 senior, who plays basketball and baseball, "just knowing where you're going to go."
Despite verbally declaring himself a BYU commit in June, he said coaches began recruiting him again after Ty Detmer was fired.
"After the firing of coach Detmer, a lot of schools were hitting me up wanting me to come there," Pay said. "At the end of the day, I fell in love with BYU. It’s been my dream school since I was little. It felt right for me to go to BYU. I’m ready to sign, ready to be a Cougar."
All of the local schools expect to sign players during the early signing period, but it’s the ripple effect — and the strategies it may spawn — that remains to be seen.
“Everybody in America is anticipating a very important recruiting re-strategy meeting day after the early signing date,” Lamb said. “We are hoping the number of players we sign on the early signing date is something that puts us in the category of the top programs in the country.”
Whittingham said he feels good about where the Utes are on the eve of this first early signing period.
“We are where we are,” he said. “We’re at a Power Five school. We don’t have the ability to select (players) like Ohio State or Alabama; we’re not in that position. But we feel like we’re in pretty good shape.”
All of the schools will be announcing new signings as they happen on their websites, and BYUtv will air a signing day special Wednesday afternoon. Wells plans a press conference to talk about the newly signed Aggies. Coaches understand the importance of celebrating these signings, as players and fans have come to see this first signing opportunity as one of the most highly-anticipated aspects of college football.
“Right now, we’re planning on doing two signing day specials,” Lamb said. “Players are excited about that.” Warren, who earned co-Big Sky Coach of the Year honors this season, said they’ll see how the next few days shakes out before deciding if this will help or hurt their efforts.
“Some parts of it are good for us,” he said. “We’re going to sign a couple of guys that the bigger schools might try to come back and get, and they won’t be there. …It’s all kind of wait and see. I don’t think anybody has a handle on it yet.”