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Welcome to the era of the Early Signing Period

Does Washington benefit from the December signing period?

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington
Chris Petersen is a busy man as the early signing period and the Fiesta Bowl are both approaching.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA last April implemented a series of new rules changes that affected how FBS programs across the country are allowed to execute their football recruiting operations. These rules affected things like staffing, prospective student athlete (PSA) communications and signing class sizes.

The most disruptive change may well have been the installation of a three-day early signing period in December. That signing period commences this Wednesday (Dec 20) and continues through Friday (Dec 22).

You think your holidays are crazy? Imagine having to prepare for a bowl game, close out a recruiting class AND get all of your Santa shopping done all before next weekend.

Yeah, good luck with that.

In seriousness, there has been much debate as to whether or not the early signing period is in the best interests of student athletes or the programs that recruit them. Like everything else in the world of college football, I suppose that the beauty of the early signing period lies in the eyes of the beholder.

For the more prominent of college football programs, it allows for the opportunity to leverage the bully pulpits that their respective programs are built upon to try to get their first choices locked up early. Highly valued prospects can get signed with less overall risk to falling victim to being flipped due to things like new coaching staffs taking over at different programs or the sentimentality of homesickness settling in.

4* QB Jacob Sirmon has one of the strongest arms in this year’s crop of incoming quarterbacks.

It might be the case that less prominent programs benefit disproportionately from the early signing period. After all, it allows them the opportunity to lock up their own “Plan A” prospects before one of the more prominent programs, such as an Alabama or Notre Dame, make them a late “Plan B” offer when one of their own situations don’t pan out.

There is an even bigger advantage built in for those programs that don’t happen to be playing in a college bowl game. The early signing period, as you can tell, falls smack dab in the middle of bowl season when many coaches are focused on game planning and team preparations. Those that are not so engaged have nothing but time on their hands to host officials and make in-home visits to prospects that they are trying to close on. The power of persuasion can be especially motivating and the coaches that have time on their hands by definition have more of an opportunity to exercise it.

Consider the Oregon Ducks situation. Yesterday, they lost in the Las Vegas bowl to Boise State. However, the upside is that new head coach Mario Cristobal and his staff can spend today and the rest of the week until the dead period kicks in blitzing the recruiting trail and reinforcing what looks like a class on the verge of falling apart. That is probably a net positive for Oregon overall, even if it did have to burn the last weekend before the early signing period playing a game.

Disadvantages for both the program and the PSA exist in such a system. The game theory calculations, for instance, are inherently more difficult for a PSA and his supporters to compute under these new rules. Consider the conundrum that a mid-tier recruit faces when considering taking an offer from a lower-performing FBS program that may not be there after the early signing period concludes versus holding out for a potentially better offer from a “Plan B” kind of school that may or may not ever materialize. A player of the caliber and exposure of somebody like former UW cornerback Sidney Jones might fall into such a category.

4* WR Marquis Spiker is UW’s most highly rated recruit and a highly coveted PSA among other programs.

The choice could be daunting.

For all the pros and cons that exist for players and programs alike, the early signing period is probably a net positive for Washington. Head Coach Chris Petersen oversees a recruiting strategy that focuses less on blanketing the market with uncommittable offers - strategies often employed by strong brand schools such as Notre Dame, Alabama and USC - and one that focuses more on the concepts of transparency and strength-of-relationship. One of the main tenets of the Petersen philosophy is that every offer is a firm commitment from the university to the prospect. If you accept one, it is rock solid. If you decide to defer, the offer generally remains open but could be claimed by the next person in line.

This kind of philosophy sometimes results in the sacrifice of getting “the best possible player” in exchange for attracting “the one who most wants to be here”. Given the stature of UW, these kinds of players are often high-caliber players in their own right and prime targets for more traditional powers to attempt to flip with late pushes on signing day. Indeed, Petersen has had to contend with such attempts to flip his players for the last decade given how other coaches around the nation have regarded in high esteem the scouting capabilities of he and his staff.

The early signing period takes that threat mostly off the table assuming Petersen can convince the majority of his PSAs to sign during the early period.

There are a few drawbacks to UW in deploying such a strategy. As I mentioned above, they are likely to miss out on a few highly talented players that would have otherwise come around to UW during that stretch of down time between December and February when PSAs would generally have more time and capacity to think through their options and to discuss them with their families. I also think that the UW staff, which has been in the postseason for eight straight seasons, could be somewhat exposed to the competition for top west coast recruits that comes from programs that may not be have a bowl game but who are generally viewed as solid academic and athletic options (think Cal). Finally, UW may experience difficulties in the future as the Petersen coaching tree sheds branches during the annual coaching carousel and loses assistants to other programs during this time of year.

Still, the positives outweigh the negatives for UW given their philosophy. That’s why I expect the majority of UW’s (as of now) 18 commits to sign their name on their financial agreements this week.

It might turn out to be a very Merry Christmas for Chris Petersen and Husky fans everywhere.