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College football has a new early signing period. Here’s what that means for Virginia

The when, the what, and the why for this week

Virginia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

College football coaches will get to open their Christmas presents a few days early this year, as 2017 becomes the first season for committed players to sign their letters of intent before the calendar turns over.

Here’s what you need to know.

Starting Wednesday, verbal commitments can become official commitments.

We’re all familiar with the recruiting calendar that has been in place for years. A rush of verbal commitments in August before prospects start their senior seasons, with another in December once high school playoffs wrap up.

Then came the main event: the year’s biggest day for baseball caps, puppies, even skydiving. National Signing Day. The only day it’s appropriate for grown folk to obsessively refresh an 18-year-old’s social media feeds.

This year, that’s changing. For three days—Wednesday, December 20th through Friday, December 22nd—players can put pen to paper and officially close their recruitment. (#respectmydecision.)

Players can still sign in February—but most will sign this week.

The expectation for most programs is that around 75% of their recruiting class will opt into the early signing period. For Virginia, that comes to about 15 or 16 recruits. (We’ll have more tomorrow about which ones we’ll be expecting to see sign.)

While players who don’t lock in their verbal commitment are not in any way precluded from ending up at that school eventually, they will be seen as flippable targets for other programs. The prevailing view as voiced by one Power Five coach who spoke to SB Nation’s Bud Elliott: “If you’re verbally committed and you don’t sign, you’re not committed.”

Why wouldn’t a player sign if they are in fact committed?

For the players who are rock-solid to their school of choice, there could still be reasons they want to hold out. Some schools do signing day ceremonies for all their players, and those ceremonies may be pegged to the traditional signing day calendar. Players may want to wait and participate in that ceremony with their teammates who are still deciding.

Admissions decisions are another potential stumbling block for early signees, especially at the more academically rigorous schools. A player who has not been able to get their test scores up may be waiting on a late exam score. The most recent administration of the ACT, for instance, was December 9th, with about a two-week turnaround for scores. If a player is relying on that exam, they won’t know their score until after the early signing period ends. Same for first-semester senior-year grades.

If the old system was working, why change it?

A lot of coaches thought the old system wasn’t working. Players who had made their decisions early and were 100% certain about that decision would still get hounded for months by coaches at other programs—especially if the recruit had a strong senior season or a really good camp circuit. That created an expectation that coaches would expend time, energy, and money continuing to recruit players they’d already landed.

Now, the universe of players who will feel that pressure is much smaller. Guys who came on strong over the past year (or who have faded and are being recruited over) will be able to evaluate their offers with more clarity about their future and each program’s needs. Coaches will be able to lock in most of their classes and focus on specific needs that become apparent through departures for the NFL Draft, outbound transfers, or whiffs on recruiting targets who commit elsewhere in December.

Of course there are drawbacks. Schools that underwent a coaching change in early December will be even farther behind the eight ball when three-quarters of the national talent pool is gone by New Year’s. And a late bloomer may find there’s no room at the inn for their program of choice.

OK, so how does this affect Virginia?

Bronco Mendenhall spent a good portion of his National Signing Day press conference in February railing against the culture of dramatic signing-day reveals. His program, he said, probably wouldn’t ever be a big player in that “reality TV” world, since the culture and mindset he’s tried to instill at Virginia is “less drama, more work.”

As a result, most of the UVA class has been locked in for a while. The coaching staff has gotten much quicker at offering scholarships early, once they recognize talent they value. And players who chose Virginia before the 2017 season were buying into the culture, the philosophy, and the fit of the program, instead of merely chasing recent success.

Now the coaching staff can hit the road with a bowl appearance on their resume, focusing on the last few spots that need attention.