Luke DeCock

DeCock: Signing day highlights flaws in football recruiting

Signing day is great because it’s the one day on the entire football recruiting calendar when you can believe anything anyone says, if only briefly.

It’s the one day coaches and players actually have to make a legitimate commitment to each other in the entire messed-up recruiting process, which makes it a welcome relief after 11 months of speculation, subterfuge and shenanigans.

Not surprisingly, efforts to add an early signing period that would remove some of this drama, or at least move it to the summer, have so far failed. There’s an entire industry that profits from the uncertainty, not to mention some of the biggest football powers, who routinely target other schools’ recruits.

Wednesday passed quickly and quietly for the Triangle schools, with Duke wrapping up its class before lunchtime, ranked fifth in the ACC in the 247 composite rankings and 33rd nationally. North Carolina finished sixth and N.C. State ninth in the ACC, with no last-minute surprises.

There were plenty of those elsewhere. There’s something about the football process that seems to bring out the worst in just about everyone, how the battle for elite prospects – for “Alabama-type recruits,” to coin a phrase – has degenerated into a mudfight of meaningless verbiage like “soft verbal,” “non-committal offer,” “grayshirting” and “decommitment.”

Without the early signing period that exists in other sports, even if a football prospect wanted to sign a letter of intent earlier, Wednesday is the first day he’s allowed to do it and send it in. The interim period from verbal commitment to signing day becomes open season, as other coaches try to “flip” prospects – and enough flip to make it worth their while.

“Just because they’re committed doesn’t mean they’re signed, as we all are aware of,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “That just means they’ve got a bulls-eye on their back for everybody else now.”

It’s a two-way street. For every kid that changes his mind at the last minute, there’s a scholarship offer that mysteriously vanishes as a school’s needs change.

The ACC has consistently pushed for an early signing period that would partially defuse the process by putting things in writing perhaps as early as August, when the majority of prospects have already made a decision anyway. Moving up the calendar would certainly introduce new variables into the equation – summer recruiting visits? – but forcing players and schools to honor their commitments to each other earlier would far outweigh any negatives.

That proposal has gone nowhere with the College Commissioners Association, the nebulous body that administers the National Letter of Intent, stymied by an unlikely coalition of recruiting powers that benefit from a longer process – the SEC in particular – and schools that routinely recruit ineligible players as juniors in hopes their academic profiles will improve as seniors.

“There needs to be an early signing opportunity to slow down this trend of your word not meaning anything both ways,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Wednesday. “And it’s happening both ways.”

Even on Wednesday, when words finally become reality, it’s still hard to know much because recruiting is such an inexact science. In the big, big picture, the schools that fare the best in recruiting rankings do tend to fare the best on the field, but the closer you dig down the less correlation there is. Things get even hazier in terms of individual player rankings, especially once you get beyond the best of the best.

On Wednesday, coaches can spin a class any which way round they like: top-rated or underrated, quantity or quality, protected the state or showed national appeal, filled needs or took best players available. No one really knows. And no one will really know for four or five years.

A cynic might even argue that the constant shuffling of ratings and rankings is designed to drive traffic to subscription websites that – gasp! – thrive on the drama.

Fedora made the most honest statement of the entire day when asked what he was most excited about Wednesday: “That it’s over.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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