These days, college football recruiting is more about building a big lead and protecting it than mounting a late rally before the clock strikes zero on the first Wednesday in February.
Scholarship offers and commitments are occurring earlier than ever, well before either the question or the answer becomes official. Michigan's 2014 recruiting class, ranked 18th nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, included only one player who verbally committed after the 2013 season kicked off. Tennessee's massive class, ranked fifth nationally, had 14 mid-year enrollees.
NC State and Boston College each recorded 20 commits for the 2014 class before the end of last June. Penn State and West Virginia reached double digits in commits for the 2015 class before the end of March.
Any coach focusing solely on the 2015 class right now is in trouble. If you're not working ahead -- to 2016, 2017 and perhaps beyond -- you're probably falling behind.
"Everything's sped up," NC State coach Dave Doeren said. "Kids make decisions faster and as coaches, all of us across the country are under the same gun, recruiting these players you want in your program. We can't really pick. They decide when they're going to commit."
There are pros and cons to early recruiting. By making their choices, prospects can alleviate stress and enjoy their final months of high school. Coaches can work ahead on future classes with a better idea of how their rosters will shape up.
But there are risks, too. The earlier scholarships are offered, the less information programs often have, not only about a prospect's physical development but his academics and maturity level. Some teams load up early and pay for it later.
Last week, Maryland coach Randy Edsall outlined a proposal to delay both written and verbal offers to recruits until Sept. 1 of their senior year in high school. Edsall's plan aims to broaden the evaluation process and reduce the number of decommitments and transfers.
"I've offered some freshmen," Edsall said. "I hate doing it, it's not right, but this is what we have to do. Coaches say all the time, 'I wish we had a chance to know these kids a little bit better.' You could do that if you followed something like this. It's not about getting on [prospects] earlier. That's where you make the mistakes. It's about slowing the process down, let the process play out the way we're supposed to."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones didn't enter the 2014 recruiting cycle determined to land a load of early commitments. But when several decorated in-state prospects pledged early -- ESPN 300 players Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd both committed last March -- it set the course for the class.
Many of Tennessee's recruits took three or four unofficial visits to campus as high school underclassmen. Their official visits as seniors became mere formalities.
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