Could the traditional National Signing Day become irrelevant?


Could the traditional National Signing Day become irrelevant?

National Signing Day is fast approaching. While diehard college football fans along with various media outlets will be following closely, one thing is for certain: This Signing Day has a much different feel compared to years past.


In case you didn't pay attention (and by the very limited national and regional media coverage and attention, you were not the only one) the Class of 2018 was the first class allowed to ink an early Letter of Intent from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22, well before the traditional first Wednesday in February.

The impact was evident locally as well as nationally. Out of the 250 players from across the country ranked in the Rivals 250, only 67 have yet to sign. In Illinois, 27 of the top 30 recruits and 60 of the top 70 recruits have already signed.

The number of Class of 2018 recruits who took advantage of the early signing period was surprisingly high, with roughly 75 percent of all Division I level recruits signing in December, according to Midwest recruiting expert Josh Helmholdt.

"My numbers show that 75 percent of all three-star ranked or higher names signed early in December," Helmholdt said. "We still have a good handful of high-profile names who will sign on Wednesday. Yet this signing day won't have nearly the same scale or scope of past signing days in February."

With a large majority of the Class of 2018 signed, the month of January has suddenly become one of the hottest recruiting periods for the underclassmen classes. Over the past few weeks we've seen a record number of early scholarships being offered weeks before even the Class of 2018 is officially signed.

"College coaches have more time now to focus on the next class," Helmholdt added. "Coaches are using this evaluation period to get ahead of the next class."

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018. 

National Signing Day 2017 Preview

National Signing Day 2017 Preview

Wednesday is National Signing Day as high school football players from the Class of 2017 sign letters of intent. Here is an early preview of what to expect in Illinois and nationwide:

How will the Class of 2017 shape up compared to previous in-state recruiting classes? 

It will be considered a very strong overall class based off recent history. Heading into the week, I identified 76 players who are expected to sign FBS letters of intent. This would be the highest amount since the Class of 2005 (80 FBS scholarships). There are also 30-40 players expected to sign FCS letters of intent. It will place the class with over 100 DI scholarships, well above the 10 year average.

Top 5 local recruits for the Class of 2017?

1. AJ Epenesa (DE) Edwardsville

Epenesa (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) has been verbally committed to Iowa since Jan. 2016 and is also the son of former Hawkeye lineman Eppy Epenesa. Obviously, Iowa had a relatively easy time recruiting and landing him.

2. Jeff Thomas (WR), East St. Louis

Thomas (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) has been a major impact player for head coach Darren Sunkett's 7A state champion Flyers since his freshman season.

3. Isaiah Robertson (S), Neuqua Valley

Robertson (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) is committed to Notre Dame and already enrolled in classes in South Bend. 

4. Kevin Jarvis (OG), Maine South

Jarvis (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) is committed to Michigan State. Jarvis showed his overall talent and versatility in 2017 by helping lead Maine South to the Class 8A state title. Jarvis was an impact player for the Hawks on both sides of the line, a rarity at the 8A level.

5. Cole Kmet (TE), St. Viator

Kmet (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) rounds out the list. He is another Notre Dame commit who has all the tools that colleges look for in an elite tight end.

Are there any top ranked recruits that will wait until National Signing Day to reveal their college choice?

All eyes will be on East St. Louis Wednesday morning. Thomas will make his college choice known via a national TV audience. The announcement is tentatively set for 9:00 a.m. Last week, Thomas narrowed down his Top 3 schools to Miami (FL), Oregon and Louisville. My best guess? Thomas will commit to the Hurricanes. 

[MORE: Edgy Tim goes 1-on-1 with Warren Township wideout Micah Jones]

When it comes to statewide talent, which positions are considered a strength?

Defensive linemen. Not too long ago, Illinois was known as a stronghold for big offensive tackles. However, over the past few years defensive linemen have taken center stage. Out of the soon-to-be-released Top 100 rankings for the Class of 2017, 22 defensive linemen made the cut. It is the largest amount of any position in the class. Offensive linemen, wide receivers and linebackers all feature at least 15 or more recruits in my Top 100.

Which position is considered a weakness in Illinois?

Quarterbacks. In the aforementioned Top 100 rankings, only four quarterbacks made the cut. No quarterbacks made the Top 20. A handful of quarterbacks will ink FCS letters of intent and the rest will fill up several NAIA/DIII rosters in 2017. It's been awhile since we've had a surplus of recruits receive FBS scholarships. However, the Class of 2018 seems to show more promise than this current group at this same stage a year ago.

Which schools will have a good National Signing Day in regards to landing students from Illinois?

I feel that Illinois did pretty well with in-state recruiting. They've landed some impact players who have a solid chance to make an immediate contribution. I also feel that Northern Illinois did well and might have landed one of their better overall in-state classes in years. I was also impressed with Iowa, Wyoming, the service academies (Army/Navy/Air Force) and also Yale. Seriously ...Yale? Yes, the Bulldogs pulled standout Marist linebacker Micah Awodiran away from several Power 5 schools. Yale also added former Iowa State commit in offensive lineman Tyler Jost.

Work to do

While hundreds of recruits will sign letters of intent on Wednesday, several still have to get going in the classroom. I know of at least 5-7 players from my Illinois Top 25 who are — at best — borderline academic qualifiers and/or need post very strong spring semesters to clear various college admissions departments.

*I will have more in-depth looks and breakdowns of all in-state FBS and FCS college recruiting classes later this week.*