College Football. National Signing Day.

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national signing dayCollege Football Recruiting, National signing Day.

National Signing Day, which is college football’s equivalent to mass ceremonies being held at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas, is still 22 days away. And yet on campuses all across the United States, many future All-Americans or at least future starters have already enrolled or will do so this week.

At Louisville Charlie Strong welcomed three new players to his program when classes began a week ago last Monday. Notre Dame will have five future Fighting Irish players on its roster, including four-star offensive lineman Steve Elmer, when spring semester classes commence today. Alabama, which crushed the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game just eight days ago, welcomed six recent high school graduates to Tuscaloosa when spring semester classes got underway last Wednesday. Two of last January’s early Tide enrollees, wide receiver Amari Cooper and tailback T.J. Yeldon, played significant roles in Alabama’s run to its third national championship in four years this season.

If so many high school studs are able to enroll with full scholarships before National Signing Day (NSD), why has it become so sacrosanct as a secular (or is that SEC-ular?) national holiday?

“A lot of it is hype based on tradition,” says Clemson associate athletic director Tim Bourret, who has been a part of that university’s athletic department for more than three decades. “Graduating from high school early and enrolling for the spring semester is more of a recent phenomenon in the last 10 or so years.”

National Signing Day occurs on the first Wednesday of February –this year it will be February 6. That is the earliest date that high school seniors are allowed to make a binding, written agreement to an institution by signing a National Letter of Intent. College football historians, take note: the National Letter of Intent program began in 1964 and is a fully voluntary program. Prospects are not obligated to sign an NLI nor are schools required to offer them, although 627 Division I and Division II programs do so.

Also, history buffs, note that former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier is considered to be the first early enrollee, back in January of 1991 after graduating from Marietta (Ga.) High School in mid-year.

Those few students who enroll at the semester break do not sign an NLI, nor will they ever. Players such as Elmer or Louisville’s Finesse Middleton or Penn State five-star tight end Adam Brenneman, have first and foremost, graduated from high school. All of them sign what is known as an “institutional athletic aid agreement”, or what most of us refer to as an athletic scholarship.

Prospects who sign a National Letter of Intent on February 6 (or later…remember Terrelle Pryor, or Jadeveon Clowney?) sign both that form as well as the aforementioned institutional athletic aid agreement. By signing the NLI, the prospect and institution commit fully to one another for a full academic year (scholarships are one-year renewable contracts).

However, the most important aspect of the NLI is that it serves as a hands-off to other schools. Institutions are prohibited from contacting a prospect who has signed an NLI in those final months of his senior year. Of course, an outside institution may not contact a mid-year enrollee, either, since that student is now enrolled at a university.

In short, and in terms every high school senior can understand, the months or even years leading up to National Signing Day are just a form of jockeying, both by the institution and the student-athlete, to see who they will be able to take to the prom. National Signing Day is prom night.

However, those student-athletes who have already enrolled after the Christmas break have arrived at the prom early and with their dates. Ironically, most of them will next return to their actual high schools to attend the prom, but that’s another matter entirely.

If you are a student-athlete who is able to graduate at mid-year and have a chance to enroll in January, the greatest benefit to you is being able to acclimate to college life a full semester early. Although, on the flip side, that may be a lonely adjustment period. Most prospects, though, will not enroll until the following summer, and hence those student-athletes will sign a National Letter of Intent. That way, the craziness of recruiting will come to an end, which is both a relief for the student-athlete and that school’s recruiting coordinator.

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