College Football Recruiting: Bo Pelini is Right, Let’s Rethink National Signing Day

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Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was spot-on in the assessment of national signing day he offered to ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg:

“If somebody has offered a kid, let him sign, it’s over. That will stop some of the things that are happening — people just throwing out offers, some of them with really no intention of taking a kid.”

College football recruiting is a fascinating process. Online coverage and the proliferation of social media have rocketed high school recruits into the stratosphere, which for those unfamiliar, may seem a bit odd. My college friend and stand-up comedian Dan Soder accurately lampoons recruit-following below:

An ugly byproduct of this side to college football is how often “fans” (short for fanatics) take to social media to lambaste prospects (ergo, teenagers) for having a change of heart. Any time a highly touted recruit de-commits after giving his verbal pledge to a program, there are sure to be trolls emerging to ask, “Do you know what commitment means?”

You can ask if high school recruits understand the meaning of commitment, but do the coaches?

Bo Pelini is right: His contemporaries hand out scholarship offers like they’re Pez. Of course, a program is not going to land every prospect it pursues, thus needs to reach out to dozens of prospects.

But how offers work in many cases now is more akin to a carpet-bombing than a strategically precise process. What develops when coaches offer far more scholarships than they have available, and there are more takers than open spots on the roster, is the ugly system known as grayshirting.

Another seamy development as recruiting becomes more competitive is the offering of scholarships to players not even in high school.

Les Miles raised eyebrows when he made an offer to eighth grader-to-be Dylan Moses in the summer of 2012. Texas quarterback Zadock Dinkelmann committed upon receiving his LSU offer while still in middle school.

Miles defended the practice in a March interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“It’s very interesting. Certainly we don’t know all the great players in the country. But those young players that are exceptional – when you come across them, you just know it. We recognize the family, and we recognize a characteristic that they will do well academically and that they have a size and speed component that will only improve. We know they are doing well off the field. Those kind of guys, sometimes they can be young players. We’ve not shied away from them. When we can identify them, we’ve not shied away from offering them.”

Without inferring too much, it seems the logic is that once an exceptionally gifted youngster is found, it’s important to have a visible presence for when he can fill out his letter of intent on national signing day, four whole years later. And indeed, lending credence to that philosophy? Alabama offered Dylan Moses just after LSU.

Just like a verbal commitment isn’t necessarily true to the definition of commitment, a scholarship offer isn’t always an offer so much as a hedging of bets. It’s another form of gamesmanship.

At what point is spotting potential then offering to get a jump unacceptable? Certainly some would contend middle school is that point, but for those OK with such early offers, how much further can it go? I jokingly alluded to Miles’ middle school offers when writing about my newborn son. But he was born 9 pounds, 8 ounces and almost 21 inches long. I’m 6’4″ and my wife is pushing 6′. What’s to stop some intrepid recruiter from making him an offer to play tight end 18 years from now if that offer can be reneged upon at any time?

If we’re to expect commitments to be commitments, offers must be held to the same standard. If that means eliminating national signing day as Bo Pelini suggests, so be it.