- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
"A lot of times, the unofficial visit becomes more important than the official visit," Jones said. "Everything is about first impressions."
NC State's staff knows unofficial visitors could walk through the door at any time.
"And that," Doeren said, "could be the day he decides."
Unofficial visits are just one way prospects accelerate the recruiting process. Highlight videos are another. Recruits travel the camp/combine circuit to showcase their skills before hundreds of college coaches.
Every college coach prefers to bring players to campus before extending offers, but they begin evaluations earlier because more information is available.
"We do our dead-level best to get him on campus, whether it's a junior day, spring ball right now, a camp," said Ole Miss tight ends coach Maurice Harris, the team's recruiting coordinator for offense. "But do we need to get him on campus before we offer him? No, that's not the case anymore."
The primary challenge for coaches is being as thorough as possible in their evaluations while being mindful of a prospect's decision-making timetable. Doeren wants to see each recruit live, whether in a high school game or at an NC State camp, before extending an offer ("You make fewer mistakes," he said). Oregon can't get as many top prospects to campus for unofficial visits because of its location, so coaches emphasize the spring evaluation period, when they hit the road to verify the vitals of each recruit.
Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich has a set of criteria that must be met before an offer is given.
"If we don't have what we need to have, we're not going to jump in the ring even if [a prospect] has 30 offers," Helfrich said. "This isn't an arranged marriage: 'I don't know you, you don't know me, let's go live together for five years.'
"By nature, we're slower than a lot of schools."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald won't offer until a prospect's academic record and character are assessed. The Wildcats completed the process early for the 2014 class, as 10 of 15 recruits committed before the end of June.
But Fitzgerald knows other programs don't have as many boxes to check.
"There's some very interesting philosophies out there: offers to offer, offers just to get in the game," he said. "A lot of kids are getting offered a scholarship and they haven't even talked to the school. It's about minimizing mistakes, and it's a lose-lose when a young person comes to your program and they don't fit academically, socially and athletically."
Position groups also impact the timetable, as well as which schools are in the mix. Tom Luginbill, ESPN's national recruiting director, identifies four positions -- quarterback, cornerback, offensive line and defensive line -- that require teams to pounce with offers as soon as prospects blossom. Teams can wait longer on running backs and receivers.
Luginbill also lists certain programs -- Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and Texas A&M are among them -- that have the luxury of patience in recruiting.
"Because of who they are and how they're viewed, it buys them a little bit of time," Luginbill said. "But it doesn't buy them much."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who has 12 10-win seasons during his 15-year tenure, doesn't feel pressure to push for early commits. He has had several classes that are halfway done by the start of the season, and others that fill up closer to signing day.
"We're not in any race," Stoops said. "It's really just as they come."
Texas long has been regarded as one of the programs that pulls the strings in recruiting, not the other way around. Along with California and Florida, Texas consistently produces the most FBS players of any state.
Former Longhorns coach Mack Brown harvested the fertile local ground with massive junior day events, held each February after national signing day. In February 2010, Texas received 13 verbal commitments for the 2011 class during its first junior day weekend. By March of that year, the Horns had 17 pledges.
Texas' entire 2011 class committed before the 2010 season. Only one player in the 2009 class committed after June 2008. Both classes ranked in the top five nationally.
But the approach drew criticism when Texas won no more than nine games from 2010-13, leading to Brown's departure.
"Kids in that state want to go to play football for the University of Texas," Luginbill said. "So you go to their camp in the seventh grade and again as an eighth grader and a ninth grader. The next thing you know, they offer ninth and tenth graders and those kids commit right away. What ends up happening is those kids don't continue to work.
"They taper off and by the time you get the kid, he hasn't gotten any better and he hasn't had any incentive to because he's been committed for three years."
The plateauing prospect or, in some cases, the declining one is the biggest risk of early offers. Michigan has piled up early commitments during coach Brady Hoke's tenure, and like Texas, has signed highly rated classes.
But after consecutive seasons of five and six losses, there's some concern whether the recruits will pan out.
"There are advantages and disadvantages," Hoke said of accelerated recruiting. "It really depends on some degree to how early is that commitment coming. I can go back through the two full classes that we've had, and I've don't know that we've had any of those [players] not be where we want them to be or what we thought they would be.
"Knock on wood."
Another risk of stockpiling early commitments is missing out on others who blossom during their senior seasons. Coaches approach these late bloomers in different ways.
Jones and Stoops set aside some scholarships in each class. Fitzgerald and Doeren, while cognizant that such players emerge every year, don't leave spots unfilled if there are others they want. Ole Miss uses a rating system for each prospect, and some end up in the wait-and-see category.
"We generally always have a few left, which I like," Stoops said. "You always find some really good players that develop in their senior year." Many prospects commit early in the process to relieve pressure on themselves and those around them. In some cases, though, it has the opposite effect.
Jones considers the verbal commitment a catalyst for other programs to ramp up their efforts. It only intensifies when coaching changes occur.
"At lot of times when an individual commits," Jones said, "the recruiting has only just begun."
While many coaching staffs spend the lead-up to national signing day working on future recruiting classes, the anxiety level always builds. Northwestern's 2014 class appeared set in mid-December, when cornerback Parrker Westphal committed. But when three recruits flipped to other schools in January, Fitzgerald had to fill their spots.
"When do you really know?" Harris asked. "If he does a signing day [announcement] on ESPN, you don't really know what he's going do. And even the guys you've got committed, you hope they sign with you, but you don't know. We recruit them as if they aren't committed because I guarantee you those other schools aren't stopping."
The increasing number of decommitments and flips before signing day, as well as the surge in transfers after prospects put pen to paper, fuels Edsall's belief that the process must be slowed down. If offers aren't made until a prospect's senior year, both sides have more information and more marriages, in theory, will last.
Luginbill thinks coaches will strongly support Edsall's plan. They would rather recruit mature prospects and focus on one class at a time. They want recruits to come to their summer camps and earn offers, rather than feel entitled to them.
"Let's just get all the information before we make a decision," Edsall said.
But regulating verbal offers and contact with underclassmen is no easy task.
"It's something to consider," Stoops said, "but in the end, I don't know how you could stop it."
Recruiting has become something of a runaway train, operated by recruits who don't have their driver's licenses, and chased by coaches who can't bear to be left behind.
"A lot of things have sped up," Doeren said. "It's not necessarily an intended result. It's just how things are."