Early enrollment cuts down on signing day drama
Getting a recruit to enroll in college early doesn't end the stress for football coaches.
"You have to remember, there's no letter of intent," former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said Tuesday, the day before the national signing day for high school football players. "You don't have them until they go to a class."
Early enrollment has become common in major college football, with dozens of recruits completing their high school requirements by the end of the first semester of their senior years and starting college after the winter break. This allows them to participate in spring practice and workouts in the hope of being better prepared to play as freshmen.
The most notable player to take that route this year is Gunner Kiel, a highly rated quarterback from Indiana who has already enrolled at Notre Dame - after verbally committing to Indiana University and LSU.
Kiel won't be part of any signing day drama, and for the most part much of what transpires Wednesday is a formality. The vast majority of players have made verbal commitments that will be honored.
According to the so-called experts, national champion Alabama is putting together another stellar class, Urban Meyer has Ohio State competing with Michigan for best in the Big Ten, and Meyer's old school, Florida, is having a big year on the recruiting trail following a mediocre one on the field.
Some top-notch recruits who have left coaches and fans guessing and hoping will reveal their choices Wednesday.
Among the uncommitted most wanted are Dorial Green-Beckham, a wide receiver from Springfield, Mo., Eddie Goldman, a defensive lineman from Washington, D.C., and Tracy Howard, a defensive back from Miramar, Fla.
As for Kiel, he surprised many when he enrolled at Notre Dame about a month after committing to LSU in December. He had made a similar nonbinding verbal commitment to the Hoosiers in June.
By getting to South Bend early, Kiel can start competing to be the starter for coach Brian Kelly next season. Southern California's Matt Barkley and Baylor's Robert Griffin III are just two examples of the many quarterbacks who went from early enrollees to freshman starters.
While early enrollment has had a profound effect on player development, Neuheisel, who will be part of CBS Sports Network's signing day coverage, isn't sure if it is what's best for the teenager. In fact, he'd like the NCAA to ban early participation by January enrollees.
"They come in alone," he said. "They don't have a freshmen class to be part of. I think the adjustment period is rather lonely."
He said it takes an especially mature teenager to handle it. Former Illinois coach Ron Zook, who will be joining Neuheisel as a signing day analyst for CBS Sports Network, agreed.
"I don't think it's for everyone," he said.
Zook, who coached Florida for three seasons and Illinois for seven, said conversations about early enrollment are typically started by the players.
First the coaches must determine that a student-athlete can make it work academically. Then they need to help with that lonely adjustment. Often that means allowing players to participate in end of high school events such as graduation and prom.
"A lot of times, it's more for the parents," Zook said.
Aside from getting players ready to play sooner, early enrollment also provides another benefit for college football programs.
If a recruit enrolls in January and attends class, he can be counted toward the previous year's recruiting class. Programs can hand out no more than 25 scholarships per year and have a total of 85 scholarship players on the roster.
A program that is well below 85 scholarship players on the roster can rebuild with the help of early enrollees. Lane Kiffin used this approach to restock USC's depleted roster during his first two seasons with the Trojans.
Zook and Neuheisel both said they never made a decision to offer a scholarship based on whether a player could enroll early.
And considering how stressful it can be, it's no surprise.
Former Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was a huge recruit for Zook out of Washington, D.C., who enrolled in college early.
"I wasn't comfortable," Zook said, "until he went to his first class."
Copyright 2012 by News4Jax.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.