One week. That's all that separates thousands of recruits' signed National Letters of Intent from arriving in fax machines somewhere in the bowels of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, confirming that more than a dozen high school seniors will be University of Florida freshmen and football-playin' Florida Gators come the summer and fall. And, despite Florida already knowing what names will be on those NLIs, for the most part, it's gonna be a sprint to that moment.
Instead of writing a regular post that touches on a few of the big names, I'm going to try to answer every question I think Gators fans might have in just one post, in the spirit of Barking Carnival's fantastic and similar piece. I will fail, but I'm at least going to try.
What exactly is National Signing Day?
National Signing Day (often NSD for short) is the first day that a high school senior can sign a binding National Letter of Intent confirming the intent to enroll and play a scholarship sport at an NCAA member school. It's not unique to football — there are National Signing Days for other sports — but football's has been around since the early 1980s and is by far the biggest one, usually falling on the first Wednesday in February. This year's takes place on February 6, and the recruiting of 17-year-old football players is likely to be the biggest news in American sports next Wednesday because of it.
What's a National Letter of Intent? Why do recruits have to sign them? Aren't they already committed?
Basically, a National Letter of Intent (shortened to NLI) is a high school student's contract to become a NCAA student-athlete. It doesn't necessarily entitle a student to admission or to a scholarship, but it signifies that the student and the school that receives it have entered into a binding agreement to do due diligence in attempting to get that student into school and on athletic scholarship.
Recruits sign them, essentially, because they always have, and because it's a way to formally begin a paper contract-based relationship with their school and its athletic program. Recruits can commit to as many schools as they want and as often as they want up until signing an NLI, but it's hard to get out of one after it's signed; that's why this happens so late in the process. Not every recruit does sign and fax in an NLI on Signing Day — early enrollees don't need to, given that they sign one and enter into a contract when they enroll and take classes, and junior college players sign in December — but most recruits don't enroll early.
To boil it down: Every commitment in college football recruiting is a verbal commitment until the high school student sits in a college class or that National Letter of Intent is received, and that NLI is most important as a formal contract.
Binding contracts? Really? And these kids don't get paid?
I know, I know. But NCAA student-athletes sign all sorts of contracts related to their scholarships, and operate under those rules and restrictions, too. The worries about NLIs being binding to the school when players are often committing to coaches — who don't have the same contractual agreement with the players — are valid, and the irony of entering into a contract for something that's not quite income isn't lost on me. But this is the system as it currently stands, and the NCAA only recently started administering NLIs, so I'd expect them to get further entrenched before long.
How many of these letters is Florida gonna get?
Florida already has eight players on campus and enrolled in this spring semester: Incoming freshmen Alex Anzalone, Joey Ivie, Daniel McMillian, Demarcus Robinson, Matt Rolin, and Kelvin Taylor are all early-enrollee high schoolers, and JUCO players Trenton Brown, who will enroll in the summer, and Darious "Bear" Cummings, who is already on campus, are also Gators.
That leaves 17 more players that Florida currently has public commitments from, plus any additional commits from the next week. I'd guess there will be at least one or two more commitments, so that fax machine should whir more than 17 times next Wednesday.
But wouldn't that put Florida over 25 commitments? Isn't that against SEC rules? Is Florida going to break them?
In order: Yes, no, and no.
Florida will end up signing more than 25 players this year, almost certainly, and Florida's never gone over 25 players in a class before. That number matters because it was the once-mythical, now-actual bar for oversigning, a threshold that, when crossed, makes observers skeptical about how many of those scholarships will be valid for an entire career. NCAA rules allow up to 28 scholarships for "initial counters" — students getting athletic scholarship aid from an institution for the first time — per year, while SEC rules now limit schools to 25.
But here's the trick that makes even those rules, which are more stringent than previous ones and a significant improvement on a lack of rules, rather porous: "Year" doesn't mean what you think it does. It's an academic year, not a calendar year, and early enrollees enroll in the spring term of the academic year prior to the one regular high school graduates enroll in for the summer. That group of early enrollees mentioned earlier counts against Florida's 2012-13 numbers, and Florida can add seven more initial counters to its 2012 recruiting class because some of those players enrolled early, counting against 2011-12 numbers, and so on.
So, after those seven early enrollees, Florida has only 18 players in line to commit and be initial counters on the books for 2013-14, meaning that Florida can sign any combination of seven more initial counters enrolling in the Summer, Fall, and Spring 2013-14. Again, I think it's likely only a couple more players join the Gators' 2013 recruiting class, but that just leaves more room for early enrollees for the 2014 recruiting class. (Florida also needs to stay under the NCAA's 85-man scholarship limit for football, but a slew of NFL Draft entries, transfers, and early departures from the program have the Gators projected to land well under that number.)
And Florida's definitely not going to break rules on this, because Florida's held the line on oversigning for many, many years. Under Urban Meyer, Florida was actually recruiting some of the smallest classes in the SEC, and University of Florida president Bernie Machen wrote a blistering, if tin-eared, condemnation of "grayshirting" (signing a player who will not academically qualify and placing him at a preparatory school) that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 2011, planting Florida firmly on the moral high ground.
Let's go back to those early enrollees. They're really coveted, aren't they?
Absolutely, and it's not just because they allow schools to do scholarship juggling. Early enrollees get, in effect, an extra semester of their freshman year, which is an extra semester of work in the weight room, an extra spring practice to get into the swing of things with coaches, and an extra semester of time in the classroom before having to practice all the time to get players off on the right foot academically. Those are all major benefits both for players and coaches, and when you combine them with the scholarship math early enrollees enable, it's no surprise that the trend is on the rise.
And early enrollees have been around longer and doing more than you think: The last three Heisman Trophy winners were all early enrollees, with Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel getting head starts at Baylor and Texas A&M and Cam Newton doing the same at Florida, though he would later transfer, and Jeff Driskel followed Newton's lead as an early enrollee at Florida ... after Newton followed Tim Tebow's lead as an early enrollee at Florida.
So why doesn't every player just enroll early?
Because it's hard, and because those benefits often don't outweigh spending what should be a final high school semester in high school.
To enroll early, a player has to be done with high school by the beginning of his school's spring term, and, because Florida starts very, very early in January, that's tough to do, usually requiring summer school and online classes. And while that might not sound hard, remember that elite recruits who Florida and other big-time schools want are also spending their free time on football already, going to summer camps and all-star games and taking visits to the schools they want to attend. Graduating from high school early is rare and difficult for the general population; it follows that it's rare and difficult for athletes, too.
But beyond the work that needs to be done, the necessary trade of a victory lap in high school for a leg up in college dissuades some recruits from becoming early enrollees. Some of these kids (and they are kids) want to be the big men on campus for another few months, or want to go to prom, or want to be with their lifelong friends. Going away to college is scary for the general population, and most college-bound kids at least have other ones on the same schedule; going away to college early and straining or severing friendships is no less scary for a recruit, even if the benefits are obviously valuable.
There's a tendency to think of early enrollees fondly as the kids doing more for their teams from day one, and, in some ways, it makes sense. But that doesn't make non-early enrollees slackers, nor does it make early enrollees immune to potential homesickness and isolation that come with departing for college.
Okay, I get all that. How good is Florida's class?
It's excellent, certainly a consensus top-five class for 2013, and maybe one of the best in school history. That's partly because it's a larger class than Florida usually signs, but it's got superb quality to go with the quantity.
Vernon Hargreaves III, the nation's finest high school cornerback, is the centerpiece of the class, and he's part of a tremendous group of defensive recruits that should shore up Florida's linebacking corps and secondary for years to come. Taylor and Robinson are among the nation's best players at running back and wide receiver, respectively, and Robinson's only one of a handful of very good wide receivers on the way to reignite Florida's passing game. That both Taylor and Robinson got to campus for the spring is a great sign, too: Robinson could be competing to start as a true freshman, and Taylor's going to have every chance to compete with Florida's smallish corps of running backs for carries.
This class isn't as star-studded as Florida 2010 class, which yielded Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Dominique Easley, and Ronald Powell, or as phenomenal as 2006's legendary bunch of Gators, which counted Tebow, Percy Harvin, and Brandon Spikes in its number, but it's got a chance to be the cornerstone of Will Muschamp's roster for years to come, and is more than good enough to allow Florida to compete for SEC and national titles.
All right, yeah, whatever: Who am I waiting for between now and Signing Day?
I thought I could prevent you from asking this, but apparently I was wrong. It's a short list, though, so let's go through it as we know it.
Do you think Florida's going to land any of those guys?
With the caveat that I just read and think a lot about recruiting, I really like Florida's chances with Clark, and like Florida's chances with Timmons, Ramsey, and Reed. If Florida can get McEvoy to extend his recruitment past National Signing Day and visit Florida, I'm going to feel pretty good about Florida's chances with him, too.
You're gonna keep us updated, right?
Oh, yes. This is the first story in a StoryStream that will be updated multiple times per day between now and Signing Day, and we'll be approaching it from all angles and answering all questions. I'll probably tweet out every post that I throw in that StoryStream, but you'll want to bookmark it now and come back to it repeatedly.
Also, as always: If you've got a question, or a piece of news, the comments, Twitter, and Facebook all work to get in touch with me. I pay attention to all of them and I want to know what you want to know so I can write things you care about, so don't be afraid to ask.
Buckle up, strap in, and locate your preferred source of caffeine. There will not be much sleep to be had on this final stretch of recruiting for Florida's class of 2013.
For more on Florida football recruiting, check out all our coverage.