Coaches and recruits facing new challenges for first early signing period

The 2017 coaching carousel was wild (2:29)

Jimbo Fisher stunningly left Florida State for Texas A&M. Scott Frost returned to his alma mater. And Tennessee couldn't get out of its own way. Check out all of the drama from the 2017 college football coaching carousel. (2:29)

Years of disagreement and months of work toward compromise brought us to this week in college football.

For the first time in the modern era of the sport, high school seniors can sign letters of intent before the traditional February recruiting bonanza. The early signing period, long awaited and much debated, runs Wednesday through Friday.

It promises to provide new obstacles for coaches and recruits alike. Already has, in fact.

"I didn't like it when we did it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said last week. "I don't like it now. ... I don't see how it benefits anybody."

Interviews with all interested parties revealed that despite months to prepare, most schools still don't know exactly what to expect this week.

Coaches nationally hope to collect the signatures of nearly all of their committed players. Every program in the top 25 of the latest ESPN rankings for the Class of 2018 counts at least 12 pledges.

But it's not been a smooth road to Wednesday.

"You learn a lot about coaches in a time like this," said defensive end K.J. Henry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the No. 5-rated prospect in the ESPN 300.

Henry plans to announce his college choice Wednesday during the two-hour National Signing Day Special (2:30 ET on ESPNU and ESPN App). He's considering College Football Playoff participants Clemson, Georgia and Alabama in addition to South Carolina and Virginia Tech.

With coaches stretched thin while recruiting on a short clock and, you know, coaching, in many cases, Henry said this month has offered a window into their minds.

"If you're one of the guys the guys they're coming to see," he said, "essentially, you know you're one of the priorities."

Consider the schedule of Troy coach Neal Brown. If he had 36 hours in every day of these past three weeks to do his job, it might not have felt like enough time. No period in his three seasons as a head coach has matched the craziness of this December.

The early signing period is the culprit.

"It's here, so we're playing," Brown said. "The rules have been set. My only hope is that it's a positive for Troy."

Troy won at Arkansas State on Dec. 2 to secure a share of the Sun Belt crown. The Trojans beat North Texas 50-30 on Saturday in R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl to cap an 11-2 season.

But Brown received only one weekend in December to bring recruits to campus ahead of the early signing period.

Many other programs had three such weekends.

"I think it puts us at a distinct disadvantage," Brown said.

But he's not here to complain.

"The old recruiting model wasn't working," he said "So many things had changed in recruiting -- from how early it starts, to how we communicate with student-athletes."

Legislators have long heard the same message. The Collegiate Commissioners Association last spring approved the December signing period after considering several proposals, prompted by the passage of widespread recruiting reform by the Division I Council. April 2018 brings the introduction of early official visits.

The system has been updated. In theory, it should work more smoothly for prospects and coaches. In practice, it has encountered a few speed bumps.

Brown's feelings about the early signing period are the norm among coaches, who generally aren't fond of surprises.

Inevitably, there will be surprises this week -- last-minute flips and decommitments, delayed decisions and cold feet with the option still available to sign in February. Expect chaos, coaches said, in part because nobody in the business has experienced a signing period at this time.

"It's just turned December into an absolute nightmare for coaches, I would imagine," said Gary Barnett, the retired former coach of Northwestern and Colorado. "And I'm hearing that from some of my buddies who are still in it."

The early signing December period, no doubt, contributed to a wild year of coaching movement. Firings began earlier this fall, and administrators felt a heightened urgency to fill openings with Dec. 20 on the horizon.

Though faced with pressures to pick their schools more quickly, players largely have avoided the chaotic environment endured by coaches.

"Most of the recruits I know just want to get [the decision] out of the way," Henry said. "You get in those later weeks, when you have your couple schools, you can just decide and get on with your life."

Recruits' perspectives figure to shift in January if the coaching carousel regains speed. NFL firings at the end of the league's regular season, which regularly impacts the college coaching landscape, has never fallen after a signing period -- until next month.

What to make of a committed prospect who opts to wait until February, citing worry that his position coach or chief recruiter might leave the school in January? The player has a valid concern.

Nevertheless, some head coaches have said they plan to re-evaluate their commitment to pledges who forego the December opportunity.

"That just tells us maybe there's little a pause in their thinking," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said recently. "And in turn, it will cause a pause in our thinking."

If tasked to navigate an early signing period, Barnett, who last coached in 2005, said he would have "gotten away for three to four days with everybody" on the football staff -- 25 to 30 people -- to "brainstorm potential issues."

"And then I'd sit down and try to solve those problems," he said. "Because once you put something new in like this, it's going to take two to three years before the dust settles and everybody understands it."

Current coaches are simply resigned to figuring the signing period out on the fly.

"I haven't talked to a coach who's happy with it," Saban said. "... But we're dealing with it. It is what it is."

They'll soon learn what it is because the early signing period, for better or worse, is here.

Tom VanHaaren contributed to this story.