MADISON, Wis. — When the NCAA adopted an early signing period this offseason for Division I football, there were questions about how it would impact the recruiting cycles for every program in the country.
That signing period, which runs from Wednesday through Friday, is days away. And while plenty of unknowns remain, this much is clear: It should mean far less chaos for a program such as Wisconsin.
That is because the Badgers are expected to sign most of their 19 committed players in the 2018 recruiting class during the early signing period. Wisconsin’s coaching staff traditionally handles the bulk of its recruiting legwork well in advance, which leads to earlier commitments. Of Wisconsin’s 19 commits, 18 pledged to Wisconsin by July 6. They will have the opportunity to make good on those commitments by officially inking with the Badgers this week.
Before this season, committed prospects could not officially sign until National Signing Day in February. The regular signing period in this cycle runs from Feb. 7, which is considered National Signing Day, to April 1. The benefits of signing early, particularly for longtime commits, is to get the process over with and begin obtaining paperwork for workouts that will help them be better prepared for joining the college team. For those who will enroll early, it provides an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment before leaving for college.
“I think it could be beneficial for anybody if you’re really doing a good job of being honest and recruiting good football players and good kids,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “If the guys that you’re recruiting are really honest and working with you, then I think it’s pretty simple. And I think it makes sense. … We are kind of that. So I think it’s a good thing for us.”
By securing commitments during the early signing period, it also prevents other programs from attempting to poach those prospects as National Signing Day approaches. A big-name program may be waiting on several 4- and 5-star prospects to make their college decisions. If those commitments fall through, other programs traditionally have adjusted their recruiting boards and pursued top players elsewhere.
“There’s kind of a domino effect just like with coaching changes,” BadgerBlitz.com editor Jon McNamara said. “If a kid de-commits, then Ohio State, they’re looking at the next guy on their board. There’s a kind of pecking order that’s out there. Wisconsin has been in a lot of situations where they’ve had a kid committed for a long time, and if that home-state school comes calling, that gives them something to talk about.”
One example in the 2018 Wisconsin recruiting class could be running back Nakia Watson, who has dominated the Texas high school football scene for Austin Westlake during his senior season. Wisconsin represented Watson’s only Power 5 conference scholarship offer at the time of his commitment. But as he has bulldozed his way through the state playoffs, it could allow top in-state programs such as Texas or Texas A&M to take notice. Signing him this week would quell those fears.
“In years past, that could cause pause,” Badger247.com writer Ben Worgull said. “Wisconsin had really done their homework on him. Ted Gilmore had gone down, watched his film and recruited him. They got him up here on his campus visit. They got his commitment.
“They had done so much work for him. And then to lose someone at the 11th hour because an in-state school offered him would be crushing. This early signing period, if you get him to sign on the 20th, none of that matters anymore. He’s locked into Wisconsin.”
One prospect who was tempted to pursue a home-state offer was defensive lineman Bryson Williams (Lincoln, Neb.). He committed to Wisconsin on July 5 but received a Nebraska offer from new coach Scott Frost on Dec. 3. Williams ultimately reaffirmed his commitment to Wisconsin last week, will sign on Wednesday and enroll in school a semester early.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was asked recently about the importance of the early signing period for the Badgers.
“I think it’s always important when you go out and you recruit a class and you feel certainly good and excited about the group that you have joining, and when they sign, it’s officially done,” Chryst said. “I think we’re all going through this for the first time. How does this early signing change the process or what people are going through? But it was good getting back out on the road, and we’ve just got to do a good job the next days or weeks that it is and finish what we’re excited about.”
Another beneficial aspect of the early signing period is that it provides each program with a good indicator of where it stands with committed players. If a Wisconsin commit chooses not to sign in December and doesn’t have a good reason why he intends on waiting, it could alter the Badgers’ thoughts on him.
In this recruiting class, quarterback Chase Wolf (Cincinnati) plans to wait until February so he can sign with classmates at a big school ceremony. But Worgull said someone such as wide receiver A.J. Abbott (West Bloomfield, Mich.) may not sign early, and it’s unclear what the long-term plans are with him.
In addition to gaining a better feel for Wisconsin’s own class, the Badgers will be able to examine which uncommitted players remain between the end of December and early February. Wisconsin still has one or two spots it can fill in the 2018 recruiting class and likely will pivot to try to land other prospects. Included in that group are wide receiver John Jackson (Gardena, Calif.), cornerback Jairus Brents (Louisville, Ky.) and safety Dallas Craddieth (Florissant, Mo.). McNamara said Jackson is scheduled to take an official visit Jan. 20.
“By having this early signing period, you’re able to get these kids signed and then do your bowl game and in the month of January leading up to National Signing Day, you’re able to focus solely on those final pieces to your class,” Worgull said. “Those cherries on top, so to speak. Those elite players who are still going through the process, weighing their options. Maybe another school like Alabama, which is on a ton of those kids, has to spread its resources a little bit thinner than a Wisconsin does.”
All of this remains uncharted territory for college programs that are working through how to handle the early signing period and the weeks that follow. But Badgers coaches should feel good about most of their commits signing and then will be able to hone in on making the group even better to close out the 2018 class.
“It’ll be really interesting to see what happens after Dec. 20,” McNamara said. “It’s just a whole new ball game. It’s like a mini-recruiting window. A lot of kids will start fresh from there if schools say, ‘We don’t want you anymore because you didn’t sign’ or if they had cold feet for whatever reason.
“A school like Wisconsin is in a really good position right now. They’ve been in the news because of the College Football Playoff. They’re a recognizable team. They can go to a lot of places and say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got one or two scholarships left. We want to get you on campus. You’re a big priority for us right now.’ It wouldn’t be surprising to see them end with a bang here.”