With early signing period approaching, Illinois FCS focused on building rosters

This year’s early signing window is Dec. 21-23. The traditional signing day is Feb. 1, 2023. (YouTube image)

By Dan Verdun

Five years ago, the NCAA allowed an additional period for athletes to sign their national letters of intent prior to the traditional February National Signing Day.

This year, that period was pushed back to Dec. 21-23. Both recruiting analysts and coaches expect it to be quite active.

“I think you could make it Thanksgiving, and you’re still going to have a large majority of kids signing,” veteran recruiting analyst “Edgy” Tim O’Halloran told Prairie State Pigskin. “I would assume the reason it was pushed back was to eliminate the amount of coaching changes that have an impact on signings. Hopefully most of your personnel moves have been made by then. That’s just my guess.”

In addition, the college football season has nearly wrapped up with the FCS level deep into the playoffs and the FBS playing out its bowl game schedule.

“Edgy” Tim O’Halloran

O’Halloran said the early commitments have increased each year and that the trend is likely to continue.

“Now, more than ever, kids are sprinting to sign and lock in versus the first year it was in place. Back then, it was around 70-some percent (who committed early). It went from 70 to 80-percent the next year. It’s just going to continue to climb,” he said.

The biggest reason for the shift from the first Wednesday of February date is obvious to O’Halloran.

“(High school) kids are going to be scared with what’s going on with the transfer portal,” he said. “They want to make sure that they’re securing their spot. I’d be shocked if the (early commitment) numbers didn’t go higher this year.”

Meanwhile, mid-year junior college transfers may sign through Jan. 15, 2023.

In a field crowded with prep recruits and transfers, social media is littered with commitment posts.

Coaches’ approval

The early signing date is a big hit with Illinois FCS coaches.

“I didn’t know if I was going to like it (initially), but what I like about it is that it sets the table and kids can’t be wishy-washy. Because if they are and don’t sign (early), they just told you they’re not coming . . . You hold their feet to the fire,” Illinois State head coach Brock Spack said.

Spack took over the ISU program in Dec. 2008 after being Joe Tiller’s defensive coordinator at Purdue. In 2021, Spack became Illinois State’s all-time leader in coaching victories.

“Here’s what I like about it, being in Power 5 all those years, signing day became an absolute circus. It became like the (NFL) draft. Being a football purist, I don’t think that’s the way football should be,” he said.

Myers Hendrickson

Myers Hendrickson just completed his first season as head coach at his alma mater, Western Illinois.

“We will continue to sign high school players in our program, and I do believe the signing date is positioned in the correct place for this,” Hendrickson said. “I am excited about the future of our program, and I think continuing to examine and find the right number of high school signees, along with incoming transfers, is the best route.”

Nate Griffin is the recruiting coordinator at Southern Illinois under head coach Nick Hill. Like Spack and Hendrickson, he likes the December signing period.

“In the past when the early signing period did not exist, you had to continually recruit your guys all the way until the February signing day,” Griffin said. “That meant you were going to see them every week, and stay in constant communications. You also have to think about the players and their families constantly having to deal with coaches calling, trying to visit them in their homes.

“So now both parties can be done with the process by December. The players can focus on the rest of their year and the holidays, and coaches can focus on their teams.”

Transfer portal fallout

As indicated earlier, the transfer portal has been a game changer with far-reaching implications.

“I’ve talked to a number of people who say once you open that door it’s never going to get closed, and you just don’t know. You might wake up tomorrow and have six kids who decide they’re leaving,” O’Halloran said. “You just don’t know. It’s tough to manage.”

Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson has seen certainly this management challenge. Following his first year coaching the Panthers, 11 players entered the transfer portal.

This is not a unique situation — SIU has four players in the portal, ISU has seven and WIU has 18.

“Those numbers often include walk-ons,” Spack noted.

Nevertheless, staffs must adjust their recruiting amid very fluid circumstances.

(Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

“The NCAA is continuing to look at things like the total number of official visits and all these unforeseen circumstances,” Wilkerson said. “They limit you. There’s a reason they do that, and it’s the right reason, but all of the sudden you have some more players leave, there’s really not a formula built (in) where if you had one leave, you can add one more on the official visit or two for every one because the chance of you — wherever you’re at — yielding 100 percent of the kids you offer is very slim.

“There are a lot of moving pieces to it.”

Yet, all pieces, or players, aren’t necessarily moving.

“When you look at the percentages so far, less than half of the kids that go in the portal end up getting placed,” O’Halloran said.

Consequently, those athletes wind up with an abrupt end to their playing careers and no scholarship to pay for their education.

“You better damn well know (someone is going to sign you as a transfer),” O’Halloran said. “You’d better have a school telling you, ‘hey, if you do go in the portal, we’re grabbing you. You’ve got an offer waiting for you.’

“Outside of that, you’d better damn well be sure of what you’re doing.”

The death knell of JUCO football?

The transfer portal has also impacted junior college football — and not in a good way.

“I’ve talked to a handful of JUCO coaches and their thinking is this is going to kill JUCO football,” O’Halloran said. “It was already on life support.”

Though it recently won its second straight NJCAA Division III national championship, the College of DuPage is the only junior college playing football in Illinois.

“A couple years ago they (D3) had around 40 teams playing, now they’re down to 13,” O’Halloran said. “The Division I level of JUCO is down to about 40 teams. At one point, there were over 100.”

Trickle-down effect?

O’Halloran sees a positive for the FCS level in the transfer portal era.

“They’re (FBS programs) offering kids early and then they’re coming back and saying we’re filled up (because of transfer portal signees),” he said. “Those players could wind up in FCS, which is good for our Illinois schools.”

So, no matter what time of year it is, coaching staffs soldier on.

“Recruiting is 24/7, 365 days a year,” Wilkerson said. “It’s the lifeblood of every program.”

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