The clock was ticking when Josh Heupel hit the recruiting trail in December 2017.
As the newly-minted UCF football coach, Heupel was forced to hit the ground running after taking the job about two weeks prior to the start of the first early signing period — a 72-hour window during which high school recruits have the opportunity to sign their National Letter of Intent and lock in their college choices.
Needless to say, Heupel wasn’t a fan of the change to the recruiting calendar.
“I wasn’t in Year 1 because I [had] 10 days on the job,” Heupel recalled.
But now that he’s had a full recruiting cycle to adjust, he’s warming up to the idea.
“I do like it. I think it fits the model of how recruiting has changed here in the last 10 to 15 years,” he said. “The process is starting earlier with kids. It is a long process for everyone involved. When kids know what they want to do and are comfortable with it, it’s a great way to end the process earlier.
“It allows everyone to move on.”
That’s a sentiment that appears to be shared by many of those involved in recruiting, from the coaches all the way down to the high school recruits. More than three-quarters of the projected 2019 recruiting class took advantage of the three-day window (Dec. 19-21) and signed with a college team. Those who didn’t must now wait until Feb. 6 to put pen to paper.
Much like Heupel, Florida coach Dan Mullen spent limited time before last season’s early signing period introducing himself to high school coaches and prospects after being hired on Nov. 26.
He suggested it may be too soon to grade the success of the early signing period.
“I think people are getting used to it and we’ll see,” Mullen said when asked his thoughts about teams trying to sign full classes in December. “Hard to say after Year 2, but I think you give it a couple years and see where it’s all at with opportunity. I bet it will always stay around that same number. I don’t know that it will ever go all the way up.”
Mullen sees the number of early signees sticking around the 75 percent range, with 25 percent choosing to wait to sign on the traditional National Signing Day in February.
The Gators signed the majority of their commitments this week (20).
Florida State coach Willie Taggart, who also had little time to recruit after he was hired right before the early signing period, doesn’t feel the calendar shifts have altered his approach to signing athletes.
“[It] hasn’t changed my life,” Taggart said. “[You] still have to recruit and still have to sell and hopefully get the young men here. You get some guys signing earlier than usual, but I think it helps now that I’m not getting the job and trying to go out and recruit some kids.”
But Taggart sees the ability to sign recruits early as an opportunity to get started on the next season’s recruiting class.
“For the most part, you’ll be moving on to the next class and I guess from that standpoint, it helps. You get some guys locked up and you get to move on early. But I don’t see much difference,” he said.
Florida State, meanwhile, signed 14 out of its 19 commitments this week.
Both Florida and UCF coaching staffs had the extra pressure of balancing recruiting while preparing for New Year’s Six bowl games. It was even more difficult for the Knights, who had one less week to recruit.
“When you play in the championship game, you get cut down on a week of being able to be on the road,” said UCF quarterbacks coach Jeff Lebby. “So you got to find ways to make up time. There’s only 24 hours in a day, but you got to feel like you need to squeeze 30 in it at some point somehow.”
But Heupel believes signing early can greatly benefit some high school players.
“I think it’s important that kids get a chance to enjoy their senior year,” he said as the Knights signed 18 of their 22 commitments. “I think that’s one of the things in the whole recruiting cycle. Just get bombarded with everything through social media to phone calls to texts. It allows kids when they know what they want to do to end the process and just go back to being a senior in high school.”