Every offseason, following the lure and excitement of the FCS national title game, there comes a time in early February when fans, coaches and hopeful schools get to clean the slate and look forward to the next season.
I'm talking, of course, about FCS football and National Signing Day.
In today's day and age of social media, where it seems almost impossible to keep any news out of the public's eye, and where information gathering, being the first to break a story, adding personal opinions and being "liked" or "followed" trumps all else, it's hard to forget just how big of an event signing a National Letter of Intent has become.
In many ways, signing day has turned into an overblown celebration centered around fax machines, -- yes, the majority of schools across the country still use fax machines in the year 2013 -- high school highlight videos, and coaches talking about how their recruiting class is "very solid" or that they "filled a lot of priorities" and how "excited" the staff is about that year's class. Keep in mind, all the hype relates to young men signing a piece of paper.
"Signing Day is definitely more of an event now than in past years," Montana State coach Rob Ash said, "with ESPN's all-day coverage and massive exposure in the print media as well. I'm sure the social media attention to the recruits' decisions during the weeks leading up to Signing Day also draw attention to the day."
Signing day, at least in my mind, has quickly turned into a double-edged sword. Yes, it brings excitement, especially after a dead period without college football, but it's also something that's perhaps one of the most overrated events in sports.
It's even more eye-opening at the FCS level, where, let's face it, each year there are a select few true freshmen who can come into a program and make an immediate impact. The same cannot be said about recruits at the FBS level, especially in the top conferences, where players compete for starting roles from the start of their career, or even leave school early to enter the NFL Draft.
There are certainly exceptions in the FCS, Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke (2011), Georgia Southern fullback Dominique Swope (2011), Towson running back Terrance West (2011) and others who have stepped into the limelight and helped their team improve right away without taking a redshirt. But it's not every day that an FCS freshman from the most recent recruiting class contributes right away from the moment he steps on campus.
"We try to redshirt most of our freshmen, but I would be curious about the comparison between FCS and FBS for the number of players who redshirt," Ash said. "I'm not sure it would be that much more prevalent in FCS than FBS."
For many coaches and programs, signing day is great for the future, not the present. It's the short end of a culmination of hard work for a coaching staff that managed (or failed) to persuade the next generation of football players to make a decision and attend, while hopefully impacting that certain school or university.
Ash understands that firsthand, as he's helped guide the Bobcats to three straight FCS playoff appearances, while expanding the program's recruiting base. Soon-to-be senior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, a three-year starter and all-conference signal-caller, redshirted in 2009 after joining MSU from Euless, Texas. Likewise, recent All-America linebacker Jody Owens, also a native of Texas, redshirted in 2008 and developed into one of the top defenders in MSU history.
"And, yes, the hype of the recruiting class should be about the future," Ash added. "I make that comment frequently during the celebrations, because very few of the players will contribute in their first year. We should probably start a tradition of reviewing the Signing Day classes 'one year later' to see how they performed (if they played at all) and how the coaches project them now, after working with them for almost a year."
That's part of what makes FCS football unique, isn't it? The thought that a young man can come and get acclimated with college life, academics, teammates and football, but also take that redshirt year to develop on and off the field. It's the concept that players themselves become part of the program, even if they aren't ready to be on the playing field from Day 1.
The exciting part as a fan is seeing which of those players, who have bought into the program and helped develop the foundation, can improve from spring ball to the fall and make big-time plays. Who is the next all-conference stud? Who is the player I can look forward to seeing over the next four years? Most importantly, who is the next player who will help my team win a championship?