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Recruits with Leverage Should Never Sign Letters of Intent

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By signing NLIs, recruits are unnecessarily locking into a school for the next year without an escape clause if circumstances later change.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

National Signing Day is supposed to be a celebration for high school recruits, not a scam.

On the first Wednesday of every February, thousands of high school football recruits around the nation commemorate their years of hard work and dedication to their sport by officially committing to the college or university where they will play football for the next three to five years, with most doing so on a full-ride scholarship. For these recruits, it is a dream come true, which is why most celebrate the occasion by holding press conferences at their high schools to announce their decision to the family, friends, and fans that have supported them throughout their careers. And, like those before them, they seal this decision by signing their letter of intent and faxing it to their new school.

And that's the problem.

As soon as these recruits sign their autograph on the dotted line of their letter of intent and fax it to their new school, they are locked into that school for the next year with no ifs, ands, or buts. It is a contract. They cannot just back out of it if they so desire. And, if they want to be released from their letter of intent, the school must grant it to them.

This wouldn't be a problem if all of the assurances and promises a college football coaching staff makes to a recruit to entice him to commit are fulfilled. However, as we have seen in recent years and particularly in the past few days, this isn't always the case.

This week, the alarming trend has been for coaches to seemingly withhold information from recruits that members of their staff are planning to depart for the NFL until after the recruits have sent in their letter of intent. It's happened at UCLA, where it was leaked on National Signing Day that defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was mulling over a job offer from the Atlanta Falcons. It may have happened at Florida, where it was just announced that defensive line coach Terrell Williams is headed to the Miami Dolphins. And, as you're likely well aware, it's happened at Ohio State, where it was just reported yesterday that running backs coach Stan Drayton is leaving for the Chicago Bears.

What a coincidence these college coaches are leaving one day after National Signing Day!

Some recruits were fortunate enough to hear about this news before they sent in their letter of intent. Four-star linebacker Roquan Smith committed to UCLA on National Signing Day because of his relationship with Ulbrich, but, once he heard that Ulbrich may be leaving, he backed off his pledge, is reconsidering Michigan, Georgia, and Texas A&M, and is waiting a week to decide. Five-star defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson committed to Florida but has since held off from faxing his letter of intent to the Gators, alleging that Florida wasn't forthright about Williams' departure.

However, these were the lucky two. Not every recruit is so fortunate.

Just look at four-star running back Mike Weber. By all accounts, he was back and forth between Ohio State and Michigan heading into National Signing Day. And, by the slimmest of margins, Weber decided to reaffirm his commitment to Ohio State and fax his letter of intent to the Buckeyes. However, it was first reported the very next day that his new running backs coach, Drayton, who on National Signing Day was quoted as talking about how he planned to coach Weber in Columbus, had accepted an offer to join the Bears staff. And Weber had absolutely no idea Drayton was planning to leave:

Now Weber is between a rock and a hard place. If he remains at Ohio State, it will be without the running backs coach he was promised would be tutoring him. If he wants to leave Ohio State and play elsewhere next season, he must hope that the Buckeyes opt to release him from his letter of intent or that he'd win his appeal if they don't. And, if neither scenario comes to fruition, Weber will either waste a year at Ohio State before he could transfer -- and then lose another year needing to redshirt -- or enroll elsewhere but not play as a freshman and still lose a year of eligibility. It's an awful situation for a kid that just made the biggest and what was supposed to be the happiest decision of his life.

I'm not here to tell you that Urban Meyer is a sleazy salesman that never should be trusted because, despite his reputation, that's not true. I'm not here to tell you that Ohio State is the only program that does this because this seems to be a prevalent practice throughout college football. And I'm not here to tell you that Weber should have committed to Michigan because this is much more than the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

I'm here to help any current and future high school football recruits that will one day have a letter of intent placed in front of them and to tell them that, if they have any leverage, they should not sign that piece of paper. Signing a letter of intent is not a requirement to receive a full scholarship and play college football. All a recruit needs to do is sign a financial aid agreement and enroll in the university as this passage explains:

The NCAA last fall began allowing football prospects who plan to enroll in January to sign financial aid agreements with college programs as early as August 1 of their senior year. The agreement, which allows the college program to have unlimited contact with the player and publicly speak about him, bind the school to the prospect, but not the prospect to the school. So there's nothing to dissuade a situation of Josh Malone, who signed financial aid agreements with four schools before ultimately signing with Tennessee.

Now, the key word is "leverage." If a recruit is a generic three-star and the staff tells him to sign his letter of intent or else they will find another recruit to replace him, then that three-star should sign it. But, if a recruit is a five-star or high four-star and is sought after by many programs, then that recruit should inform the staff he doesn't want to sign a letter of intent. The staff may not like it, but they're not going to tell that recruit to scram when they know that recruit will be an immediate contributor and help them win games.

And, if those recruits don't sign a letter of intent and such a situation arises where their new head or position coach leaves for other pastures, then those recruits will not be locked into the school to which they just committed and will have the option to play at another school without any ramifications regarding their eligibility.

That sounds like a much better deal than getting scammed on National Signing Day.