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Still a few signing day surprises in store for Tampa Bay

The early signing period didn't diminish the February event ... at least not locally.
Receiver Warren Thompson is one of many Armwood players expected to sign with a Division I-A college on Feb. 7. (Times file)
Receiver Warren Thompson is one of many Armwood players expected to sign with a Division I-A college on Feb. 7. (Times file)
Published Jan. 27, 2018

The early signing period ushered in a new era for high school football prospects, allowing them to accelerate their college decision by signing letters of intent the third Wednesday in December rather than waiting until the first Wednesday in February.

The change in the recruiting cycle had many wondering if the traditional date, Feb. 7 this year, would become more of a subdued spectacle with so many highly-starred players taken off the board early.

On 247Sports' national composite list for the 2018 class, 44 of the top 50 players have either signed or made a solid commitment, all but ending the frenzy that accompanied the later signing period.

"We're two weeks away from signing day right now. It feels nothing like that to me because the early signing period took care of 75 percent of everything," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals. "I'm not even stressed or worried or even thinking about how crazy it will be."

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But that's not quite the case in Tampa Bay.

Berkeley Prep's Nicholas Petit-Frere, the nation's top offensive tackle, was intent on waiting until February to make his college choice official. Petit-Frere's good friend, Cambridge Christian offensive tackle Richard Gouraige, also will announce his decision in a few weeks.

A few miles away, a trio of highly-touted Armwood prospects — receiver Warren Thompson, defensive lineman Malcolm Lamar and linebacker James Miller — will put pen to paper during the Hawks' signing day bonanza, an event that could feature as many as 12 college-bound seniors.

The reason so many area players still are available has a lot to do with the college coaching carousel. FSU's Jimbo Fisher and UCF's Scott Frost left for other jobs. Florida's Jim McElwain was fired.

The replacements — former USF and Oregon coach Willie Taggart at FSU, former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen at Florida and former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel at UCF — have used the past month to focus on the holdovers still out there.

"With all the new coaches, there's going to be something (drama-related)," Farrell said. "Had Jimbo not left and McElwain not committed career suicide, then I don't think it would be as crazy."

RELATED: Top 25 players in class of 2018

By waiting, the area's top remaining recruits now have the national spotlight.

"Those kids are under extreme amounts of pressure," Farrell said. "They're very, very stressed out. They've got schools they didn't expect to be coming after them. The pool has shrunk. Now they're big fish in a small pool."

The reason for the additional date in December was so that seniors who graduate early can still have a ceremony on their high school campuses before heading off to college. It also gave college and high school coaches more flexibility with student-athletes.

The inaugural 72-hour early signing period (Dec. 20-22) had some glitches, especially in the area. The date fell during final exams. Because of that, Armwood's Jerome Ford (Alabama), Caleb Sutherland (Toledo) and Brian Snead (Ohio State) faxed in their letters of intent without much fanfare. All three will be part of a bigger ceremony Feb. 7.

Seniors also did not have many opportunities to take official visits if they wanted to sign early.

"There were three weekends available for official visits in December and we were in the playoffs for two of them," Hawks coach Evan Davis said. "So I don't know if the early period really helped this year's seniors."

RELATED: Top 25 players in class of 2019

What the early period did was formalize recruiting classes for schools in Power Five conferences, which gobbled up a majority of the top recruits. It also provided a better picture of who could be available for colleges at the Division I-AA and Division II levels.

"This is a start and there are going to be some pitfalls as the whole thing is worked out and they find the right pieces to fit together," Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "What it has done is provide some clarity. It's particularly beneficial for the I-AA and Division II schools who can better pinpoint kids who have slipped through the cracks and may fall to them."

North Dakota State, which won its sixth national title at the I-AA level, is projected to have 27 players in its recruiting class, 24 of whom were finalized during the early period in December (19 on scholarship, five as walk-ons).

"The early period was big for us because it allowed us to lock in kids that we would normally have to babysit for two more months hoping that Division I-A schools didn't take them away," said North Dakota State assistant Atif Austin, a former standout player and coach at Tarpon Springs.

There are other issues coming up with the early signing period. This year, rising seniors can take official visits from April through June to account for the accelerated recruiting calendar.

Trouble is, spring practice starts for many state schools in April, delaying the process for some prospects.

But for now, area programs are living in the moment.

"Our ceremony is more a celebration of the entire journey, and a culmination of the moment for the seniors who will be playing in college," Weiner said.

Staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.