On Wednesday’s Utah Blockcast, Steve likened National Signing Day to Christmas for college football fans, and I respectfully disagree.
I think for the majority of fans, the less-than-sickos who make up the 90% of fanbases, National Signing Day is an offseason production formality, and not the biggest day of the year.
Recruits are sought after by college football fans, and with the amount of money being offered to recruits in order to get commitments, it’s easy to see all that cash moving around and not get in the consumerized Christmas spirit (the number one reason I’ve struggled to closely follow recruiting is because the previous paragraph is objectively weird. If you don’t believe me, read it again, but this time replace “recruits” with “high school students” and “college football fans” with “adults on the internet”).
I hope my cynicism is funnier than it is bleak, but please do not read this as shaming of those who follow recruiting. The Utah Blockcast does not exist without passionate-bordering-on-obsessive fans. Passionate college football fans who know ball, and know that it starts at the high school level (or sooner). Obsessive college football fans who search and follow Utah Football news, but need college football air to breathe in between. Passionate-obsessive fans, who know the source of life for the sport they love, and who see the next plane of competition, the bigger game outside the games.
Those fanatics who take the step beyond the playing field and into recruiting see the back-of-house operations for what they are: well-organized chaos. Local and national recruiting reporters like Steve make sense of the madness, and have made the back-of-house magic that makes the performance on Saturdays in the fall happen, but that madness has another depth of chaos behind it.
The sheer scale of high school football in comparison can be overwhelming. There are about 125 players, coaches, and key team staff members on Utah Football’s active roster at any time. There are about 1,500 in the Pac-12. Among P5 schools there are 8,125. FBS as a whole is about double that at 16,500, and then when you consider FCS or lower, there are an estimated 70,000 college football players for die-hard college football fans to follow. Most fans don’t come close to this level, myself included. But there are just over 1,000,000 high school 11-man football players in the United States, nearly 20 times the number of players to have to analyze, or at the very least wade through in an effort to find the perfect fit for your team. This is not a world in which you can simply stride into without some help.
I respectfully disagree with Steve’s comparison on National Signing Day to Christmas, because I think for the majority of fans, the less-than-sickos who make up the 90% of fanbases, National Signing Day is an offseason production formality, and not the biggest day of the year. National Signing Day isn’t a celebration on the audience’s side of the curtain, but rather a layer deeper, an announcement of the next cast for the next production of the play that is college football. To those college football fanatics who have been studying this production, for the college football fans who know, it’s easy to see how it feels like Christmas. On National Signing Day fans are finally receiving something after months of longing (and maybe even after asking a big guy in red more than you’d like to admit). To many college football fans like me, who follow and appreciate recruiting but who aren’t entrenched in it every day, who know how much it matters, but simply don’t have the dog in us to live and die by the decisions of high school kids 12 months per year, this isn’t Christmas as much as an announcement of the next cast of future star Utah Football performers. A new generation of Utah Football team members, who have practiced, auditioned, and worked for their spot in college football, and for whom the real work is about to begin.
However, I do think that National Signing Day is perfectly placed alongside Christmas in the college football season (I know Steve also disagrees with me here). Whether it is intended as part of the true spirit of the holiday or not, Christmas (and New Years) have always been a symbolic time for appreciation, reflection, and improvement. Each year December is spent looking back at what we’ve done in the past year, the good times and bad, the loved ones gained and lost along the way, and looking to improve ourselves for the future. At the same time we’re appreciating those things in our life, college football is celebrating conference championships, bowl game berths, award-winners, and preparing for the audience’s season finale: the New Year’s Six Bowls and the College Football Playoff.
Utah fans have a lot of great things to reflect on, not only this season, but over the past decade. The past two seasons have ended in Pac-12 Championships, despite that feeling unfathomable at some point in each of those two seasons. Utah has key players, from recent teams and less-recent casts, making key contributions on NFL teams in December as the playoff race heats up.
Behind all of these generations has been corresponding success in recruiting.
In a more macro sense, this time of year I am able to better appreciate how much Utah’s recruiting, its player development, its consistency, and the culture created by Kyle Whittingham have translated into slow, sustained success at the University of Utah, if not always in wins and losses but rather in milestones each generation achieved, opening new doors for the generation before them.
The Wilson-Booker-Norris-Paul generation, from around 2012-2015 navigated a new conference, and were the first group with wins against multiple top-10 teams, Utah’s first top-5 ranking in-conference, but ultimately couldn’t sustain success over a season, and fell in big moments when the lights seemed too bright, or when depth simply wasn’t enough to combat a brutal season.
The Hallandale Trio, along with the best Utah defense we’ve ever seen marked the next generation, with Utah’s first two Pac-12 South Championships in back to back seasons, and with what I still consider to be Utah’s best talented team of all time. That team took Utah to new heights in terms of its ceiling, and pounded on the door of the College Football Playoff, but weren’t prepared when Washington and Oregon answered the door in the Pac-12 Championship Games.
The current generation’s time at Utah is waning, but they undoubtedly reached new heights as a program, with back-to-back Pac-12 Championships on the road to Las Vegas less traveled each time. This group is unique because it broke the ceiling in unconventional ways, with unconventional personalities and playing styles. This generation also marked a new trend in Utah Football, where success didn’t peak as much as trend upward consistently. Devin Lloyd, Cam Rising, Dalton Kincaid, Brant Kuithe, and Clark Phillips III had incredible seasons, but their best seasons didn’t have to align together like previous generations needed in order to have high level success. This team showed that Utah was a complete team from player and coach spot 1-125, which is something no generation before them could confidently say. When the going got tough, this generation of Utah’s got tougher, and simply refused to lose.
Behind all of these generations has been corresponding success in recruiting. In the 2014-era, Utah was lucky to find itself approaching the top 60 in recruiting classes. The next era leveled Utah into 40s, then the next era into the 30s. As I type this, Utah’s recruiting class is ranked 21st, the year following back-to-back Pac-12 Championships, and despite national concerns about NIL changing the way recruits decide between programs. Each generation of Utah Football cast members has built upon the era that came before them, and the coaching staff is bringing in higher quality cast members than ever generation beforehand.
This is why National Signing Day is perfectly placed right where it is. December allows us to celebrate the people that make the sport we love work. National Signing Day isn’t Christmas, because it isn’t a gift. It’s the annual celebration of decades of success from this Utah Football staff year after year, generation after generation. It’s the announcement of a new generation of Utah Football players whose potential is higher than any generation before them. It is the annual coming-over-age of a new generation, of new possibilities, and of new, unachieved heights for a program actively experiencing its golden age to date.
The Utah Football program (and certainly others) has had a mantra when it came to player development and depth, and when a player needed to be replaced for whatever reason, the expectation was simple: Next Man Up. Because of the sustained success in recruiting Utah Football has had, and the new talent injection and development along the way, Utah Football is preparing to reload it’s most achieved class yet with its most talented class yet. That trend has been working out for them over the past decade.
When one era moves on, and takes their achievements with them, the Utah Football expectation has been set: Next Generation Up.
I can’t wait to see what new heights the 2023 class can reach.