Weber State vs. Maine 15

Weber State receiver Devon Cooley (85) leaps to catch a touchdown against Maine's Jeffrey DeVaughn (21) in the third quarter of an FCS playoffs quarterfinal game Dec. 7, 2018, at Stewart Stadium in Ogden.

OGDEN — December 2017 brought a new frontier for college football recruiting with the sport’s first-ever early signing period.

Before last year, college football programs would sign high school seniors to letters of intent in February. But 2017 brought the early window of three days where 2018 seniors could put recruiting behind them and programs could lock up prized prospects.

Many programs — almost all at the FBS level and even many, like Montana and Montana State, at the FCS level — signed a large majority of their players during that early period.

Not Weber State. After several years of large signing classes, WSU would have less scholarships to give and head coach Jay Hill had different ideas on how to approach the window, which he said he’ll duplicate this year when the early signing period opens Wednesday, Dec. 19, through Dec. 21.

“In this first signing day, I’m not going to force it,” he said. “If there are great players we love who want to sign, I’ll sign them. But we’re not going to force that one right now.”

WSU’s lone early signee last December was defensive back Marque Collins, a player in whom coaches saw similarities with NFL draft pick Taron Johnson. Each side put pen to paper and Collins became a Wildcat. He played in 11 games this season, recording one interception and four pass breakups as a freshman.

In the mean time, three-star wide receiver and UCLA commit Devon Cooley hadn’t signed in the early period and UCLA moved on.

When February rolled around, Cooley inked with Weber State, one of his earliest offers. He caught 33 passes for 403 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2018.

So this season, Hill is again content to see how things shake out.

“If we would’ve gone out and pushed a bunch of receivers who didn’t have many offers and were willing to commit to us because they didn’t have many offers, then we might have got commitments from those guys and missed out on Devon Cooley and AJ Allen, or missed out on a Kris Jackson, or some of these guys that, in the end, we were able to get,” Hill said.

Allen had been committed to Colorado and Jackson was the top running back in Arizona.

“There’s no way we could’ve pushed those guys to commit at this stage last year. Heck, Devon Cooley was committed to UCLA at this time last year,” Hill said. “That’s just my philosophy right now. Who knows, I might change it next year.

“But we might get a couple good commitments early. We’ve got a couple guys we really like that we’re close with.”

Hill said this season’s class is expected to be comparatively smaller than the first several classes of his tenure — perhaps 10-15 players with a handful more returning from missions.

Another wrinkle to Weber’s recruiting that’s new for the past two seasons: Deep playoff runs means coaches are game-planning while other staffs around the country are already on the recruiting trail.

But Hill says winning and exposure trump the drawbacks of not being on the road with prospects. WSU’s quarterfinal loss to Maine was the only college or pro game in the country on Dec. 7, airing on ESPN2.

“It makes recruiting way easier. It already has,” said Hill, who has coached the Wildcats to a 21-6 mark over the last two seasons.

That game led to days more of exposure. SportsCenter aired highlights Friday and Saturday. Randy Moss featured Cooley’s third-quarter touchdown catch on his “You Got Mossed” segment on ESPN’s Sunday morning NFL show. Monday, Scott Van Pelt featured the game on his hour of SportsCenter.

“With everything we’ve got going on in our program — I don’t know where we’re going to be, but we’re going to be highly nationally ranked again at the end of the year,” Hill said. “We had so many cool things happen to us this year. We have the new end-zone complex going in. We’ve got way too much cool stuff going on with this program to be sulking about anything.

“We’re back recruiting, we’re going to find a way to get better next year and try to get back there again.”

Contact Brett Hein at bhein@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @bhein3/@WeberHQ and at facebook.com/WeberStateSports.

Brett Hein is the sports editor and covers Weber State sports for the Standard-Examiner.

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