Christmas comes early for college football fans. Signing day – a welcomed gift wrapped in optimism for even the most high-strung fan bases – will take place in December this year.

The NCAA approved the addition of an early signing period from Dec. 20 to 22. Instead of waiting for the traditional annual signing day in February to start a flood of activity, programs like Utah can sign recruits to a binding National Letter of Intent (NLI) during that 72-hour period.

High school seniors still can sign later this winter (starting Feb. 7) and many will, but the early signing day has changed the landscape for coaching staffs like the Utes’. Specifically, it has accelerated the recruiting process and it likely will lead to a more aggressive approach when it comes to recruiting battles for the top high school players in the country.

“We’ve had more in-season visits this year than I think we’ve had in years past,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Not a ton more, but the number has gone up. We seem to be on an inordinate amount of mid-year guys, guys that come in January. That’s becoming more prevalent as the years go on, the mid-year enrollee has become more abundant.”

Whittingham said he also thinks that the earlier signing period has contributed to the number of coaching changes made during this season. Three Pac-12 schools — Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA — made coaching changes by the end of November. The need to bring in talented players remains the top priority.

The Utes had approximately eight players scheduled to make campus visits for the game against Colorado last weekend. The group included three-star junior college running back Greg Bell of Arizona Western College, three-star defensive end/outside linebacker Bryant Pirtle from Pima Community College in Arizona, Utes commit and three-star running back Malone Mataele from California, four-star defensive back Julius Irvin, an ESPN Top 300 selection out of California, four-star linebacker and USC commit Bo Calvert out Oaks Christian High in California.

Utes tight end coach Fred Whittingham Jr. serves as the staff’s recruiting coordinator. He said last month that the Utes intend to use the early signing period to solidify their commitments to their recruits.

“If there are recruits that are committed to a particular school and that school doesn’t sent them an NLI in December and try to get them wrapped up and signed, it kind of sends a message to that recruit that hey maybe we’re still shopping your position, otherwise we’d just sign you,” Fred Whittingham said. “I think it’s good for recruits. It’s going to help them, if they’re committed to the school, to see if in return that school is truly committed to them.”

The Utes cannot comment on recruits who have not signed a letter of intent, but highly sought-after quarterback Jack Tuttle, a four-star prospect regarded as one of the top high school passers in the nation, previously has expressed his intention to sign in December and enroll mid-year at Utah — another San Diego prospect, three-star running back recruit Kenyon Sims, suddenly tweeted on Thursday night that he will be re-opening his recruitment.

“For us, we’ve got some recruits that are mid-year guys that we know we’re going to sign in December that will be in here January,” Fred Whittingham said. “There’s others that are committed that we know that we want to sign in December and get that NLI done and out of the way and lock them up.

“But I think there are some schools that you see they have 23 commits and you see they’re still on 15, 20 additional guys. What are they going to do with those 23 commits? Are they going to get them signed in December? Are they going to slow-play them? Really, how do you message that to the recruit?”

Members of the Utes coaching staff this week largely have been out on the road. Social media posts show the coaching staff having had home visits with prospects such as Utes offensive linemen commits Jaren Kump from Herriman High School, Olympus standout defensive end and Alabama commit Cameron Latu as well as four-star wide receiver Solomon Enis from Phoenix.

The early signing period figures to play a role in how recruits gauge the level of interest schools have in them. If doubt exists, you can be sure coaching staffs like the Utes and recruiting coordinators like Fred Whittingham will jump on the opportunity after the December signing date.

Recruiting can make or break a program, and there’s certainly no love lost between schools when it comes to attempting to change the mind of a young man who previously has committed to another program.

“If we’re still very high on a guy that was committed somewhere else and they didn’t sign him, that’s one of the first things we’ll talk to him about on a phone call,” Fred Whittingham said. “‘Hey, why do you think they didn’t sign you?’ And start to get them thinking.”

Utah Football Recruiting

Early signing period: December 20-22

Mid-year JC transfer signing period: December 20-January 15

Regular signing period: February 7-April 1

Utes commits

Jack Tuttle, QB, San Diego

Malone Mataele, RB, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Terrell Perriman, WR, Miami

Jaren Kump, OT, Herriman HS

Tevita Fotu, TE/DE, Herriman HS

Hunter Lotulelei, OG, Highland HS