Ron Darby was in awe as he walked around the Notre Dame campus last spring. The Potomac (Md.) High standout football player toured the athletic facilities and academic buildings and met some of the Fighting Irish coaches’ families. He felt like a star when younger children asked for an autograph.

Everything felt right. Before he left South Bend, during a meeting in a conference room, Darby told a pair of Notre Dame assistant coaches he would accept a scholarship offer to play for one of college football’s biggest brand names.

Not long ago, that would have marked the end of Darby’s recruitment. The process wouldn’t officially come to a close until the first Wednesday in February, known as national signing day, the first day high school seniors can formally accept scholarship offers by signing a binding National Letter-of-Intent. But an oral commitment such as the one Darby made to Notre Dame was a signal to other schools that a decision had been made and that their recruiting pitches were better directed elsewhere.

These days, however, oral commitments don’t carry the same weight — for rival colleges or for the recruits themselves. As Darby discovered after his commitment, the barrage of letters and phone calls from college coaches, while slowing a little, never stopped. And Darby himself had a wandering eye, taking official campus visits — paid for by the hosting college — not only to Notre Dame, but also to Maryland and Auburn.

By January, word spread that Darby was no longer committed to Notre Dame, even though he was still considering the school.

Darby is by no means an exception; at least four other top area players changed their college choices after making “unofficial” commitments during the offseason following the junior season. Nationally, a recent Sports Illustrated report showed over the past five years 14.6 percent of the top 100 players decommitted at some point during the recruiting process.

“It’s the nature of the beast right now in recruiting,” said Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson, who has landed more than his share of prospects from the Washington area, the latest being DeMatha second-team All-Met tight end-defensive end Brent Wilkerson. “You have 17- and 16-year-old kids making decisions at such an early stage. Like everything else, they have the right to change their minds because it’s not binding. . . . That’s not a bad thing. I’d rather have that than a kid go somewhere and make the wrong decision.”

In the Washington area, a handful of other players have already flipped their college commitments: Friendship Collegiate running back Albert Reid went from West Virginia to Maryland, H.D. Woodson cornerback Kenny Crawley and defensive end De’Jon Wilson went from Tennessee and Kansas, respectively, to Colorado. All of the players made their initial commitments before the season.

And who can forget last year’s signing period drama when DeMatha’s highly coveted tackle Cyrus Kouandjio announced he would sign with Auburn, but never sent his signed letter-of-intent. Three days later, he signed with rival Alabama.

“That’s the business [colleges] are in,” said Potomac football Coach Ronnie Crump, who has become Darby’s unofficial spokesman as the teenager has grown tired of interview requests. Darby has said in recent weeks he won’t comment publicly until he announces his college choice Wednesday. “The coaches that are recruiting [Darby], I believe they understand that. They’re going to win some and they’re going to lose some.”

While recruits cannot sign letters-of-intent until early February of their senior year, the recruiting timetable continues to trend earlier. Colleges are offering scholarships to freshmen and sophomores and pressuring juniors to accept those offers or risk losing the offer to another recruit. That can lead to a player taking his best offer at the time to secure a scholarship while he continues to see what might come next.

“Recruiting is getting out of hand. It’s way too early,” Maryland Coach Randy Edsall said. “There’s no way we should be offering, verbally offering, kids that are freshmen and sophomores in high school. I would hope the NCAA would take a look at that. . . . Now you’re getting young men committing early and there are always going to be people trying to recruit them because the recruiting process doesn’t stop on a verbal commitment and I don’t know if it should stop.

Eddie Goldman, wearing a Florida State hat, announces his college pick Wednesday at a ceremony at Friendship Collegiate Academy charter school. Nineteen athletes signed scholarship papers at the school. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

“The evolution of recruiting isn’t a benefit to really anybody. A verbal commitment doesn’t stop recruiting anyhow in any sport.”

From a player’s perspective, making an early commitment secures a college scholarship and relieves pressure created by the stream of college recruiters making their pitches. But it also puts colleges in a position where they must project what a player will be like in the future.

High school coaches and players point to what many consider a lack of loyalty from college coaches, who continually pledge their devotion to recruits and their college until a better job offer or more coveted prospect comes along. St. John’s quarterback Ben Onett, for instance, committed to Temple this past summer and passed on other colleges that were interested; but in December, he learned that the Owls were not as interested as they had been. Instead, he will sign with Monmouth (N.J.).

Crawley disliked the fact that Tennessee would not release a player from his scholarship so he could move closer to his sick father. Reid said that as time went on, he felt less comfortable with West Virginia. He said the Mountaineers’ coaching staff told him he would be their last running back recruit in the class of 2012.

“Then they said something happened and they were recruiting another running back,” Reid said. “Another running back committed and that shook it up for me a little bit. I didn’t have the same feel for West Virginia as I did when I committed.”

Staff writer Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.