Former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu bet on himself when he left the University of Maine for USC.
Tatupu, who starred at the small Football Championship Subdivision school as a freshman before joining Pete Carroll’s rising Trojans in 2002, went on to become an All-American, second-round NFL draft pick and three-time Pro Bowler.
Jumping the chasm between what was then NCAA Division I-A and I-AA football was rarer than it is today.
The NCAA graduate transfer rule relaxed in 2011 – allowing a graduated athlete with remaining eligibility to transfer without sitting out a season – has contributed to the massive uptick.
HERO Sports has tracked 49 players who made the upward move from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) this offseason, mostly of the graduate transfer variety.
Among the leap-of-faith transfers ready to prove themselves under the brighter FBS lights is new Washington quarterback Kevin Thomson, the latest in a string of Big Sky Conference star quarterbacks who moved to the Pac-12.
The Auburn, Washington, product led Sacramento State to a Big Sky title in 2019 and was named the conference’s offensive player of the year after totaling 3,216 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air and 629 yards and 12 touchdowns with his feet.
Jabril Cox, a three-time All-American linebacker who helped North Dakota State win the past three FCS national titles, now plays for another defending national champion: LSU.
The trend started in 2015 when star Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams made the controversial decision to leave Cheney his senior year for Oregon, where he landed the starting job and earned Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year in an injury-riddled season.
Coaches from around the Big Sky weighed in on that move, which ultimately changed the complexion of the conference.
“We cannot be perceived as a farm system or Triple-A ballclub or anything like that,” former Montana State coach Rob Ash told ESPN in 2015.
Months after Ash’s statement, MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop also chose to play his senior year at Oregon. He earned the starting job in Eugene in 2016 but was ultimately benched after Ducks’ 2-5 start.
Adams (Montreal Alouettes) and Prukop (Calgary Stampeders) are now in the Canadian Football League.
“I got my degree (at EWU), and I got interest from another team, and I thought it was a better business move,” Adams said when reflecting on the transfer. “Obviously, I didn’t end up in the NFL, but I just thought if I played against higher competition, maybe it could be different.”
Another EWU star quarterback, Gage Gubrud, made the move to Washington State as a sixth-year graduate transfer in 2019, but head coach Mike Leach opted to start Anthony Gordon, who went on to lead the nation in passing, broke several records and signed an undrafted free-agent rookie contract with the Seattle Seahawks.
Gubrud, who saw little playing time in Pullman after an All-American career at EWU, is waiting for the return of the CFL, where he has been in contract talks with the British Columbia Lions.
“Some guys’ entire goal is to be at a bigger school or are looking for better opportunities,” Gubrud said. “My situation was a little different. I never thought I was going to transfer to a bigger school, then I did it.
“With all of these guys now leaving for FBS schools, I think it’s a testament to the talent in the FCS. A lot of the guys were underrecruited and were able to develop at the smaller school.”
Gubrud thought his college career was over when he injured his foot in the fifth game of his senior season at EWU. With the emergence of former backup quarterback Eric Barriere, Gubrud was preparing for a pro career when the Eagles went on their run to the 2018 national title game.
When Gubrud was ultimately granted a medical redshirt for a sixth season, he decided to try his hand at the Pac-12 level.
A year later, Thomson heads to Washington, where he’ll try to be the first starter for new head coach Jimmy Lake, a Spokane native and former EWU safety.
Like Gubrud’s situation last fall, Thomson steps in to challenge a group of inexperienced backups in Jacob Sirmon and Dylan Morris.
“(Thomson) got there because he showed he can play,” Gubrud said. “They’re bringing you in to play, not be a backup.
“I know that’s ironic since I ended up being a backup, but they don’t want you to be someone who isn’t challenging for the starting job.”
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