SEATTLE – It’s a new world in college football. There can no longer be any debate about that.
Now, you can decide for yourself what adjective to put in front of new. Some would use “chaotic” or “destructive.” Washington coach Jimmy Lake, speaking on radio, recently called it “sad, very sad.” But many others would say “long overdue.”
The advent of the NCAA transfer portal in 2018 and the accompanying easing of rules allowing players to switch schools without sitting out a season has fundamentally changed the sport. It has ushered in an age of what is essentially free agency – not just in football but also in men’s and women’s basketball. Every coach in the country is scrambling to figure out how best to manage this major development, because their efficacy in handling players coming and going will go a long way toward determining a program’s success.
The full consequences, intended and unintended, are being played out in real time. It remains largely a mystery. The wrinkle of COVID-19 and the disruption it has caused is introducing ramifications that complicate matters greatly. And it’s all trickling down to high school athletes who are finding a much less hospitable recruiting path to the college of their choice.
Here’s a news flash to Husky football fans who are feeling like their team is being battered disproportionately by transfers. It’s just not true. Although the recent departure of wide receiver Puka Nacua, who entered the transfer portal Sunday and by Monday had announced his intention to enroll at Brigham Young, was a blow, the truth is that the Huskies are far from outliers.
In fact, if anything, Washington is on the low side when it comes to transfers. Every school’s fan base naturally feels the pain of each departure, and it’s easy to think it’s happening only to them. But it’s happening to everyone. The pain is an equal-opportunity reality of the new culture in college football.
As Lake said in the February radio interview: “There’s definitely a thing going around college football right now where guys are constantly transferring, for different reasons.”
It started out mainly as a quarterback phenomenon, as stalwarts such as Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields were highly visible practitioners. But now it has filtered to every position, as literally hundreds of players put their name in the portal. According to the 247Sports database that tracks portal use, about 1,500 players entered the transfer portal from Aug. 1 to February .
The average Power Five program has 8.5 scholarship players in the portal, according to research by Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated. According to the 247Sports database, Nacua brought to five the number of scholarship Huskies players listed in the portal. Two are quarterbacks who lost the competition to Dylan Morris last fall – Ethan Garbers and Jacob Sirmon. Three are wide receivers – Nacua, Ty Jones and Jordan Chin. No other position groups are affected. Nacua is returning, with his brother, Samson (a Utah transfer), to his hometown of Provo, Utah, for what he called “family issues.”
The Huskies have also gained three players via transfer, all with a chance to contribute: defensive end Jeremiah Martin (Texas A&M), wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk (Texas Tech), and quarterback Patrick O’Brien (Colorado State).
Compared with the rest of the Pac-12, in fact, the Huskies are decidedly on the low side when it comes to players in the portal. Which brings us to one of those unintended consequences: So many players nationwide have flooded the portal that there are not going to be enough landing spots for them all. The fear is that many from Power Five schools will either have to drop down to a Group of Five or FCS school, or simply be forced to give up football.
Those in the transfer portal also have the option to withdraw their name and return to their original school. But many coaches have chosen to withdraw the scholarships of players who enter the portal, even if they eventually return.
There is a pervasive feeling among coaches that the transfer epidemic is indicative of a lack of fortitude, reflecting players’ willingness to take the easy way out rather than persevere through adversity.
Former Husky coach Chris Petersen was not a fan. In 2019, he told reporters that the transfer portal “allows them to tap out” when faced with a tough situation. He said a transfer often won’t make things easier for the player, as they believe.
Petersen’s successor, Lake, indicated a similar mindset in the radio interview from February.
“It’s sad, very sad,” he said. “We want to make sure we recruit guys that want to go through hard things and push through when they’re not the starter and fight that much harder to become the starter. I want to coach those guys, and I know a lot of coaches want to coach those types of players.”
I don’t see it quite that way. Players should have the same freedom as coaches to leave a program that’s not working for them. In an interview with The Palm Beach (Florida) Post, coach Lane Kiffin blasted the transfer portal as a symptom of “a generation of just wanting attention no matter what.”
Yes, the same Lane Kiffin who left Tennessee for USC after just one year, and then left Florida Atlantic after three years to jump to Mississippi.
On average, a third of college students change schools – without penalty. Why shouldn’t athletes have the same right? As Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth told CBS Sports last year, referring to the previous system in which schools could force a transferring player to sit out a year: “You’re treating the student-athlete different than everybody else on that campus. Nothing stops the chemistry major from leaving Gonzaga and going to the University of Washington.”
Athletes are gaining that same freedom. Lake is wise enough to put aside whatever qualms he has and embrace the new normal. It’s the same as the oncoming change in Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules – schools better jump aboard, because it’s happening whether they like it or not.
In fact, it’s possible that at least in the short term, the transfer portal will become even more prevalent. This year of COVID-19 regulations has brought unprecedented isolation and lack of social connection to athletes. That could understandably lead to many out-of-state kids wanting to move closer to home and a more nurturing environment.
Unintended consequences, Part 2: Many high school coaches fear that with all the suddenly available new players, the college opportunities for top prep players will be reduced as teams hold out scholarships to use on more experienced transfers.
All this will have to be sorted out, tweaked and, one can hope, improved. But the transfer portal is going to be a significant part of college football – for every team.
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