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Eastern Washington steps up in transfer portal, sees impact on the field

EWU quarterback Michael Wortham avoids Southeastern Louisiana’s Anthony Britton Jr. as he leaves the backfield on Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

As he wrapped up his fourth year at UCLA last spring, Adam Cohen faced a decision.

He already had his undergraduate degree in psychology, so academically, he had achieved his primary goal.

But his football career hadn’t gone entirely as hoped. In those four years with the Bruins, Cohen played in eight games as a reserve linebacker and a special teams contributor.

After the 2022 season, he entered the transfer portal looking for the “next chapter of college,” he said, with the goal of finding a place he could play more.

That’s how he ended up at Eastern Washington, and through three games things have worked out according to plan. Splitting duties at inside linebacker with Derek Tommasini (who transferred from Idaho before the 2022 season), Cohen is second on the team with 21 tackles.

“I knew coming to Eastern I would have to fight for anything,” Cohen said Tuesday. “I was going to do what I needed to do to get on the field.”

Cohen is one of a handful of transfers playing significant minutes for an Eagles team that is 1-2 heading into its Big Sky opener at 7 p.m. Saturday at 15th-ranked UC Davis (2-1).

That the Eagles have so many transfers – 10 who previously played at FBS schools, five from other FCS schools and 13 from junior colleges and Division II programs, with a couple of players for whom Eastern is his third stop – is a dramatic change from how the program recruited even five years ago.

This is certainly not unique to the Eagles. As the NCAA expanded its use of waivers in the transfer process – plus the impact of the extra year of eligibility granted during COVID – student-athletes are moving around more freely from program to program in search of wins and playing time.

“The reality of college football nowadays (is that) it’s easy to upgrade your roster in a quick fashion,” EWU defensive coordinator Jeff Copp said Monday. “You can find some guys who are experienced guys who understand how to go to college, work and study and prepare themselves, and you can have them in and have them immediately eligible. Five years ago, you couldn’t do that.”

Eastern’s 2018 roster epitomizes the difference. The Eagles’ roster that year had just three players who had transferred from anywhere else – FBS, FCS or junior college.

Like Cohen, defensive end Da’Marcus Johnson is making a difference on the Eagles’ defense. Johnson started his career at American River College in California in 2019 and transferred to Fresno State for the next three seasons.

But with a year of eligibility left, he transferred to Eastern and has made nine tackles and has half a sack.

“(With) Da’Marcus coming in, what I was really happy to see is that dude gives 100% effort,” junior linebacker Conner O’Farrell said Tuesday. “He’s helped the defense out a lot. That dude immediately started running like a madman in practice.”

O’Farrell said the transfers “came in hungry” but did it the right way, assimilating into the team’s culture.

While the competition could lead to returning players losing their starting jobs or some of their playing time, O’Farrell said their presence has elevated the team’s overall level of talent.

“What I remind myself is that iron sharpens iron, so they’ve come in and made me better and I’ve made them better,” he said. “I think it’s good for us. It makes us better as a whole.”

While transfers like Cohen and Johnson, as well as linebacker Ben Allen and defensive tackle Isaiah Perez, have made immediate impacts in their first year at Eastern, others are doing so in their second or third year with the program.

For example, Alphonse Oywak didn’t play much last year after transferring from Washington State. But through three games this year, he’s made three tackles and broken up two passes as he cycles in at cornerback.

Impact transfers haven’t just come from the FBS or FCS. A number of junior college players from California have been significant contributors.

Junior Jack Seelye (Diablo Valley College) has started all three games at center. Austin York (Butte College), in his second year with Eastern, is the Eagles’ No. 2 tight end. Michael Wortham (Sierra College) has become a multipositional player as a quarterback, running back and return man. Still more make an impact either in backup roles or in practice.

As O’Farrell mentioned, transfers can conceivably dissolve the existing bonds in a team’s culture. But he said that throughout the offseason changes with players coming and going, he and others were generous and helpful.

After all, they all want to win.

“The transfer process is sticky, right?” O’Farrell said. “Even through a bunch of changes, we welcomed everyone who came.”

Cohen said players who were already established in the program were indeed welcoming when he arrived – but he also came in with something to prove.

That was motivation enough to earn a spot, and for him to do so in what he said was the right way.

“All the transfers have to earn the respect of the players,” Cohen said. “All the transfers here are guys that made that decision because you want to find more success on the field. Having a strong work ethic in general allows you to show you’re a guy that cares about the game. I think that makes you more welcomed into the program.”