Follow the Bouncing Ball Handler: The Rise of Quarterback Transfers Brings Pseudo Free Agency to College FootballJoel Plosz
This time last year, Chad Kelly was well on his way to obscurity. As Clemson’s spring practice progressed, it became increasingly obvious that Kelly, a third-year sophomore, was the odd man out in the competition for the Tigers’ starting quarterback job, having fallen behind senior Cole Stoudt and blue-chip freshman Deshaun Watson. In the spring game, Kelly was overshadowed by the veteran and blew up at his coaches during halftime, and he was promptly booted from the team for what coach Dabo Swinney called “a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program.” Once a touted recruit in his own right, Kelly limped away from Clemson looking like another entry in the annals of What Could Have Been.
Until a few years ago, that might have been the end of Kelly’s career, and considering that he was subsequently caught on video trading punches with a bouncer outside a Buffalo nightclub,1 maybe it should have been. By the time he made news in Buffalo around Christmas, though, Kelly had already secured a second chance, at Ole Miss, which signed him in December after his prolific, purgatorial season at East Mississippi Community College resulted in a national juco championship. This spring, like last spring, Kelly is very much in the mix to be the starting quarterback for a team that spent most of last season ranked in the top 10 nationally and stands a fair chance of opening the 2015 campaign there. As long as Kelly manages to keep his nose clean, the red flags in his past will have no bearing on his future with the Rebels.
“My thought process is really simple,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said in February, explaining why Kelly’s brush with the law had not cost him his spot in the incoming recruiting class. “I balance on the scales an opportunity for a young man to rewrite his story with the possibility of me having embarrassment. That’s really how I see it. If me getting embarrassed is the worst thing that happens to me in life then I’ll be OK. I’ve been embarrassed before and I will be again.”
For a rapidly improving program that watched what could have been a dream season slip from its grasp last November, taking a chance to improve the odds of finding the right replacement for departed starter Bo Wallace is worth the risk, just as it has been in the past: If Kelly wins the job over redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, who were recruited by Freeze out of high school, he’ll be the eighth consecutive starting quarterback to lead the Rebels after transferring from another school.2
But the Rebels are hardly alone on the secondhand market. The juco reclamation project Kelly is attempting to pull off in Oxford is already de rigueur within the SEC West, especially at Auburn, which has caught lightning in a recycled bottle twice in the past five years. Recall that before Cam Newton was a Heisman- and championship-winning force of nature on the Plains, he was an underachieving, laptop-tossing bust at Florida who had to repair his image at the obscure outpost of Blinn College; before Nick Marshall came within a few seconds of claiming another national title for the Tigers in 2013, he’d been booted from Georgia. Elsewhere in the division, Ryan Mallett overcame the petulant rep he’d earned at Michigan to lead Arkansas to a BCS bowl,3 while Zach Mettenberger made the transition from damaged goods at Georgia to juco revelation to productive, draftable starter at LSU. Most coaches, it seems, will concede that a slightly blemished résumé is a small price to pay for the chance to turn a good-but-not-great campaign into a genuine breakthrough.
In fact, if the rest of the country has yet to replicate the SEC West’s success, it’s certainly not for a lack of opportunity. The market for refugee quarterbacks is in full swing everywhere, facilitated both by the easing of NCAA transfer rules and the accelerated expectations of the quarterbacks themselves, who arrive on campus more prepared than ever to play right away and less willing to wait patiently for a turn that may never come. Not since the heyday of the “tramp athlete” and semi-pro ringers whose services were retained by so many teams that they could barely keep their aliases straight has it been easier for players to move between schools, or have so many players taken advantage of the opportunity.
In 2014, a dozen FBS teams — Auburn, Boston College, Cincinnati, Illinois, Louisiana Tech, NC State, Ole Miss, SMU, UMass, UTEP, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia — started a former transfer at quarterback in a majority of their games, and half of those quarterbacks had begun their careers as four- or five-star recruits. At least a dozen teams are considering starting a transfer quarterback in 2015, including heavy hitters like Alabama (Jacob Coker, via Florida State), Oklahoma (Baker Mayfield, by way of Texas Tech), and Oregon (Vernon Adams, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington), where vacancies have traditionally been filled by the next blue-chip recruit in the pipeline. That list will only grow in the coming months, with spring practice commencing, competitions beginning to sort themselves out, and the low men on the totem pole departing for greener pastures. Powerhouses with dim prospects behind center — see Florida State, LSU, and Texas — will be prime candidates to seek immediate help from graduate transfers this summer.
“The quarterback position itself lends to it because obviously only one guy plays,” says Dan Werner, who’s entering his fourth season as Ole Miss’s co–offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “You know, if you’re the third-team tailback, you probably are still gonna get some reps. Same for the D-line or whatever. But if you’re the third-team quarterback, and even the backup quarterback, you’re probably not gonna get in there unless there’s a couple injuries.”
The appeal of new blood is straightforward enough. For the coaches, a veteran addition is at worst an insurance policy and at best a difference-maker at the most important position on the field; if he pans out, a transfer quarterback can single-handedly make the difference between a forgettable season and a good one, or a good season and a great one. For the players, a fresh start can provide the opportunity to get back on the field and unlock the potential that once seemed likely to propel them to the next level. The result is a landscape in which transfers are effectively free agents in a quarterback market born of both scarcity and the pervasive likelihood of failure. There are only so many starting jobs to go around, and they’re as hard to keep as they are to win.
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Even for the most decorated prep passers, the odds of enduring a stable, fulfilling college career are low. Forget making the NFL: Making it through four or five years on the same campus has become an achievement in itself. The database from ESPN’s Recruiting Nation features 155 four- or five-star freshmen quarterbacks from 2006 (the earliest year in the database) through 2013.4 Of that group, a shade more than 40 percent transferred from their original school with eligibility remaining. For some context, that’s nearly three times as many as have been drafted from that group.5
In retrospect, the best classes in that span read like a yearbook where everyone is Most Likely to Succeed. The four- and five-star crop of 2008 produced eventual first-rounders Andrew Luck, Blaine Gabbert, and EJ Manuel, while the top of the 2009 class fared even better in terms of college success, with Matt Barkley, Tajh Boyd, AJ McCarron, Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, and Geno Smith all delivering on the initial hype. But there are just as many classes like 2007, which saw more than half of its four- and five-star quarterbacks bail on their original school, and 2010, which probably deserves to go down as the most depressing quarterback class on record. That year, ESPN awarded four-star grades to 16 incoming quarterbacks (there were no five-stars, thankfully), of whom just five — five! — ultimately ended their college careers where they began them:6
In this case, the fate of the busts turns out to be more illustrative than the fate of the survivors,7 because the busts all found suitors eager or desperate enough to give them a second chance, and in some cases a third. The crown jewel of the 2010 class, Phillip Sims, found himself overshadowed at Alabama by the older, less-touted McCarron, then went on to start a handful of games at Virginia before fading into obscurity. Jesse Scroggins fell behind the curve at USC, spent a year at junior college, and resurfaced in 2013 at Arizona. Rob Bolden, the only true freshman quarterback to start on opening day under Joe Paterno, made tracks for LSU in 2012 and Eastern Michigan in 2014. Jake Heaps, the no. 1 quarterback in the class according to some recruiting sites, left BYU for unproductive stints in Kansas and Miami. Andrew Hendrix and Nick Montana stalled out at Notre Dame and Washington, respectively, before eventually working their way to the top of far less daunting depth charts at Miami (Ohio) and Tulane. Barry Brunetti (West Virginia to Ole Miss) and Connor Wood (Texas to Colorado) settled for spot duty in another major conference. To a man, the members of the 2010 class fell short of their potential; collectively, though, their wayward trajectory proves that with talent come opportunities, and that the next one is always on the horizon.
“If a guy’s a big-time recruit and he goes to wherever, and it’s not to our school — say, we recruited him and didn’t get him — I would always make sure I keep a good relationship with him, because you never know what’s going to happen in the future,” Werner says, offering up a former Ole Miss success story as an example. “I had recruited Jevan Snead when I was coaching at Miami [in 2005], and had a good relationship with him and his [high school] coach. And when he decided to go to Texas, I actually came here [to Ole Miss], and when he decided it was time to transfer, his coach called me and said he had remembered me from recruiting him a couple years previous, and wanted to know if we were interested. We weren’t even on the market. But at that time he was a big-time recruit that we felt really good about, and we ended up getting him, and he ended up having a really good career here.”
That’s a heartening precedent for the top of the 2012 class, which — Jameis Winston notwithstanding — is well on its way to establishing a new standard for collective wanderlust:
Fortunately, unlike the forsaken refugees from the 2010 crop, whose time on the eligibility clock has run out, many of the slow starters from 2012 still have two years to make good on their initial projections: Gunner Kiel8 is entrenched at the top of Cincinnati’s depth chart, Matt Davis is the rough equivalent of a returning starter at SMU, and Kelly is very much in the mix to take the reins at Ole Miss. Connor Brewer, who left Texas for Arizona in 2013 and is set to graduate in May, is on the market again, and seems to be open to the idea of boomeranging back to Austin for a chance to unseat the Longhorns’ beleaguered incumbent, Tyrone Swoopes. Had he hung on beyond the initial speed bumps at UT, Brewer would have certainly gotten onto the field last year as Swoopes’s stock declined; instead, Brewer is moving on for the second time in three years having yet to attempt his first collegiate pass.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Wherever Brewer winds up this summer, he’ll be eligible to play right away under what may as well be termed the “Russell Wilson Rule,” the bureaucratic caveat that allows players who have already earned a degree from one school to transfer to another9 without the standard one-year eligibility penalty applied to undergrads (during which many make a pit stop at junior college). The rule was passed in 2006, but was largely ignored for the next five years: Only one quarterback took advantage of it the first year on the books (Richard Kovalcheck, who transferred from Arizona to Vanderbilt), and only 10 more followed in his footsteps from 2007 to 2010. In that context, Wilson was an unlikely trailblazer. Before he landed at Wisconsin in the summer of 2011, he was a good-but-not-great veteran with three seasons under his belt as the starting quarterback at NC State, and he’d seemed as likely to forge a career in pro baseball, where he already had a foothold in the minor leagues, as in the NFL, where his college production hadn’t come close to canceling out concerns over his size.10 But Wilson elevated his game as a Badger, setting an FBS record for pass efficiency en route to the Big Ten championship, and his path to the next level lit up like Rainbow Road.
So did the possibilities for other passers looking for a change of scenery, who were suddenly acutely aware that a fruitful exit from their circumstances actually existed. In the three years since Wilson’s successful encore in Madison, no fewer than 28 FBS quarterbacks have taken advantage of the graduate exemption11 — 2014 was a high-water mark, with 15 — more than half of whom emerged as starters at their new schools. Boston College (Tyler Murphy), West Virginia (Clint Trickett), Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer), Louisiana Tech (Cody Sokol), and UTEP (Jameill Showers) all earned bowl bids last winter with a graduate transfer entrenched as the full-time starter from training camp on.
While those quarterbacks are unlikely to ever earn the chorus of hosannas that accompanied Wilson’s stint in Wisconsin, the rapid expansion of the market has given schools more opportunities to strike gold with a graduate transfer. If any player is in position to replicate Wilson’s singular impact after donning new colors in 2015, the obvious candidate is Oregon’s Adams, who expects to enroll in Eugene this summer after earning his degree from Eastern Washington. At EWU, Adams accounted for 121 touchdowns in three years and twice finished as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the FCS’s top offensive player. In his first start against an FBS opponent, a 49-46 upset over Oregon State in 2013, Adams accounted for 518 total yards and six touchdowns, including the game winner in the final minute; in his second, he passed for 475 yards and seven touchdowns in a wild 59-52 loss to Washington last September.
Like Wilson, Adams is too small (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) to ever be a favorite among pro scouts, making up for his size with his mobility. Also like Wilson — and unlike virtually every other quarterback who has taken advantage of the Wilson Rule — Adams was an unqualified success at his previous stop and will walk into an ideal situation in Oregon’s up-tempo buzz saw of an offense; Oregon has led the Pac-10/12 in scoring eight years in a row, featuring quarterbacks as diverse as Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota with minimal fluctuation in the results. If Adams’s success translates to the FBS level, the Ducks will have every reason to expect a repeat of last year’s Pac-12 title and a return trip to the playoff.
Beyond Adams, though, there’s unprecedented intrigue surrounding some known commodities who happen to be facing a senior season on the bench in their current locales. Unsurprisingly, most of the speculation on that front involves the status of Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, owner of a 22-2 record as a starter in 2012-13, who ceded the spotlight in 2014 to backups J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones while recovering from a preseason shoulder injury and must now battle them to regain his QB1 status. Because he’s on track to earn his OSU degree this semester, if Miller does opt to leave, he’ll be eligible to move directly into another team’s starting lineup this fall, making him arguably the most coveted free-agent quarterback this side of Peyton Manning circa 2012. For now, Miller remains enrolled at Ohio State and hasn’t given any indication that he’s leaning toward transferring, but that hasn’t slowed the social media campaign for his services, which already includes overtures from an NFL player enlisting Oklahoma coeds and a Florida State–friendly porn star.
The other familiar face who could conceivably be dislodged from his current position in the coming months is Notre Dame senior Everett Golson, whose eventful tenure in South Bend has already seen an undefeated regular season in 2012, a season-long suspension in 2013, and an up-and-down campaign in 2014 that served as a neat microcosm of his career. At midseason, the Fighting Irish were undefeated and Golson was a mainstay in the Heisman watch; by Thanksgiving, he had devolved into such a turnover-prone basket case that he was forced to come off the bench in the bowl game in relief of redshirt freshman Malik Zaire, who played well enough in a 31-28 win over LSU to force a legitimate competition this spring. Depending on how that battle unfolds over the next few weeks, Golson will certainly have no shortage of suitors if he decides to test the waters.
“When it comes to a guy you know only has a couple years [of eligibility] left, your mind-set is ‘Where is he gonna fit in?’” Werner says. “Long story short, you always look at your needs. What exactly do you need?” For teams actively seeking a short-term fix, the answer to that question usually falls well beyond the scope of a single player’s stat line — what they really need is a spark, a missing piece of the puzzle, a coherent identity that would have otherwise been missing. Pursuing a transfer quarterback is overtly aspirational. For a team that has designs on a championship, as Werner’s does, it can forge a clearer path by securing its own highly improbable version of Newton or Wilson to elevate the entire team to his level. Less ambitious outfits would do well to find someone who can hold down the job for a year or two before the rebuilding cycle resets.
Ultimately, transfers often fail to crack the starting lineup at their new schools or struggle to keep the job if they win it. The Wilsons of the world are far more rare than the free-agent quarterbacks who too often turn out to be just like the mediocrities they were recruited to replace: ordinary, obscure, just passing through. But that’s not stopping players and coaches from trying to make the second act count more than the first. In the beginning, every new face is a potential exception, and every competition is energized by the unknown. Eventually, that optimism may run headlong into reality. In the meantime, though, anything seems possible.
Riley McAtee provided research assistance for this article.
Filed Under: College Football, Quarterbacks, Transfers, Recruits, College Football Recruiting, Chad Kelly, Russell Wilson, Braxton Miller, Vernon Adams, Jacob Coker, Baker Mayfield, Clemson Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels, Alabama Crimson Tide, Oregon Ducks, Texas Longhorns, Florida State Seminoles, Ohio State Buckeyes, Football, NCAAF, Matt Hinton
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