By my count, there are about 1,350 FBS level college football players currently in the transfer portal. Last year, including spring transfers, there were about 1,500. Long story short, player movement is at an all-time high in college football. This leaves draftniks and casual fans in a bit of a predicament: how do we value draft-eligible players who have transferred?
To answer this, it’s important to break transfers down into a few categories. There are some players who transfer up, as in from an FCS school to an FBS one, or from a G5 school to a Power 5 one. There are players who transfer down, as in the opposite direction. There are also lateral transfers, players who move from one school to another one at the same level. Each category comes with a different set of circumstances that necessitates a different lens of evaluation. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, this question only gets cloudier, as we’ll discuss.
Players who transfer up almost always have the most to gain from a draft perspective. Oftentimes, they’re standouts at lower levels, and proving they have what it takes to stick around at a bigger school can send their draft stock to the moon. Take LB Jabril Cox, for example. Cox played 3 years at North Dakota State, already FCS’ premier program. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, he was an FCS freshman All-American, followed by back-to-back first team FCS All-American appearances in 2018 and 2019. For those of us that looked ahead to the 2021 draft before 2020’s had taken place, Cox was an early favorite for the biggest small school sleeper. Then, in early April, he transferred to LSU, where he performed at a similarly high level in 2020. Now, he profiles as a near-guaranteed Day 2 pick.
It’s the same premise that led many people to speculate that North Dakota State QB Trey Lance would (or should) transfer to an FBS school once it was announced that the FCS would be cancelling their fall season due to COVID-19. For those of us at smaller media outlets, it’s far easier to get tape for LSU than NDSU, which gives a player much more exposure. You’re playing better competition, making the projection to the NFL a bit easier. To wit, one of the concerns doubters have with Lance is the way his inexperience: he’s only been a starter for one year at NDSU, leading many to believe he cannot be thrown into the fire right away in the NFL. Had he followed Cox’s path and transferred, even to a school like Central Michigan, some of those concerns may have been assuaged.
That doesn’t mean transferring up is always a positive. If you jump from an FCS school to an FBS one and play poorly, you might as well kiss your NFL dreams goodbye. That’s assuming you can get off the bench at all, that is. Someone like Grant Loy, who transferred from Bowling Green to Auburn in the offseason, had the opportunity to emerge as a viable mid-tier QB if he performed well. Loy didn’t beat out incumbent Bo Nix (and maybe never had the chance to), instead spending all of 2020 on the bench. Now, his future as a player is up in the air.
In most cases, however, transferring up is a positive and should be treated as such. Provided the player gets enough opportunity to shine, the added exposure and easier access to tape leads to a natural inflation of value.
Players transferring up for the 2021 season: QB Reece Udinski (VMI to Maryland), WR Samori Toure (Montana to Nebraska), CB Xavior Williams (Northern Iowa to Iowa), CB/S Jaquan Amos (Villanova to Iowa State)
Transferring down can be broken into two subcategories: players moving from a Power 5 school to a G5 one and players moving from FBS schools to FCS ones. Let’s start with the latter. Moving from an FBS school to an FCS one generally means your NFL dreams are already fading. Most players transferring down are players that never carved out a niche at their original school, like LSU TE Jamal Pettigrew, who transferred to McNeese State over the offseason. Pettigrew only recorded 2 receptions during his time at LSU, stuck behind Foster Moreau, Stephen Sullivan, and Thaddeus Moss. With the impending arrival of 5* recruit Arik Gilbert (since departed), the pathway to playing time for Pettigrew was unclear at best. Moving to McNeese State, where he theoretically should be a featured part of the offense this spring, keeps his NFL window ajar for the time being. It worked for Jazz Ferguson, who transferred to Northwestern State from LSU and was a surprise UDFA in 2019. While Ferguson is now in the CFL, he got his shot at the NFL, an unlikely outcome if he had stuck it out at LSU.
Plenty of players move down to the FCS level for other reasons, however. Jackson State has had a flood of incoming transfers thanks to the hiring of coach Deion Sanders, for example. Perhaps playing for Prime will increase NFL opportunity, but the viability of that remains to be seen. Some players want to move closer to home, like safety Myles Wolfolk, who transferred from North Carolina to Bowie State. Some others want a chance to play right away. FBS to FCS transfers don’t have to take a year to sit out like FBS to FBS transfers do as of this year. That rule is set to change, but for the time being, a player searching for a chance to see the field may feel the FCS is their best option.
For those moving from a Power 5 school to a G5 one, it’s a much more case-by-case evaluation. Someone like QB Grant Gunnell has the talent to play at a Power 5 school, but chose to transfer from Arizona to Memphis following the firing of Arizona’s coaching staff. However, you could make the argument that this is actually an upgrade: Memphis has been the far better program and produced more NFL talent in recent years than the slumping Arizona program.
Washington to Central Michigan transfer QB Jacob Sirmon exemplifies the same search for playing time as some FBS to FCS transfers. After losing a competition to starter Dylan Morris, and with 5* Sam Huard set to arrive on campus next year, Sirmon was likely never going to see any meaningful snaps for the Huskies. Once he entered the transfer portal, he was adamant that a starting job was his primary emphasis. At Central Michigan, he’ll get it, along with a chance to prove his talent in a smaller market and perhaps earn a mid-round draft grade.
Players like Chase Brice (Clemson to Duke to Appalachian State) and Jake Bentley (South Carolina to Utah to South Alabama) are more victims of overstaying their welcome. Brice was mostly an unknown after serving as Clemson’s backup for three seasons, but a poor year at Duke in 2020 did him no favors, so he will search for redemption at App State. Likewise for Bentley, who lost the job to a younger player at South Carolina before being mediocre at Utah in 2020.
Overall, players who transfer down are generally looking to recoup lost value as prospects. Maybe they’re highly touted prospects who couldn’t get on to the field, or Power 5 starters who were just okay. In the era of the Internet, however, it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Smaller school players have risen to higher and higher draft positions in recent years, but don’t expect people to forget about your tape at the big school. In general, slot these players below the ones that transfer up.
Players transferring down for the 2021 season: QB Dylan McCaffrey (Michigan to Northern Colorado), WR Tevailance Hunt (TCU to Arkansas State), DL Isaiah Chambers (Houston to McNeese State), EDGE Eyabi Anoma (Alabama to Houston to UT Martin)
These are the most complicated to navigate and often the ones casual fans like to label as a player “quitting on their team”. Often, these are more situational than anything else. Jamie Newman transferring from Wake Forest to Georgia is technically a lateral transfer, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t an upgrade. Newman not playing for Georgia is another matter, but if you ask me, opting out shouldn’t be held against anybody, regardless of situation. JT Daniels transferring from USC to Georgia is a different matter, though. In that case, Daniels seemed to be obstructed from the field by the emergence of Kedon Slovis, so a change of scenery was in order to prove he deserved the 5* label. Same thing for Justin Fields moving from Georgia to Ohio State.
For players like Daniels and Fields, it’s easy to argue they should stand by their commitment and “compete”, a term casual fans love to throw around. Think about the modern landscape of amateur football, though. Highly rated recruits get more publicity than they ever have, to the point that near every 4* or 5* recruit is expected to declare early for the NFL. If you commit to a school with the expectation of being the man and then spend a year on the bench, the clock is ticking. There’s always another 5* recruit for people to get excited about; suddenly, you’re an afterthought.
Sometimes, players simply get caught up in adverse situations. Baylor’s Charlie Brewer and John Lovett performed to the level of NFL players, but Matt Rhule’s departure for the NFL meant a rebuild was in order. 2020 made that even more clear, leaving players like Brewer and Lovett few reasons to stick around. At Utah and Penn State, respectively, they’ll be afforded better teams, and thus probably more national coverage. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Eric Gray and Wanya Morris fell victim to an NCAA investigation into improper recruiting, resulting in a mass exodus from the program. Both players are now headed to Oklahoma, a better and cleaner program, where their stock will probably rise.
The stock of lateral transfers, as a whole, almost always depends on the player themselves. The idea that these players are afraid of a little competition has always been rooted in logic from a bygone era. Your parents’ favorite college players didn’t have Internet buzz starting early in high school or an open transfer portal to find a new destination at a moment’s notice. Yes, players like Alabama’s Mac Jones or Florida’s Kyle Trask waited for their shot and made it count, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best path for everyone.
Players laterally transferring for the 2021 season: QB Jack Coan (Wisconsin to Notre Dame), RB Keaontay Ingram (Texas to USC), S Jaiden Lars-Woodbey (Florida State to Boston College), EDGE Ryder Anderson (Mississippi to Indiana)
Generally, I’ve been told by people far smarter than me that players that transfer once should be given the benefit of the doubt. There’s too many circumstances to consider to say that nobody should ever transfer. At the end of the day, these players are between 18 and 22 years old. We shouldn’t hold them prisoner to decisions they make as teenagers. They might get homesick, or decide the program isn’t going in the direction they thought it would, or the coach that recruited them might get fired or move on to a new school.
When a player transfers a second time is when it might start to affect their evaluation as a pro. Maybe it means they have an attitude problem, or they’re chasing stats rather than focusing on being a teammate, or they don’t want to play special teams to pay their dues. In that case, more research is in order. For example, OT Calvin Ashley transferred twice, once from Auburn to Florida Atlantic and then from Florida Atlantic to Florida A&M. Read into it, however, and you’ll see that while Ashley transferred from Auburn to Florida Atlantic to find playing time, he moved from Florida Atlantic to Florida A&M to be closer to his newborn child, who he said “didn’t recognize [him]”.
On the other hand, EDGE Eyabi Anoma will play at his third school in three years when he takes the field for UT Martin after stops at Alabama and Houston. A former 5* recruit, Anoma was suspended for two different university level issues at Alabama before being dismissed from Houston for violations of team rules. In Ashley’s case, those are probably valid reasons to transfer, and I wouldn’t be too concerned about it. In Anoma’s, it’s a situation to monitor.
One-time transfer waivers are on the way, a sign the NCAA feels similarly about giving players the benefit of the doubt once. The portal is going to remain active, especially as long as COVID-19 continues to be an inescapable aspect of our reality. It’s not unreasonable to expect there to be upwards of 2,000 FBS level transfers by the end of the school year in early summer. So, it’s time to adapt. The next time someone enters the portal, be mindful of the context before you hop in people’s mentions.
Follow Alex on Twitter @alexkatson.