Thursday, May 21, 2015

College Football's Grad Transfer Market Frenzy

College football now has a true free agency market, as players can move freely from one FBS team to another without having to sit out a season per NCAA rules. The graduate transfer rule has been a godsend for teams in desperate need for a quick fix.

And it's of little surprise that the graduate transfer market is dominated by quarterbacks. There are two simple reasons for this: 1) Quarterbacks, generally the smartest guys on the field, are most likely to graduate in four years or even a semester or two early, to take advantage of the rule. 2) An upperclassman quarterback with playing experience is much more likely to immediately help a team than a player at any other position.

The graduate transfer rule actually has been around since 2006, but in its first five seasons only 11 quarterbacks took advantage of it. That all changed after 2011, when Russell Wilson, who had a mostly pedestrian career at N.C. State, led Wisconsin to the Big Ten title after finishing his college career as a Badger. After that, the grad transfer market boomed.

After Wilson, who since went on to lead the Seattle Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, a flurry of quarterbacks took advantage of the rule and jumped ships. Last season alone 15 quarterbacks went to new schools and played immediately, and five of them led their respective teams to bowl appearances.

This year's market isn't as busy but is more intriguing because of the presence of big names that are available. Everett Golson, who led Notre Dame to the 2012 BCS Championship Game, just landed at Florida State this week and will be vying for the job to replace Jameis Winston. Jake Rudock, Iowa's former starting QB, jumped at a chance to play for Michigan's new coach Jim Harbaugh. Jeff Driskel, the face of the ill-fated Will Muschamp regime at Florida, has landed at Louisiana Tech.

But the most intriguing free agent is still on the market. Braxton Miller still has a couple of months to decide whether he wants to return to Ohio State or go lead another program in 2015. Miller was a preseason Heisman candidate in 2014 before a shoulder injury in camp force him to miss the entire season. He has since been usurped by both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, who led the Buckeyes to the inaugural College Football Playoff championship. Would Miller, who already graduated, return to Ohio State to be merely the, gasp, third stringer?

So far, Miller has decided to stay put, as did Stanford's Kevin Hogan. But the transfer window remains open all the way until fall camp in August and more than a handful of quarterbacks are still deciding their destinations.

The question, then, must be asked. Does a grad transfer QB really help a program?

A former starting quarterback takes advantage of the grad transfer rule typically for two reasons: 1) He lost his job either because of injury, substandard performance or disagreement with his coaches; 2) He's not good enough to be a high draft pick in the NFL.

Of all the grad transfer quarterbacks since the rule was enacted, only Wilson has had any kind of an NFL career. And he was only a third-round pick and not nearly as highly-regarded coming into the draft as fellow QBs Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill.

Since a grad transfer QB typically only has a year (at most two) of eligibility left, he can't be anything more than a quick fix. Most of the time, it's a bridge-the-gap situation where a coach isn't quite willing to trust a true freshman or a former backup with little playing experience.

Some of the quarterbacks did post respectable numbers and led their teams to winning seasons:

- Ben Mauk led Cincinnati to a 10-3 record in 2007 after transferring from Wake Forest
- Tyler Murphy led Boston College to a 7-6 record in 2014 after transferring from Florida
- Clint Trickett actually started 18 games over two seasons (2013-14) at West Virginia after transferring from Florida State

Those are exceptions, however, as many more grad transfers failed to pan out. Some managed to help torpedoing an already floundering program (Dayne Crist, Notre Dame to Kansas; Drew Allen, Oklahoma to Syracuse) while others simply failed to win the job even against mediocre competition (Danny O'Brien, Maryland to Wisconsin; Jake Heaps, Kansas to Miami).

This season promises to bring more scrutiny to the grad transfer QB market simply because of the presence of household names at marquee programs. Besides Golson, Rudock, Driskel and possibly Miller, there's still Jacob Coker, who left FSU to go to Alabama last season only to lose out to Blake Sims. He's back for his final year of eligibility to fight for the right to start for Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin.

But the rule appears here to stay despite some new opposition within the ranks of college administrators. The NCAA, already under siege from multiple lawsuits challenging its authority, can ill afford to rescind whatever little freedom it's granted the student-athletes.

And coaches, being what they are, will try to exploit every rule to their advantage, so the grad transfer market will only become more popular even given its so-far pretty paltry output. They should just heed this warning: Buyer Beware.

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