The success of transfer quarterbacks can make or break a college football program. But how do teams crank up their new signal callers?
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Southern California lost a transfer quarterback to Ole Miss, who lost a quarterback to Central Florida, who in turn lost a quarterback to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma won that quarterback from UCF and another from Pittsburgh, but saw sophomore star Caleb Williams depart to USC and former starter Spencer Rattler to South Carolina. Pittsburgh lost a quarterback to the Sooners but gained another from USC.
Ohio State had a quarterback transfer to Texas, who had a quarterback transfer to Nebraska, who had a quarterback transfer to Kansas State.
Texas A&M lost a quarterback to Auburn but gained another from LSU, which recruited a possible starter from Arizona State, who then pulled in a transfer from Florida.
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Factors such as the one-time transfer rule, the blanket additional playing eligibility granted by the coronavirus pandemic, and rule changes involving name, image and likeness have resulted in a dizzying game of musical chairs among Quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is reflected on the depth charts outside the Season impacts competitions and the race for the college football playoffs.
“It certainly changed the approach to quarterback position,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “You can’t worry about it. You can’t complain about it or get a tummy ache about it because it’s here to stay. You have to find a way to make the most of it and solidify your own individual situation. That often comes through the portal.”
While each position has seen similar upheaval, at this crucial juncture, the programs have devoted the most intelligence and resources to evaluating, recruiting, and ultimately preparing transfer quarterbacks in the shortened window of time between the end of one season and the start of another.
“I think you can force-feed these guys a lot because they want a lot so they can try to master all the pieces while putting the whole package together,” said Kansas State coach Chris Klieman.
The decision to enter the portal is a dice roll for almost every player. By deciding to explore his options, a transfer may not be able to return to his original school if that program and its coaching staff have already decided to move on and pursue his successor. For example, with far more transfers on the portal than Power Five scholarships available, a player may be caught in scholarship purgatory and unable to return to their previous school or transfer to the school or schools of their choice.
Risk is less pronounced with quarterbacks because of the ease of supply and demand. Established starters have a premium. The same is true for development prospects with a high cap but no track record in production.
The most common type of quarterback transfer has multiple seasons remaining, transitions from a backup role to gametime pursuit, and likely won’t make much of a difference in its first year with its new program. At the other end of the spectrum are the coveted plug-and-play veterans who can jump right into an entry-level job.
Experienced transfers are “just so much further,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “Most of them obviously played a lot at this level. They understand whether it’s collegiate offense or defense. You have a better understanding of the work ethic needed at this level. And then usually most of them, especially if it’s a grad change or something, they have a sense of urgency.”
But with so little room for error and limited scholarship room, the coaches delve deep into the most prolific quarterbacks in the transfer market, going back to his high school experience for insights not visible on the miles of available game tape.
“There’s a lot of background that needs to be done,” said Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton. “You need to talk to as many people as possible. Because every coach you can talk to, every person involved in this high school or this program or this university, and they’re like, ‘OK, tell me about this guy. ‘ You were really just trying to find cracks in the armor. We’ll find out pretty quickly.”
In some cases, coaches gravitate toward quarterback transfers they recruited years earlier as traditional prospects, drawing on a built-in level of comfort and familiarity that cannot be developed on Zoom calls or official visits. In far rarer scenarios, the head coach has a personal connection with the former transfer head coach and gets a reliable account of that quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses — such as with new Kansas State quarterback Adrian Martinez, thanks to Klieman’s relationships with Nebraska coach Scott Frost and former Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
At best, programs can recruit a transfer quarterback who previously played for the head coach or offensive coordinator. Two of the offseason’s most influential transfers fit this category: Williams at USC, where he will play for former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, and Oklahoma junior Dillon Gabriel, who played under offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby at UCF.
Most often, however, programs that evaluate a transfer quarterback rely on confidential discussions within the coaching community, most often between lower-level employees such as research assistants or members of human resources. Taken together, the stream of information coming from all available avenues helps programs uncover the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.
“The way you look at a quarterback is the most important position on the field,” Whittingham said. “There’s no doubt about that. So the key to your success or failure is this position. So you better be right most of the time. You won’t always be right, but you better be right most of the time.”
For transfer quarterbacks vying for the starting job, the first day on campus triggers an abbreviated phase of fieldwork, hours of one-to-one instruction with an offensive coordinator or quarterback coach, and countless nights playing the offensive or of the last year, the exercise of the previous day is checked.
Technological advances in the way teams can produce, edit, and share movies have helped shorten the learning curve. Once signed and registered, a transfer quarterback can instantly access any piece of tape available to their coaches via an iPad; Staff can compile an entire library of plays, concepts, and cuts as a crash course in how the program works.
Some programs can provide a remarkable amount of specifications, such as B. Every quarterback or team, college, or NFL third-down throw in a given season.
“The technology that we have today makes it a lot easier for these guys to get started,” Franklin said.
Normal practice during spring practice or fall camp will be followed later that day for transfers being prepped for the starting job, followed by a film and accompanying notes from his quarterbacks coach. The next morning, this quarterback saw the film, gave his own feedback, and took another step toward fully understanding the system.
“He’s almost treated like a coach,” said Helton. “Not only does he share our thoughts on him, but also his thoughts on the whole offense and what needs to be corrected. So it’s 24-7. He’s basically living the life of a coach and that gets him up to speed pretty quickly.”
This give and take also causes coaches to look inward at their offense and consider how the scheme or system can be tweaked to accommodate the new quarterback’s ability, experience, and overall likes and dislikes.
For example, teams will not tinker with the clutch in the whimsical throwing motion of a graduate transfer, accepting that addressing such issues would come at the expense of a most valuable commodity: time. But coaches will spend the spring and summer figuring out what works and what doesn’t when preparing a transfer for the starting job, eventually landing on at least a partially revamped playbook and overall vision for the offense.
“You would be missing out on yourself, the young man and the program if you didn’t ask what he likes,” Klieman said. “That’s what good coaches, good programs and good organizations do. You find out what skills a person has and you try to improve those skills.”
Done right, that offseason cram session can get a quarterback and their new program on the same page before launch and accomplish in months what was once a multi-year process — the various stages of development from arriving on campus, learning the system and then moving up to the starting job.
It also helped the pitch. The country’s top teams can no longer accumulate years of depth under center, scattering talent across the FBS and giving each program a chance to find the right fit at what matters most on the field.
“The one great thing about our game is that recruiting isn’t an exact science, especially at the quarterback position,” Helton said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how you’ve been rated, year after year you see these quarterbacks going into big names that really not a lot of people gave much thought to two or three years ago, you know. That’s what gives everyone a chance to be part of the national conversation.”
Follow college reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg