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Transfer Quarterbacks Are All The Rage, But Do They Deliver At Their New Schools?

You don’t have to look hard at college football these days to find somebody, somewhere, talking about transfers. More players are switching teams each year, and more are seeking waivers that grant immediate eligibility at their new school — and it seems like just about everybody in the sport has an opinion about it.

“The issue with the transfer portal is we’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers, so, when we do that, it becomes free agency,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last month. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, too, has cautioned against “free agency in college football.”

But even calling it “free agency” is understating the flurry of moves. Of the top 25 teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, as many as eight could start a transfer at quarterback later this month. Five of those eight quarterbacks1 were not active for their current team last season. For comparison, in the NFL — which, of course, has literal free agency — only about four of 32 starters weren’t on their current team last season.2

In the last decade, transferring in college football has increased in frequency. Some of this is due to changes in NCAA guidelines and the establishment of a transfer portal that facilitates contact between players and coaches. The NCAA’s evolving stance on immediate-eligibility waivers — which allowed Michigan’s Shea Patterson to play last season after transferring from Ole Miss, and Justin Fields to suit up for Ohio State this season — has expedited the transfer movement.

The optimal approach is to find an elite talent and develop him, as Clemson has done with Trevor Lawrence and Alabama with Tua Tagovailoa. But those who miss out on that chance sometimes turn to the next-best option — and it often works. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, entering his fifth year with the program, has coached the last two Heisman Trophy winners. Both were transfers, Baker Mayfield from Texas Tech and Kyler Murray from Texas A&M. It’s no longer only bench players who move schools in search of more playing time; athletes of all levels and abilities are taking advantage of their newfound mobility to develop their careers.

The impact of this wave of transfers is evident at both the college and professional level. Alabama and Georgia produced the current starting quarterbacks for four of the top five teams: the Crimson Tide’s Tagovailoa, the Bulldogs’ Jake Fromm, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Fields. Five of the 11 quarterbacks taken in the 2019 NFL draft were transfers.3

The college football programs themselves have also incentivized player movement. Teams’ increasing reliance on younger quarterbacks chases away the rest of the depth chart: If a freshman has a firm hold on the starting job, there’s no playing time available for three years, barring an injury. Lawrence’s emergence at Clemson in 2018, for example, sparked two departures — Kelly Bryant to Missouri and Hunter Johnson to Northwestern — while Georgia’s Fromm pushed out two more, Fields to Ohio State and Jacob Eason to Washington.

The search for playing time creates a ripple effect: Soon after Fields showed up at Ohio State, quarterback Tate Martell, previously expected to start in 2019, transferred to Miami. After Hurts arrived at Oklahoma, Sooners quarterback Austin Kendall left for West Virginia.

It’s not just at the highest level of the sport. In addition to the eight top 25 teams, Mississippi State (Tommy Stevens, formerly of Penn State), Virginia Tech (Ryan Willis, previously at Kansas) and Missouri (Bryant) are among the power-conference schools who have settled on or considered starting transfer quarterbacks.

But what gets lost in the drama of the quarterback carousel is that these transfers are rarely a magic solution. Yes, Mayfield and Murray were the two most successful transfer quarterbacks this century, based on passer ratings.4 But schools turning to a transfer to transform their program often end up disappointed.

Since 2000, 94 players have attempted at least 50 passes in a season for two different schools. Here we see the trend over time: five quarterbacks joined a new team between 2000 and 2004, while 13 transferred schools between 2005 and 2009. Twenty-eight quarterbacks transferred between 2010 and 2014, and 48 of those 94 have departed for greener pastures since 2015.

Of that group, 58 transferred to a Power 5 school. (This includes both quarterbacks who transferred from non-Power 5 schools as well as quarterbacks who transferred between Power 5 schools.) Nineteen Power 5 transfers improved their passer rating from their first stop to their second by at least 15 points, an impressive rise. But 12 more saw their passer rating drop by at least 15 points.5 The average change in passer rating is plus-4.9, and the average bump in completion percentage is 2 points, both modest upticks. However it may seem, it’s just not that easy to move towns, learn a new offense, adjust to new teammates and coaches and blossom into a completely different player.

Not every QB transfer is a program savior

Quarterbacks who threw at least 50 passes at another FBS school before transferring to a Power 5 program and how their passer rating changed, 2000-18

First school Second school
Player Name Rating Name Rating Change
Kyler Murray Texas A&M 109.19 Oklahoma 203.26 +94.07
Baker Mayfield Texas Tech 127.66 Oklahoma 189.39 +61.72
Russell Wilson NC State 135.47 Wisconsin 191.78 +56.31
Ryan Mallett Michigan 105.69 Arkansas 158.11 +52.42
Ryan Willis Kansas 104.36 Virginia Tech 138.01 +33.65
Danny Etling Purdue 110.95 LSU 144.36 +33.41
Scott McBrien West Virginia 110.42 Maryland 142.04 +31.62
Greyson Lambert Virginia 108.02 Georgia 139.50 +31.48
Matt Moore UCLA 101.47 Oregon St. 131.69 +30.22
Jake Luton Idaho 100.19 Oregon St. 129.33 +29.14
Steven Threet Michigan 105.26 Arizona St. 133.41 +28.15
Ryan Finley Boise St. 115.63 NC State 140.04 +24.40
Will Grier Florida 145.61 West Virginia 169.18 +23.57
Gardner Minshew East Carolina 127.10 Wash. St. 147.56 +20.46
Robert Marve Miami (FL) 107.19 Purdue 125.91 +18.72
Tom Savage Rutgers 123.45 Pittsburgh 138.24 +14.80
Allan Evridge Kansas St. 104.44 Wisconsin 116.50 +12.06
Jake Rudock Iowa 129.96 Michigan 141.50 +11.54
Everett Golson Notre Dame 138.21 Florida St. 149.16 +10.94
R. Kovalcheck Arizona 108.91 Vanderbilt 119.07 +10.16
Shea Patterson Mississippi 141.22 Michigan 149.85 +8.63
Peyton Bender Wash. St. 106.30 Kansas 113.66 +7.36
Brandon Mcllwain South Carolina 99.15 California 104.41 +5.26
Tyler Murphy Florida 121.05 Boston College 126.19 +5.14
Zach Maynard Buffalo 124.42 California 128.36 +3.94
Joe Dailey Nebraska 111.92 North Carolina 114.10 +2.18
Keller Chryst Stanford 128.89 Tennessee 130.78 +1.90
A.J. Suggs Tennessee 113.27 Georgia Tech 113.35 +0.08
Jon Beutjer Iowa 129.16 Illinois 126.77 -2.39
Davis Webb Texas Tech 138.37 California 135.63 -2.74
Danny O’Brien Maryland 123.54 Wisconsin 120.73 -2.80
Patrick Towles Kentucky 116.80 Boston College 113.16 -3.64
Pete Thomas Colorado St. 121.17 NC State 115.07 -6.09
Wilton Speight Michigan 132.20 UCLA 125.99 -6.21
Kevin Craft San Diego St. 109.18 UCLA 101.72 -7.46
Sam Keller Arizona St. 142.15 Nebraska 133.74 -8.41
Jeremiah Masoli Oregon 130.56 Mississippi 121.11 -9.45
Mitch Mustain Arkansas 120.53 USC 110.47 -10.06
Matt LoVecchio Notre Dame 125.27 Indiana 114.24 -11.03
Jordan Webb Kansas 118.11 Colorado 103.72 -14.39
Kenny Hill Texas A&M 154.84 Texas Christian 138.36 -16.47
Jake Heaps Brigham Young 114.13 Kansas 97.00 -17.13
Wes Lunt Oklahoma St. 137.31 Illinois 119.54 -17.77
John O’Korn Houston 123.90 Michigan 105.48 -18.42
Michael Machen Kent St. 100.56 Baylor 82.09 -18.47
Clint Trickett Florida St. 151.55 West Virginia 132.40 -19.15
Dayne Crist Notre Dame 127.00 Kansas 96.52 -30.48
Brock Berlin Florida 161.09 Miami (FL) 128.65 -32.45
Darell Garretson Utah St. 137.68 Oregon St. 103.97 -33.71
Kyle Bolin Louisville 141.56 Rutgers 98.21 -43.34
Jarrett Stidham Baylor 198.95 Auburn 144.35 -54.60
Brandon Harris LSU 133.86 North Carolina 72.34 -61.52

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Beyond sheer volume, this year’s group of transfer quarterbacks is especially fascinating because it might also be the most talented bunch the sport has seen. Jalen Hurts’s father was not far off when he speculated after the 2017 season that Hurts could be the “biggest free agent in college football history.” The quarterbacks potentially debuting in new uniforms next weekend include a national champion in Hurts and three former five-star recruits (Fields, Washington’s Eason and Northwestern’s Johnson). This could have a major effect. Oklahoma does not need Hurts to do much more than his numbers would already indicate. Even an average 4.9-point bump in passer rating from his career 148.8 would put him among last season’s 20 most efficient quarterbacks in the major conferences.

No matter what becomes of this year’s crop of transfers, schools will surely keep swapping quarterbacks in the future. Transfers can be good for the coaches, who find a one- or two-year solution to their quarterback vacancies. After two of his quarterbacks transferred, Arkansas coach Chad Morris replaced them this past offseason with graduate transfers Ben Hicks, originally at Southern Methodist, and Nick Starkel, from Texas A&M. “As I’ve shared all along, we are always in the quarterback market. It doesn’t matter — we are always in that market,” he said last winter. And it appears quarterback reps are going to remain scarce at Clemson, for example, with Heisman co-favorite Lawrence only a sophomore.

Still, high expectations will follow a transfer anywhere. It would be hard to ask Hurts to replicate the Heisman-winning seasons of Mayfield or Murray. Expecting Fields, a sophomore with 39 career passing attempts, to equal what NFL first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins did last season is also a stretch.

But that doesn’t mean those teams won’t try. “If Jalen does win the starting job from everything I’ve seen, I’m not sure there’s anything we’ve done before I wouldn’t do with him,” Oklahoma’s Riley said in a radio interview last month. Defenses should buckle up. The twists and turns are just getting started.

Footnotes

  1. This figure could be as high as six, depending on the outcome of the quarterback battle at Washington State University. Anthony Gordon, a junior-college transfer, appeared in two games for the Cougars last season. He is currently competing with Gage Gubrud, who recently transferred from neighboring Eastern Washington, for the starting job, though the current rumors coming out of Pullman appear to favor Gordon.

  2. This includes rookie Kyler Murray in Arizona and traded quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Nick Foles in Denver and Jacksonville, respectively. Depending on the outcome of the quarterback battle in Miami, either recent signee Ryan Fitzpatrick or trade acquisition Josh Rosen will start. A few other quarterback competitions remain unresolved as of publication.

  3. The five were Kyler Murray (Texas A&M to Oklahoma), Will Grier (Florida to West Virginia), Ryan Finley (Boise State to North Carolina State), Jarrett Stidham (Baylor to Auburn) and Gardner Minshew (East Carolina to Washington State).

  4. Three of the pair’s five combined seasons at Oklahoma — Mayfield’s 2016 and 2017 campaigns, and Murray’s 2018 season — rank among the four most efficient passing seasons in NCAA history, according to Sports-Reference.com.

  5. This also omits the quarterbacks who seek greener pastures but didn’t end up earning enough playing time to merit inclusion on our list.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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