Will a Blue-Chip QB Finish Where He Started? The Chances Are Worse Than a Coin Flip
Earlier this week, when former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts picked Oklahoma as his transfer destination, the country’s best offense in 2018 added another weapon for next season. The move cleared the way for the Sooners to stop blocking Austin Kendall—another highly-regarded quarterback looking for a change after coming off the bench in ’18—from being immediately eligible as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma to West Virginia.
The story was a factory for takes, from those proclaiming Oklahoma a playoff lock to those deriding the hypocrisy of the Sooners’ constraint on Kendall, but strip those away from a second and consider just the bare bones of these moves: At Alabama, the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2017 per the 247Sports composite rankings, Tua Tagovailoa, had swiped Hurts’s job. Hurts, the No. 13 quarterback in the class of 2016, decided to leave as a graduate transfer this offseason, and he picked Oklahoma, which is coming off four straight seasons led by two transfer quarterbacks, both of whom won the Heisman Trophy. And as a result of Hurts’s move, Kendall—who was ranked one spot ahead of Hurts in the 2016 class—is on the move in search of playing time, likely to West Virginia, which has an immediate opening at quarterback due to the departure of Will Grier, yet another (you guessed it) former transfer.
In the past decade, transferring has become more popular and much easier around college football, especially among quarterbacks. If you’re a five-star defensive end and a teammate outplays you, you aren’t automatically out of a job. Even if you lose a starting spot in that scenario, you’ll still probably see the field a significant amount due to the frequency of substitutions and the distribution of reps. But as a quarterback, that situation could be a career-ender, a wall between you and the NFL, and the implications of that realization are playing out in more and more public settings as top recruits flock to a small pool of elite programs, slug it out for starting jobs and then pack their bags to try again elsewhere.
Among the 21 four- and five-star quarterback recruits in the class of 2016 (the group that became draft-eligible for the first time this offseason), 13 transferred at least once in their careers—that’s 61.9% of the class’s top talent. The 2015 class had 23 four- and five-star guys, and 56.5% of them transferred; 58.3% of the quarterbacks with four or more stars from the 2014 class transferred. To find two consecutive recruiting cycles where more than half of the four- and five-star quarterbacks stayed put for their entire college careers, you have to go back to 2008 and 2009. (In ’08, only 10% of four- and five-star quarterback recruits transferred; in ’09, 37.0%.)
Over the past 11 recruiting classes (2008–18), an average of 24.5 such quarterback recruits have earned four or five stars each year. So for the purpose of this comparison, let’s round that to 25 and compare those top 25 quarterbacks with the top 25 overall recruits each year. Since 2008, the highest single-year percentage of top-25 overall recruits transferring has been just 16%. That gap will likely continue to grow as more quarterbacks look at players like Kyler Murray and Shea Patterson, who have gambled on themselves and found success. The NCAA’s evolving rule book makes the process even easier to execute without spending half a lifetime in college. Graduate transfers can play immediately (as long as the player’s initial school doesn’t block his transfer to a specific program, a move that almost never works anymore), and as of 2018, any player who sees time in four or fewer games can use that season as his redshirt year. That rule has paved the way for cases like Kelly Bryant, who started Clemson’s first four games, lost his job to Trevor Lawrence, then claimed a redshirt and left for Missouri, where he will be able to play immediately next year. Bryant might be the first big-time quarterback to take that path, but he won’t be the last.
It’s impossible to predict where or when this trend will level off, barring another rule change. A certain number of elite quarterbacks will win their jobs outright and start for two, three or four years. But many more will miss out, and what’s different now than, say, five years ago, is that more high-level teams are willing to take a transfer under center. The way teams are built and quarterbacks are groomed has changed, and so instead of being forced to transfer down to the FCS level or spend a year in junior college, guys can jump from the roster of one College Football Playoff stalwart to another, from ranked team to ranked team, even between successful conference rivals, in the case of Kendall. It’s the closest thing college football has to free agency (and yes, that’s still a long way off) and the only measure of power an unpaid player wields.
The top quarterback in the class of 2018, Lawrence, is about as secure in his starting role at Clemson as anyone in the country. But, just a year after they signed, three of the quarterbacks not too far below him in the rankings have already decided to transfer. Justin Fields left Georgia for Ohio State after Jake Fromm held onto his job—which he won from Jacob Eason, who transferred to Washington. Cameron Rising is one of two quarterbacks leaving Texas this winter now that Sam Ehlinger has taken control. And Jack Tuttle left Utah for Indiana, in a move that is understandably getting less coverage than the ones mentioned above. Still, over the course of a four-month season, nearly 10% of that class had found new homes. One-third of the class of 2017’s four- and five-star quarterbacks have already transferred after just two seasons—and a similar level of attrition will probably hit the 2018 quarterbacks over the next year.
It’s a wild, weird world out there for quarterbacks, and love the transfer trend or hate it, there’s no arguing it adds a level of intrigue to offseason roster shuffling. More importantly, it gives passed-over players a chance, and were it not for teams’ willingness to take in a transfer to start—for three years or one—the NFL might be missing some of its best young quarterbacks. The Oakland A’s would also be a much happier baseball team.