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Entering the transfer portal is the thing to do these days in college football. Over 1,600 players had entered the portal as of this past Thursday. That staggering number could climb even higher as bowl games wrap up over the next month. The portal will not close until January 18.
What this means is that upwards of one thousand college football players will be looking for new homes, stepping into new programs, learning new systems and working with new coaches. If that sounds anything like NFL free agency, that is essentially because it is. Players are allowed to pick new schools if they are unhappy (maybe they want more NIL money). However, the programs need to be interested as well. It’s basically college free agency.
It sounds great in theory, but there are plenty of cautionary tales for why the transfer portal does not always work out how players want. Not every player who enters the portal is going to land with a Power 5 program. There are going to be tons of players disappointed by the options they have available to them.
However, there could be a huge benefit down the line for NFL teams with players switching schools. For evaluators, it is an opportunity to see prospects in different systems, which helps answer questions about scheme fit at the next level. For example, if you have a corner that plays in a mostly man-to-man defense before transferring to a school whose defensive coordinator favors zone concepts, you now have way more information on that player than you would have had they stayed at the first school. You can evaluate how they fare in both schemes and better identify both strengths and weaknesses in their game.
There is also something to be said for small school or even non D-1 school players getting the chance to prove themselves against better competition. Jared Verse is the perfect example. Verse dominated at the University of Albany, which competes at the FCS level. We’ve seen several FCS stars in recent years work their way through the draft ranks and wind up as early draft picks, such as Trey Lance, Trevor Penning and Jeremy Chinn.
Unfortunately, those players are often few and far between, facing questions about the level of competition and their ability to make the jump to the NFL level. Verse erased any of those concerns after transferring to Florida State in 2022. He dominated the ACC, racking up 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Under the previous system, we likely would have seen Verse transfer and sit out a year, or wait until he completed his degree before moving as a graduate transfer. Instead, Verse is getting genuine first-round draft buzz for 2023. There will likely be several more to join the ranks of the FCS to FBS to NFL draft pipeline. Washington State’s Cam Ward (formerly at Incarnate Word) and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders (previously with Jackson State) figure to be two high-profile quarterback recruits in 2024 who began their collegiate career playing in the FCS.
Even for players who started out at the FBS level, the portal offers a second chance and a chance to rebuid their draft stock. I wrote about how D.J. Uiagalelei needs to go through that process right now, and how he could follow in the footsteps of Bo Nix (who announced he is returning for another year at Oregon) and Spencer Rattler. Nix in particular is a great example of a player who struggled to find his footing at his first school before really turning it around during his second stop.
On the flip side, the portal helps weed out players who maybe don’t quite make the cut that might have previously been drafted based on potential because coaches believed they could “fix” the player. Former highly-touted quarterbacks like Kedon Slovis and J.T. Daniels stand out here. Both arrived in college football with a ton of fanfare and showed flashes at USC. However, neither managed to prove that the Trojans and the former coaching staff were really the problem, struggling with injuries and consistency in subsequent stops. Daniels is now searching for his fourth college team. Slovis is seeking his third. Neither seems to have legitimate draft hopes at this point due in large part because there is no mystery left surrounding them. No coach can look and believe that he has the perfect system to unlock either of these players after seeing both struggle to take hold in multiple schemes at this point. Hopes of a change of scenery will only get you so far.
For as flawed and maligned as the transfer portal might be at this stage, there could be a ton of good that comes out of it when it comes to evaluating players. Scouting is all about gathering information on prospects, and the more you have, the more likely you are to get the evaluation right. It will never be an exact science, but there is a chance we start to see fewer players fall through the cracks and more players given a second chance because they were able to turn things around at a different school. College football is a rapidly changing landscape, and I think there is plenty to be excited about.
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