Grad transfer rule is here to stay
Forgive Dana Holgorsen for not recognizing his place on the cutting edge in 2011.
Holgorsen took over as a rookie head coach at West Virginia under the most unusual of circumstances, and was on the verge of changing conferences, when Devon Brown fell into his lap as a transfer from Wake Forest in 2011.
WVU's third-leading receiver in his lone year with Holgorsen, Brown avoided the customary sit-out season after his transfer because he had already earned an undergraduate degree at Wake Forest.
By the end of that 2011 season, though, eyes nationally were open wide to the weighty impact of postgraduate transfers, later to be known simply as grad transfers. Blame Russell Wilson, the one-year Wisconsin quarterback, scooped up from North Carolina State, for blowing the lid off this nuance in the rulebook.
Wilson progressed from a fledgling minor league infielder in the Colorado Rockies' system to the single-season NCAA-record holder for passing efficiency, MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl star, to Rookie of the Year in the NFL, three-time Pro Bowl QB for the Seahawks and husband to R&B songstress Ciara.
He put grad transfers on the map and indefinitely raised expectations, sending coaches to scour the rosters of rival programs and lower-division powers for the next mercenary who could lead a title drive.
Labeled as free agents or pioneers set to unleash an epidemic similar to what exists in college basketball -- rampant with transfers on the undergraduate market -- grad transfers, no doubt, are changing the complexion of college football.
But are they changing it for the worse?
"I'm very comfortable with the way it works," said Holgorsen, set to enter his seventh year at West Virginia after a 10-win season in 2016. "It's never bit me, but I can see where coaches would be upset if it bit them."
You can imagine, six years after Wilson, how coaches and players nationally remain eager to tap into the grad-transfer movement. His accomplishments aside, success stories abound to offer motivation for the latest round of grad transfers.
More than 60 graduates switched schools at the FBS level in 2017.
Among the high-profile newcomers to August practice sessions are quarterbacks Max Browne (USC to Pitt), Brandon Harris (LSU to North Carolina), Malik Zaire (Notre Dame to Florida) and Shane Morris (Michigan to Central Michigan); receivers Freddy Canteen (Michigan to Notre Dame), Jeff Badet (Kentucky to Oklahoma) and Jalen Brown (Oregon to Northwestern); offensive tackle Aaron Cochran (Cal to Oklahoma State); defensive lineman Scott Pagano (Clemson to Oregon); and cornerback Shaq Wiggins (Louisville to Tennessee).
Some jump to find a better playing situation. Some do it to escape an unhealthy culture. Others need a fresh start or an out after a coaching change.
What's clear is that few players transfer to find a school with a strong graduate program in their desired area of study. Yes, that was, in fact, the impetus behind the initial legislation to open the door for graduates to transfer without penalty.
Nevertheless, interviews this summer with more than a dozen Power 5 coaches revealed none who were upset about the misappropriation of the original grad-transfer rules.
"If a kid comes into your program, does everything right, gets his degree and still has eligibility left," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, "I don't see why you would hold him back if he thinks he's got a better opportunity."
"I can't say people are abusing it," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said.
"That's the goal, to graduate," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
"I think a graduate transfer has earned the right," Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. "I know that may not be the most popular opinion, but it certainly is for me."
Actually, Rhule's opinion is popular. And Holgorsen adds an overlooked point, noting that schools are not bound to honor the scholarship of a graduate with remaining eligibility. So why should the graduate remain bound to the school?
"It protects the kid, too," Holgorsen said. "The overall purpose of signing a kid is to get him graduated. Once you get him graduated, if the kid wants to reset and go to a better situation -- if he does what he's supposed to and gets his degree -- why shouldn't he have every right to do it?
"But I understand the integrity of the rule [is being violated]."
As grad transfers continue to increase in prominence, coaches said, candidates to make the move need to first ensure they're motivated by the appropriate factors.
"What is the reason?" Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. "As a coach, the first thing you've got to do is your research."
Notable graduate transfers in 2017
Here are 20 graduate transfers to watch in 2017.
|Name||New school||Old school|
|QB Max Browne||Pittsburgh||USC|
|QB Brandon Harris||North Carolina||LSU|
|QB Malik Zaire||Florida||Notre Dame|
|QB Thomas Sirk||East Carolina||Duke|
|QB Anu Solomon||Baylor||Arizona|
|QB Shane Morris||Central Michigan||Michigan|
|WR Jeff Badet||Oklahoma||Kentucky|
|WR Freddy Canteen||Notre Dame||Michigan|
|WR James Clark||Virginia Tech||Ohio State|
|WR Jalen Brown||Northwestern||Oregon|
|WR Cameron Smith||Notre Dame||Arizona State|
|WR Ellis Jefferson||Houston||Arizona State|
|RB James Butler||Iowa||Nevada|
|OT Aaron Cochran||Oklahoma State||Cal|
|OG Wilson Bell||Auburn||Florida State|
|DL Scott Pagano||Oregon||Clemson|
|CB Shaq Wiggins||Tennessee||Louisville|
|CB Adrian Baker||Oklahoma State||Clemson|
|CB Dee Delaney||Miami||The Citadel|
|CB Corey Winfield||West Virginia||Syracuse|
The Cyclones whiffed on a pair of grad transfers this year at a position group that appears in need of help. Offensive linemen Khaliel Rodgers and David Dawson, via USC and Michigan, respectively, pledged to play for Iowa State in 2017. Rodgers later landed at North Carolina, then retired from football; Dawson lasted only a few hours at Iowa State in June before leaving.
In the end, Campbell said he'd take the risk again.
"I'd rather know before you're on campus if it's not going to work out," he said, "than after you're entrenched in our locker room."
North Carolina took four grad transfers, including Rodgers and the QB Harris. Coach Larry Fedora said last month that he has taken a cautious approach with grad transfers prior to this year.
"A lot of it has to do with the personality of the young man you're bringing in," Fedora said, "and how [much] he wants to be part of a team."
That said, the temptation to find a new spot can lead to hasty decisions for players, too, if they are not deliberate in making a decision.
Indiana cornerback Rashard Fant watched teammate Michael Hunter leave in 2015 as a grad transfer for Oklahoma State and Wiggins, a friend from home in Atlanta, depart Louisville this year for Tennessee.
A second-team All-Big Ten corner, Fant considered the NFL after last season and his options as a transfer. He opted to stay at Indiana under first-year coach Tom Allen but said he remains in favor of the system that would have allowed him to leave for another program.
"Ultimately, everyone wants to pursue their own dream," Fant said.
In today's often over-legislated world of college athletics, factions of the observing public search for a dark side of the grad-transfer movement. But in the five seasons since Wilson blasted open the doors to a steady flow of transfers, what's clear is that he did not, in fact, ruin it for the guys after him.
Unless, of course, they have eyes for Ciara.
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