The Fuzzy Math of the NCAA Transfer Portal
Max Olson (TheAthletic.com) — Herm Edwards has watched more than a dozen of his Arizona State football players put their names into the NCAA transfer portal this offseason. Some thought they could find better opportunities, some got passed up by younger players and some just didn’t fit. And Edwards says that’s OK.
He gets it. He’s not afraid to call this free agency. He wishes his kids the best and does what he can to help, and six have been fortunate enough to land at FBS programs. But as he watches the new transfer landscape unfold nationally, Edwards can’t help but notice how many college football transfers still don’t know where they’re heading and wonder if they knew what they were getting into.
“Some of them are still sitting there and they’re trying to figure out: What just happened?” Edwards said. “Well, reality just happened.”
The harsh reality is there are hundreds of FBS players out there who have yet to find new homes. Although there’s still time for many of them to land in good spots, they’re learning the hard way what a risky proposition it has become to try to transfer in college football.
The portal has become an open marketplace struggling with an extremely basic issue: too much supply, limited demand. At just the Power 5 level, more than 450 players have entered the portal, according to 247Sports’ transfer portal tracker. And at the moment, 240 of them are uncommitted. Including Group of 5 players, the total available is far more than 400.
A more telling reality check from this portal era: Of the more than 450 looking to leave Power 5 schools, only 20 percent have ended up at another Power 5 program. Upon hearing that percentage, Edwards paused and then replied: “I’m actually gonna go tell our team that. I want to make sure they understand this, because I don’t want a kid to be blindsided.”
Ninety-two players have transferred from one Power 5 school to another. Perhaps more alarming, as few as 65 have found a spot at a Group of 5 school. It would seem as if there are far more opportunities out there at the Group of 5 level for players on the move. But there aren’t.
Talk to college coaches and recruiting coordinators about this initial transfer data and they bring up a fact they fear is being underestimated: Teams simply don’t have room.
“I think when a lot of these kids decide to transfer, they think there’s enough spots open,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “But there are no spots available.”
The Division I Council’s 2017 recruiting reform package that established an early signing period and earlier official visits included a stricter limit of 25 initial counters (signees) per year for FBS programs. This tougher standard, done in an effort to further curb oversigning and other roster manipulation, has put coaches in a bind this offseason.
In the 2019 recruiting class, Power 5 schools finished with an average of 22 signees. These recruiting staffs can get creative with their accounting and find ways to squeeze in more than 25, but the point is this: if you signed 22, you can only take three, four, maybe five transfers this offseason. There are extreme exceptions — Miami signed 17, so the Hurricanes have been able to bring in eight transfers — but in general, the limit of 25 initial counters doesn’t allow for many portal acquisitions.
One Power 5 recruiting coordinator told The Athletic he’s receiving emails every day from hopeful transfers. His staff already signed two this offseason and now has “very, very little” room for more. That’s the case across the country right now, and too many transfer players don’t realize how many doors are actually closed.
“They have no idea — NONE — that the NCAA put in the hard 25 initial rule in,” another Power 5 staffer said. “They think anyone can go anywhere.”
A far more frustrating complication to this, coaches say, is when you do lose players to the portal, you don’t have room to replace them. This has emerged as a popular topic of discussion and consternation in conference coaches’ meetings in recent weeks, as coaches who have lost a lot of players this offseason come to realize it may take them years to get back to the 85-man scholarship limit. Edwards says the Sun Devils’ scholarship count is currently in the “low 70s,” and he’ll need two years to make it up.
“We need some way to replace some of those guys,” said Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, who’s had 12 players leave for various reasons. “I think it starts with player safety. You walk into spring ball with one running back, it’s a pretty tough situation. You move a guy to running back, and he’ll want to transfer because he didn’t want to switch positions. It’s a little bit of a never-ending cycle. It does seem fair to find a way to address some of that.”
Another reason why 240 Power 5 players haven’t found homes: If coaches do have room to take a transfer, they’re going to be extremely selective. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said when the Sooners staff has dug into the list of available players and their backgrounds — who’s on scholarship and who isn’t, who’s on academic probation, who’s been suspended — they’ve found “it whittles down pretty quick.” Edwards agreed.
“I look at some of these guys that other teams pick up and then I go back and I look at their résumé,” he said, “and I go, ‘Why would you want a guy with that type of production, with not a lot of production? You might as well go get a freshman guy and build your program.’”
We have seen a small number of players enter the portal, have a change of heart and stay put. Washington’s Jacob Sirmon, Alabama’s Eyabi Anoma and several players at Virginia Tech and Penn State arrived at that conclusion, and in a lot of ways, that’s a win-win. But every coach has to decide how permissive they’re willing to be about players exploring their options. Some are pulling a player’s scholarship once he enters the portal. At Pitt, Narduzzi says they’re not coming back: “If you go in, you can’t have one foot in, one foot out.”
Added Edwards: “When it happens, you’ve got one way to go as a coach. You’ve got to cut their aid. ‘Hey, I wanna keep my scholarship but I’m gonna go look.’ No, no, no. If you’re gonna go look, you’re gone.”
One irony of all this: When coaches take that hard stance, then the safest way for a player to enter the portal is by lining up their next stop beforehand. That’s going to lead to more impermissible contact and tampering — one of the problems the Council aimed to cure by establishing the transfer database.
The convergence of all these factors has left hundreds of talented players still hunting for their destination, including more than 40 who were once four-star prospects. More will continue to join them on a daily basis. Clemson linebacker Shaq Smith, a former five-star recruit and a potential starter for the defending champs, just joined the fray Wednesday morning.
When coveted talents like Smith, Chris Steele (left, now at ORE) and Matthew Baldwin unexpectedly enter the market, they’re only making the odds even tougher for those already available. How many of the 400-plus players will actually luck out and land at an FBS school? How many will wish they could go back but lose their aid? One Power 5 staffer who’s been tracking this warns: “It’s gonna cause a renaissance in JUCO football.”
In a lot of ways, this matter feels similar to the issue of underclassmen declaring for the NFL and going undrafted. There’s no one party at fault and no one way to fix it all. All the college coaches can do is try to educate their players on the realities of their odds. Coaches could also plan to sign fewer recruits in their 2020 classes to clear more room for future transfers.
What can the players do? If they haven’t transferred yet, they can learn from the struggles of this test case. They can be careful not to enter the portal without a real understanding of where they could end up. And maybe that leads to more staying put. Their coaches certainly hope so.
As North Carolina coach Mack Brown put it, in what sounds more like a wish than a prediction: “People are going to slow down when they find out, ‘Nobody wanted me?’ ”