In 2019, The Athletic reported that there was a 75 percent chance that a top-50 quarterback recruit would transfer schools if he didn’t see playing time in his first two seasons. And if he did see playing time — still a 45 percent chance he would choose to move elsewhere. The college quarterback ecosystem rests in an infinitely fragile state — all one has to do is look at Jalen Hurts or Spencer Rattler, incredibly successful until they were benched for true freshmen, suddenly tanking their draft stock and sitting, forgotten, on the sidelines, not a thought paid to their past accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if a QB was successful — if he’s not performing right here and right now, there are plenty of other kids ready to step up and take his place.
Barring the rare successful two-QB system, there are only 130 active quarterbacks at a time in Division I FBS schools. Break that into four classes, that’s an average of 32.5 quarterbacks per recruiting class, which means that being a top 50 QB in your class doesn’t necessarily mean all that much. It’s understandable when frustrated and impatient sophomores just want to live out what they were promised coming out of high school. But this year’s offseason transfer portal trend has taken an interesting turn — a number of QBs who actually had the starting job are looking to get out and get a fresh start somewhere new, perhaps reading the signs that coaches and fanbases are ready for a change that will come regardless of whether they remain on the roster.
A few of the grad transfers, including Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr., who is headed to Washington; Auburn’s Bo Nix, who announced he’ll transfer to Oregon; and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez, whose next destination is Kansas State; may have interpreted some warning signs and gotten out ahead of getting benched. Even Zach Calzada, who stepped in after A&M’s starter was injured and led the Aggies to a victory over Alabama, is out of there. With young talent waiting in the wings to prove their worth, it’s not the worst idea to start over somewhere new, but it’s curious that a lot of these guys seem so sure that they’ll lose the QB1 battle at their own schools. To be fair, when a program is looking for a change, the quarterback position is the first or second spot it looks to make an adjustment. And a lot of these programs are looking for change. The other major adjustment is another reason the portal may be looking so quarterback-heavy this season — the coaches.
With an unprecedented coaching carousel (28 D1-FBS programs changed head coaches) this year, a lot of college QBs — starters and backups — have the opportunity to start on a clean slate with a whole new staff. No matter who originally recruited them, or what their relationship with the former coaching staff was, new leadership is bound to bring changes. USC’s Kedon Slovis likely saw this coming with Lincoln Riley’s hire when he entered the transfer portal (the rumor mill is saying he’ll end up at Pitt, though that’s a rumored landing spot for Calzada, as well). It’s not a bad move, and there’s no shortage of coaches who would rather play a safe year with a grad transfer who already has on-field experience than give a high-risk, high-reward shot to a talented freshman.
Then we have the QBs like Quinn Ewers, who is headed to Texas after what was likely a quick realization that he would be sitting on the bench behind Heisman candidate CJ Stroud for the next four years. But when schools sign QBs like Nix and Ewers, they run a very high risk of losing out on the backups who they recruited. How to walk that tightrope is the real challenge of this landscape — what is the risk/reward ratio for sticking with your recruits and taking the time to invest in them and develop them on the field? At this point in the process, the first round of QB recruiting can be virtually meaningless for a lot of schools — unless you’re getting a Trevor Lawrence, the transfer portal is very available for use, and use it they will.
Just look at Justin Fields, who left Georgia for the starting position at Ohio State, which then led JT Daniels to transfer from USC to Georgia. Joe Burrow transferred from OSU to lead LSU to its 2019 national championship. The transfer success stories are numerous, and as coaches and athletic departments become more impatient for immediate wins, it makes sense that they’re not necessarily willing to take a risk with developing a recruit — although all these guys were once recruits being developed, just by different programs than the ones they ended up winning at. The QBs are impatient, too, as they watch their eligibility clock running out and see their NFL draft window closing. There’s not much imperative for schools and QBs to stick together anymore, unless you’re Alabama. No one is above the transfer portal (sorry, Dabo).
So does the process of recruiting QBs out of high school need to change? Not to get all purist, but this constant carousel, which seems practically inevitable at this point, very well may affect their education, as well as their relationships with coaches and teammates. Perhaps if coaches were given a bit more leeway, this could change, but there’s no real reason for the programs to change their ways, and we can’t blame players for wanting to get snaps. Maybe this is just the direction that the sport is headed in, especially with transfer portal limitations becoming virtually nonexistent. So I suppose the next question is whether this trend affects quarterbacks’ dedication to their schools upon enrolling, and if it does, how that might affect the future of a sport that relies heavily on fan tribalism, player development, and (like it or not) program loyalty?