‘Messy’: QB transfers the new normal in college football
At Clemson, the arrival of celebrated freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence sent three other quarterbacks — one a former five-star recruit who signed just last year — looking for new teams.
At Ohio State, Joe Burrow saw his path to playing time looking bleak after spring practice and decided to transfer as a graduate student, making him immediately eligible to play. Now at LSU, Burrow won a starting job — and sent two more quarterbacks into the transfer market.
College quarterbacks are transferring with dizzying frequency, looking for playing time and chasing NFL dreams. It's become the new normal.
"I'd like to say that you're going to see a change," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "When you're recruiting you're going to have to have it in your mind that if you're No. 2 doesn't feel like he's going to get a shot you may lose him. I've come to grips with it a couple years ago. I don't see it changing."
He speaks from experience: Everett Golson, who led Notre Dame to the BCS championship game in 2012, transferred to Florida State in 2015 and Malik Zaire made a similar graduate transfer move last year to Florida.
"There are as many bad stories about the transfer of the quarterback as there are the good stories, too," Kelly said. "I don't think it's a home run, transferring out as the backup quarterback."
No. 12 Notre Dame's quarterback situation has been stable this offseason, but that's becoming increasingly unusual in college football. This offseason, No. 14 Michigan, Notre Dame's opponent in Saturday's opener, landed Shea Patterson as a transfer from Mississippi — and had two quarterbacks, Wilton Speight (UCLA) and Alex Malzone (Miami, Ohio) leave.
Michigan is one of at least 11 Power Five teams heading into the season with a transfer atop the depth chart at quarterback.
Patterson was the top-ranked quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings of the major ratings websites. Overall, eight of the top 20 quarterback recruits from 2016 have transferred .
Already four of the top 20 from 2017 have left the teams they signed with, including Hunter Johnson, who was rated No. 2 overall.
Johnson served as a backup for Clemson last season as a freshman. The arrival of Lawrence cleared out Clemson's quarterback room, leaving only Johnson and senior returning starter Kelly Bryant to compete. Johnson left after spring and is now at Northwestern , where he will sit out this season to fulfill NCAA transfer rules, and, ideally, move into the starting lineup next year after Clayton Thorson departs.
Nebraska's quarterback situation has been fluid under new coach Scott Frost, a former QB for the Cornhuskers. He signed the freshman Martinez, who enrolled early, and brought in Noah Vedral, a Nebraska native who transferred from UCF, Frost's previous employer.
After spring practices, Patrick O'Brien, a 2016 signee, announced he was transferring. Frost declared Martinez the starter this week. The next day, Tristan Gebbia, a top-20 quarterback recruit from 2017, left the team.
"It's hard to manage as a coach and you do what you can for kids and I understand their perspective, they want to play. It would be hypocritical for me to talk about how much we care about the players and not allow someone to do what they want to do and do what's best for him," said Frost, who transferred from Stanford to Nebraska when he played. "The flip side of that is we preach to our guys all the time 'team before me,' and it would be hypocritical of us to have someone on the team that was me before team."
Frost is hoping Vedral will get a waiver from the NCAA allowing him to be eligible this season. Frost said schools on quarter systems that start classes later in the year have an advantage when it comes to adding late transfers over schools on semesters like Nebraska.
The NCAA changed some transfer rules this year but kept in place the rule requiring players to sit out one season unless they have graduated. There has been talk of more tweaks to limit grad transfers and maybe give undergraduates more freedom to move with immediate eligibility.
All this quarterback movement makes trying to strike the right balance between what's best for players and coaches even more challenging.
"It's going to be messy," Frost said. "I wouldn't want to be the one to decide exactly what the rule is, but it's not fair to the rest of our team when we're losing kids right before camp that we're counting on."