Some Quarterbacks Run an End-Around on Transfer Constraints
DALLAS — As college athletes and their advocates have intensified efforts to win greater rights in recent years, a small but high-profile segment of football players has divined a way to attain something that resembles free agency.
Quarterbacks at some of the country’s biggest football programs — including at least one who will start in this week’s College Football Playoff semifinals — have taken advantage of individual bargaining power by graduating early and then switching universities, using a once-obscure N.C.A.A. rule that allows graduates to play elsewhere without sitting out a year of competition, as most transfers must.
The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, who played his final season at Wisconsin after graduating from North Carolina State, helped pioneer the strategy, and Jake Coker, who will start for Alabama against Michigan State on Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl, may be the most visible example of it this season. But other players, including at least one of Coker’s backups, have taken note of the rule and accelerated their studies in an effort to keep their options open.
“If you wield it successfully, you do have leverage,” Robert Boland, a sports business professor at Ohio University, said.
Transfers are not uncommon, of course, especially at a position like quarterback, where the second-stringer can spend a season or more gripping a clipboard. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who will lead the Sooners in the other Playoff semifinal against Clemson, began his career at Texas Tech. But Coker’s path to Alabama is more emblematic of the new reality of the position.
After graduating from high school in 2010 out of Mobile, Ala., Coker accepted a scholarship offer from Florida State. After a redshirt season and another season backing up E. J. Manuel, Coker fought for but lost the starting spot to Jameis Winston. Any quarterback controversy dissipated when Winston won the Heisman Trophy and led Florida State to a national championship.
Coker knew Winston would be the starter for at least another season. He had begun taking 20 credit hours of classes a semester — 12 or 15 is more typical — as, he said in a recent interview, “a safety net.” (The move to year-round training schedules has made it easier for athletes to graduate in three years.) Coker knew that if he graduated, he could offer his talents to a new program and maximize his chance to do what he wanted to do all along: play in the N.F.L.
“If you don’t start in college,” Coker said, “it’s pretty tough to move on from there.”
Unlike a left tackle, who can move to guard, or a cornerback, who can take up safety, a quarterback who is not starting is probably not playing at all. That is surely part of the reason the father of Blake Barnett, a top-ranked recruit who enrolled at Alabama in the fall, told ESPN in 2014 that his son planned to graduate in three years, just in case.
Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich, who started a graduate transfer, Vernon Adams Jr., at quarterback this season and is likely to start another, Dakota Prukop, next season, told reporters, “It just speaks to the importance of talent, certainly at that position.”
N.F.L. teams have not seemed to penalize players for their decisions to transfer, providing further incentive.
“The whole idea is to play,” said Mike Martz, a former St. Louis Rams coach and a former offensive coordinator in the N.F.L. and in college.
“If a guy transfers because he wants to play and there’s a really good player” ahead of him, Martz said, “you can’t fault him for that.”
But the leverage Coker and players like Florida State’s Everett Golson and Michigan’s Jake Rudock have exerted in recent years has been threatened by a reaction from many college coaches and universities who see competitive chaos and academic de-emphasis in the movement of players.
Last year, the N.C.A.A. curtailed waivers that had allowed undergraduate transfers in high-profile sports like football and men’s basketball to play without having to sit a year. And while graduate transfers can move more freely, they can be restricted from many destinations by their current college. N.C.A.A. rules also prohibit contact, even indirectly, between a player and a potential future college, although the rule is widely flouted via third-party intermediaries like high school coaches, according to many observers who have experience with transfers.
While the stated goal of these restrictions is to encourage transfers who are academically driven and to prevent an anarchic status quo in which athletes are amenable to continual recruitment, at least one official acknowledged the rules could be altered “to minimize the abuse.”
“You’ll never write a rule to eliminate abuse of it,” said Amy Huchthausen, the America East commissioner, who has worked extensively on N.C.A.A. transfer policy, “but there’s a better way we can operate so that a student doesn’t feel like they are going to burn the bridge if they don’t know exactly where they’re going to go.”
Michael Brewer, a quarterback who transferred to Virginia Tech two years ago after Texas Tech barred him from his first choices, compared the restrictions on player movement with the absence of similar restrictions on coaches.Photo
“He can leave and go to a rival school,” Brewer said of a coach who takes a new job. “You can graduate from the university, put your three, four years there, and you can’t?”
This season, at least five of the final top-25 teams started transfers at quarterback: Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida State, Oregon and Michigan. This month, it was announced that the former Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles was transferring to Boston College and that the former Texas A&M quarterback Kyler Murray, who is not a graduate student, was transferring to Oklahoma.
Oklahoma’s Mayfield, who was also not a graduate transfer, is an outlier in more ways than one. In 2013, he walked on at Texas Tech and won the starting job. He then transferred to Oklahoma last year without a release from Texas Tech, requiring him not only to sit out a year but effectively to forfeit his fourth season of eligibility.
Mayfield’s case further raised the question of whether the current system, which to a significant extent puts players at the mercy of the coaches they are leaving behind, is unfair. The issue is most acute in the case of graduate transfers, who, after all, have done the thing the N.C.A.A. most encourages athletes to do: earn a degree.
Brewer’s situation is a good case study. Having graduated from Texas Tech in 2013 after three years (one as a redshirt) in which he attempted a total of 58 passes, he hoped to play football and study for a master’s degree elsewhere while staying close to his hometown, Austin, Tex. But when he received permission to contact other colleges, he found that he was not only restricted from playing immediately at another Big 12 program but also at any other college in Texas or for any team on Texas Tech’s schedule over the next couple of years.
“Once I got those documents in my hand, then it was Plan B,” Brewer said in an interview. He picked Virginia Tech, where he started 20 games over his final two seasons.
Coker’s process was simpler. Although Blake Sims won the job last year and the redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman provided early competition this year, Coker has made the position his own as the second-ranked Tide (12-1) prepare to play No. 3 Michigan State. In a ball-control offense designed to showcase running back Derrick Henry, this season’s Heisman Trophy winner, Coker has completed more than 65 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns, with eight interceptions — but only two in his last seven games.
Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, said this week that the 23-year-old Coker improved over the course of this season because he finally got the necessary experience.
“You’re a freshman until you play,” Kiffin said. “And even though Jake is a senior, he hadn’t really played.”
This article was selected for educational purposes only.
Jennifer M. Condaras
BIG EAST Conference
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