In 2019, Atletico reported that there was a 75 percent chance that a quarterback recruited in the top 50 would move schools if he didn’t have time to play in his first two seasons. And if he had seen time to play, there was still a 45 percent chance he would have chosen to move elsewhere. The ecosystem of college quarterbacks is in an infinitely fragile state: all one has to do is watch Jalen Hurts or Spencer Rattler, who were incredibly successful until they were benched for real freshmen, who suddenly they amassed their conscripts and sat, forgotten, on the sidelines, not a thought given to their past successes. It doesn’t matter if a QB was success – if he doesn’t perform right here and now, there are plenty of other guys ready to step forward and take his place.
Aside from the rare success of the two QB system, there are only 130 active quarterbacks at a time in Division I FBS schools. Divide it into four classes, that’s an average of 32.5 quarterbacks per recruiting class, which means being among the top 50 QB in your class doesn’t necessarily mean much. It’s understandable when frustrated and impatient sophomores just want to live what they were promised after high school. But this year’s off-season transfer portal trend has taken an interesting turn: A number of QBs who actually got the initial job are trying to get out and start over somewhere, perhaps reading the signs that coaches and fans they are ready for a change that will come regardless of whether they stay on the roster.
Some of the transfer graduates, including Michael Penix Jr. of Indiana, headed to Washington; Bo Nix of Auburn, who announced he will move to Oregon; and Adrian Martinez of Nebraska, whose next destination is Kansas State; he may have interpreted some warning signs and gone out before being put on the bench. Zach Calzada, who intervened after the A&M owner got injured and led the Aggies to victory over Alabama, is also out of there. With young talent waiting in the wings to prove their worth, it’s not the worst idea to start over, but it’s curious that many of these kids seem so confident they’ll lose the QB1 battle in their own schools. To be fair, when a program is looking for a change, the quarterback’s position is the first or second point at which it tries to make a change. And many of these programs seek change. The other major adjustment is another reason the portal might look so heavy as a quarterback this season: the coaches.
With an unprecedented coaching carousel (28 D1-FBS programs changed head coaches) this year, many college QBs – novice and backup – have the opportunity to start from scratch with entirely new staff. No matter who originally recruited them or what their relationship with the former coaching staff was, the new leadership is bound to bring about changes. USC’s Kedon Slovis likely saw this happen with the hiring of Lincoln Riley when he entered the transfer portal (rumored to end up in Pitt, although this is said to be a 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 graduate transfer who already has field experience than give a high-risk, high-rewarding shot to a talented freshman.
Then we have QBs like Quinn Ewers, who is headed to Texas after what was probably a quick realization that he would sit on the sidelines 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 the backups they have recruited. How to walk a tightrope is the real challenge of this landscape: what is the risk / reward ratio to stay with your recruits and take the time to invest in them and develop them in the field? At this point in the process, the first round of QB recruiting can be practically meaningless for many schools – unless you have a Trevor Lawrence, the transfer portal is very available for use, and they will use it.
Just look at Justin Fields, who left Georgia for starting position in Ohio State, who then led JT Daniels to move from USC to Georgia. Joe Burrow moved from the OSU to lead LSU to its 2019 national championship. Transfer success stories are plentiful, and as coaches and athletic departments become more eager for immediate wins, it makes sense that they are not necessarily willing to race. a risk with developing a recruit – although all of these guys were once development-stage recruits, only from programs other than the ones they ended up winning. The QBs are also impatient as they watch their eligibility time run out and see the NFL draft window close. There is no longer much imperative that schools and QBs stay together, unless you are in Alabama. Nobody is above the transfer portal (sorry, Dabo).
So does the process of recruiting QBs out of high school have to change? Not to all become purists, but this constant carousel, which at this point seems practically inevitable, could very well affect their training, as well as their relationships with coaches and teammates. Maybe if the coaches were allowed a little more leeway, that could change, but there’s no real reason for the schedules to change their ways, and we can’t blame the players for wanting to get shots. Perhaps this is just the direction the sport is heading, especially with the limitations of the transfer portal becoming virtually non-existent. So I suppose the next question is whether this trend affects quarterbacks’ dedication to their schools at the time of enrollment, and if it does, how that might affect the future of a sport that relies heavily on fan tribalism, the development of players and (like it or not) loyalty program?