Untangling College Football's Quarterback Transfer Trend

The most consequential storylines of the college football offseason revolve around the high incidence of quarterback competition within the nation's top programs. Perennial contenders like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia among several others, find themselves in situations where incumbent starters and/or veterans are at different stages of being pushed and likely usurped by touted (and in most cases, more talented) underclassmen.

In an attempt preserve depth at the position, college staffs are incentivized to draw out and sometimes even feign competition, hoping to hold off quarterbacks from transferring. How these situations shake out and the impending aftermath will set the course for college football's immediate future. 

While there has been a handful of notable quarterback transfers over the history of college football like Troy Aikman (Oklahoma to UCLA) and Jeff George (Purdue to Illinois), the vast majority of transfers, including most that have made notable impacts, have occurred in the last decade. This trend is only growing, as no less than forty FBS quarterbacks have transferred so far this offseason.

To get a better picture of the current transfer landscape in college football, let us take a look at the top quarterbacks from the 2010-2016 recruiting cycles.

  • From 2010 to 2016, 119 quarterbacks were ranked in the 247Sports Composite's top 300 overall prospects.  
  • 76 of the 119 have transferred to date, with that number undoubtedly rising as soon as this week. 
  • 10 of the 76 transfers were ranked as five-stars and 27 were ranked as top 100 prospects.
  • Of the five five-star transfers from the 2010-2014 cycles, Jeff Driskel (Florida to Louisiana Tech) is the only one to end his career as the starter at his new school. Phillip Sims (Alabama to Virginia), Gunner Kiel (Notre Dame to Cincinnati), Max Browne (USC to Pitt) and Kyle Allen (Texas A&M to Houston) did not. 
  • Three of the 76 transfers have been selected in the NFL draft to date: Jacoby Brissett (Florida to N.C. State), Driskel and Chad Kelly (Clemson to JUCO to Ole Miss). 
  • Interestingly, four pairs of top 300 quarterback signees to ink with the same school in the same recruiting cycle transferred: Rob Bolden/Paul Jones (Penn State, 2010), Brissett/Driskel (Florida, 2011), Anthony Jennings/Hayden Rettig (LSU, 2014), Quinten Dormady/Sheriron Jones (Tennessee, 2015).

As to why the transfers occurred:

  • 62 of 76 transferred for reasons best simplified as lack of playing time/depth chart.
  • 22 of the 62 were one-time starters and ultimately replaced.
  • 40 of the 62 failed to take snaps as a starter. 

While it has become cliche for the traditionalist college football media to bemoan the increasing transiency among quarterbacks, there are several hard factors at play other than "a failure to compete."

The most obvious accelerant is the institution of the graduate transfer rule. Since 2011, the NCAA has allowed athletes with undergraduate degrees to transfer as a graduate student while maintaining immediate eligibility. 

While the rule pads the number of total transfers, our limited history indicates that the majority of grad transfers fail to make an impact outside of providing depth or serving as a bridge to a younger quarterback. This is in part due to the fact that most grad transfers have yet to take significant snaps and typically have just one year (and in many cases one semester) to adapt to a new team and offense.

Russell Wilson, who saw immense success as a grad transfer at Wisconsin is an extreme outlier. Wilson was a three-year starter at N.C. State and was runner-up for ACC Player of the Year, while holding the national record for most consecutive completions without throwing an interception (379). He learned the Wisconsin offense in one month and proceeded to break the NCAA passing efficiency record. 

A lack of dispersion among the position's best prospects is another easily identifiable factor. Most top quarterbacks pick from a select group of programs on an annual basis, creating back-logged depth charts. Just nineteen programs account for 70% of the 119 top signal callers surveyed above. Interestingly, those nineteen programs account for less than half of the first round quarterbacks taken in the NFL draft since 2012- despite signing the glut of the position's top-ranked prospects.

Coaching turnover, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, also plays a role. The decreasing length of coaching tenures is a relatively recent development. Eighty-four of the 130 FBS head coaches have been at their current school for four years or less. Seventeen of the twenty-one head coaches hired this offseason have offensive backgrounds, creating a vacuum and industry-wide domino effect among offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches. This leads to not only an unfamiliarity with players that new staffs have not recruited, but also contributes to a lack of patience with a quarterback, should he struggle. 

The high number of poor evaluations at the position is tougher to quantify than the previous factors, but still undoubtedly plays a large role in the spiking transfer totals (and resulting lack of success) among highly-rated quarterbacks. Even when accounting for the level of difficulty involved in a transfer such as a new offense, coaching staff, teammates and surroundings, a low percentage of former top quarterbacks meet expectations at their new program. 

Thirty-five of the 119 top quarterback prospects from 2010 to 2016 have transferred from one Power Five school to another. Of that thirty-five, twelve have started to date with seven to twelve projected to end their career as a starter at the new program. As noted above, just one five-star transfer from the 2010-2014 cycles ended his career as a starter (Jeff Driskel) and that was at a Group of Five program. 

An accelerated recruiting calendar is the primary driver contributing to poor evaluations among college staffs. The vast majority of quarterback prospects commit in the spring and early summer prior to their senior seasons. Given the high demand and importance of the position, the market dictates that college staffs make hasty projections, oftentimes with little to go on should they miss on some top targets. A virtual game of musical chairs ensues once the annual quarterback dominoes begin to fall. Most programs take just one quarterback per cycle and an emphasis is placed on making the signal caller the foundation of the recruiting class. This a relatively recent development in the scope of college football history, having taken shape over the past twenty years. 

As it pertains to rankings, recruiting networks have historically placed a similar emphasis on the nascent stages of a quarterback's recruiting process- video from sophomore and junior seasons and camp showings prior to the senior year. 

Camp circuits like the Elite 11, while useful if properly contextualized, have been over-emphasized, thus obscuring the evaluation process. Thought-leader status has been frequently outsourced to a small group that places most of its focus on one day camp showings which leads to the selection of a few dozen finalists. Like the college programs, Elite 11 camps are conducted prior to a quarterback's senior season and thus a limited projection based on a small sample size that disregards running and improvisational ability. 

Five quarterbacks (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson) are currently projected to be taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. They will join three in 2017 (Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson), three in 2016 (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch) and two in 2015 (Jameis WinstonMarcus Mariota) as recent top picks at the position. Of these thirteen quarterbacks, five were Elite 11 finalists and three were ranked in the top 100 of the 247Sports Composite (seven in the top 300). Two- Rosen and Winston- were five-star prospects. 

As I have written previously, closer inspection of this group reveals a clear profile: mobile quarterbacks who rack up total yards and touchdowns while throwing very few interceptions during their final high school season. The same applies to recent Heisman Trophy winners (there is an unsurprising crossover within the groups). Conversely, top-ranked quarterbacks who fail to meet expectations (most of whom were Elite 11 finalists) tend to throw more interceptions and run for fewer yards and touchdowns as seniors. 

Unlike college and camp staffs, recruiting networks have the luxury of using the senior season as a factor in the evaluation process, yet early evaluations and camp showings remain primary factors in driving rankings.

Perhaps the most critical question to ask when assessing a quarterback transfer is why. Most transfers that see success, particularly those that transfer within the Power Five conferences, have minimal on-field reasons for leaving their first school. The majority of recent top transfers had productive starting experience and some degree of scandal, discipline or a fluky depth chart situation involved in their departures.

Jarrett Stidham (scandal/coach fired), Will Grier (PED suspension), Chad Kelly (discipline/Deshaun Watson), Kenny Hill (discipline/Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen) comprise the bulk of recent intra-Power Five transfers that will finish their careers as starters.

Here is a cheat sheet of key factors that are typically telling of a quarterback transfer's chances of success:

  • Did they start and produce at their previous school?
  • Did non-performance reasons contribute to their departure?
  • Do they have multiple years to play?
  • Does the new school have an offensive head coach and/or run an uptempo offense?

Keep these in mind in the coming weeks and months as quarterback battles and subsequent transfers will continue to dominate the college football news cycle.

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