Addison had just won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wide receiver and had positioned himself as a top NFL prospect. Later that month, he transferred to USC, leaving Pitt’s coaches scrambling for a replacement with only a few months left until the season started.
Transferring — and using the portal, which launched in the fall of 2018 — has become a staple of college football, even more so after the NCAA eliminated a rule in April 2021 that required transfers to sit out a year at their new university. The rule granted them a one-time waiver to transfer without penalty and with immediate eligibility, and it opened the floodgates of player movement: 1,695 FBS players entered the portal in the 2019-20 cycle, and that number increased to 3,085 in 2021-22.
We’ve seen the results on the field: In 2020, 10.7% of FBS starters were transfers. This season, that number nearly doubled, to 20.9%, according to SportSource Analytics.
The new rule, however, has been an adjustment — and opportunity — for football programs, which now have to construct their rosters on a year-to-year basis. Coaches have to manage scholarship numbers, recruit their own roster to keep players happy and maintain the workload to evaluate potential transfers. Oh, and they also have to win games, too.
“We have to start thinking like NFL teams — you’re rebuilding every offseason,” a personnel director for a Power 5 school said. “Your culture is changing every year and there’s almost too much chaos to it.”
Now, there’s a twist to how the transfer portal works. To limit the uncertainty around scholarship numbers and streamline the process for players, the Division I Council approved in August new transfer window dates for when players can enter the portal. Instead of being able to leave a school at any time, players now have to enter the portal within set dates. The first window opens the day after the championship teams are selected, which will be Dec. 5, and closes 45 days later on Jan. 18, 2023. There is also a 15-day spring period from May 1-15.
How will these looming transfer window dates affect the sport, both now and in the future? How do coaches feel about the new rules? And what are the disadvantages? We talked to coaches and player personnel directors across the country to better understand the changing college football landscape.
OK, what exactly is the transfer portal?
No, the transfer portal isn’t something from “Quantum Leap.” It’s an online database created to allow opposing college coaches the ability to communicate legally with athletes who declare their intention to transfer.
Once a school’s compliance department enters a player’s name into the portal, that player is free to communicate with coaches from other schools but does not have to transfer.
Do players have to transfer during the new windows?
No. The windows are meant for players to enter their names into the portal, which is different from actually transferring. Once their name is in the portal, they can transfer whenever they want as long as they are able to gain admissions and meet academic requirement dates.
How did transferring work before the windows?
Players could enter the transfer portal whenever they wanted — before the season, during the season, after the season, in the spring. There wasn’t much warning as to when they would go in outside of notifying compliance.
That was an issue for coaches, because they were now required to recruit their own roster to make sure no one would unexpectedly leave. Keeping full rosters and maintaining depth throughout the season became the concern.
I thought you said they had to wait to enter the portal. A few names have popped up recently — why are they allowed to enter?
There are a few exceptions to the portal windows. Graduate transfers can enter at any time. Even prior to the immediate-eligibility waiver, grad transfers had been able to play for another team right away because they fulfilled their undergraduate requirements.
Players whose head coaches were fired during the season will have an immediate 30-day window to enter the portal, allowing other coaches to talk and communicate with them if there’s a future spot on their roster.
Among the players in the portal now because their coach was fired: Arizona State defensive backs Kejuan and Keon Markham, Georgia Tech linebacker Demetrius Knight II, Nebraska wide receiver Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Wisconsin offensive lineman Logan Brown.
If a player enters the portal now, can he transfer midseason and play for his new team?
No. It isn’t like a professional sports trade. Players would need to wait to be eligible until the following season. Whether they can continue to play for their current team, or stay on scholarship, is up to the coach of their current program.
“Prior to this rule, somebody this week could say, ‘I’m entering the portal’ and they are removed from the team. Then they’re just at the school, you’re paying for the scholarship to the end of the semester, but they’re visiting other places,” an SEC personnel director said. “If you have an injury, now what if we need that player and they get to play? Does that change if they want to transfer?”
How do programs know who is going into the portal?
College scouting and personnel departments must be ready for anyone to enter the portal.
“We would evaluate anyone we thought could hit the portal,” an SEC personnel director said. “Halfway through the year last year, we knew we were going to have a need at receiver and other positions, so we would just go through and find guys that we thought might end up in the portal or Group of 5 guys that were excelling that may want to jump to the next level.”
Staffs also have to prepare for the opposite — if one of their own players decides to leave.
“It kind of doubled the amount of prospects for evaluating — with high school recruits and transfers — and trying to get information,” the personnel director said. “It has added a significant amount of work and as it continues to evolve, we continue to learn and adapt our process.”
Why would coaches like the new rules?
The SEC personnel director said he and his staff believe the windows allow teams to keep their rosters intact throughout the season instead of losing players as it goes on, help with roster management and know what positions need to be filled.
Knowing how many scholarships are going to be allocated to transfers and how many are left for high school recruits is a big deal. In May, the NCAA allowed schools to go over the 25 initial counter limit, which capped teams at 25 transfers and recruits per year. Schools, however, still have to stay at or under the 85 total scholarship limit.
“I think having defined windows of time is good. I think the big thing that most coaches will probably tell you is that the length — the longer that window is, the less certainty there is,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “You know, I think we all sleep better when that portal closes. And then obviously, if you’re in need of a player it creates opportunity, so I think it’s good and bad.”
Are there any drawbacks for coaches?
One Power 5 assistant told ESPN windows are merely a formality and that coaches will find out if a player wants to transfer or not ahead of time anyway.
“You’re going to have kids on your campus and on your team, but the reality is they’re not happy and they don’t want to be there anymore,” said Andy Frank, director of player personnel at Penn State. “You’re going to keep them going through things they’d probably rather move on from, and that’s not good for culture.”
What about the scouting and personnel departments?
Frank also says it’s going to put a strain on scouting and personnel staffs who are already stretched thin. Not knowing who is in the portal or who will go in the portal essentially means they have to evaluate every potential player on every roster that might transfer.
“I think you have to do your due diligence, similar to what an NFL board would do relative to people that are put on the waiver wire,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “People that are free agents or anything like that, you better know the guys that are from the areas that you’re interested in looking at. And so yeah, I think it expands your personnel department and puts more of an emphasis on understanding players that are in other programs.”
What about the players?
Players are using high school coaches, trainers and intermediaries to explore options before going into the portal. Those conversations are going on behind the scenes so players know if there are spots open at other schools.
Isn’t that tampering?
Tampering has happened all along with the portal, and the NCAA hasn’t figured out a way to stop it. In May 2021, a prominent high school coach told ESPN he estimated that nearly 60% of college teams were tampering in his experience.
“With one player, last season I got four calls from four different conferences,” the high school coach said. “‘Is he happy? They’re not using him like we would use him.’ These are SEC, Big Ten and some big-name schools.”
ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported in April that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi called Riley multiple times to express his displeasure with the possibility that tampering happened when receiver Addison transferred to play for the Trojans, however no direct tampering violations have been brought forth by the school.
So again, what about the players?
For players, entering the portal without knowing if another team will offer a scholarship can be a dangerous gamble.
“If you just enter the portal with no plan, unless you were the man at your university, you can get lost so easily,” the SEC personnel director said. “If you’re a guy who — even if you were premier before and had no production — and you’re about to just jump in there with no intel or nobody in your corner who at least put some feelers out, you’ll be stuck.”
Frank agrees it’s not a positive for players to have to find options before entering the portal — that it causes unnecessary issues having to work around the rules ahead of time.
“That puts pressure on you to operate outside of the rules and neither side wants that pressure,” Frank said. “Now, I have to wait to the very end of the season to do this and to go into the portal. If I’m a player, I better start working on what my options are before that.”
There isn’t a scholarship available for everyone in the portal. In the 2021-22 cycle, only 61% of FBS players who entered the portal either withdrew their name and stayed with their school or matriculated to another school.
Tampering seems to be a loophole. What else is happening to get around the windows?
Some players, including SMU safety Chace Cromartie, decided to take a redshirt season, not play and announce their intentions to enter the transfer portal to get around the windows. There is nothing illegal about that, and it still lets other coaches know they’re transferring at the end of the season.
How are the windows enforced?
The windows won’t prevent behind-the-scenes conversations; they just change when the players can go into the portal.
Given that, some coaches, including Kelly, believe the transfer windows will help mitigate some of the previous concerns, “such as tampering or giving up on the season or doing things that just create distractions.
“And so, I think when all parties got together, and including student-athletes that weighed in on this, I think everybody felt like this was the best decision,” he said.
Is this the “best decision” moving forward?
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin declared himself the “Portal King” in January, adding quarterback Jaxson Dart, running back Zach Evans, tight end Michael Trigg and a handful of others to build his roster. He acknowledged that SEC coaches discussed other avenues but believes the coaches and the NCAA won’t really be able to fix the problems unless they move more toward a professional model.
“Until you create true free agency and these are real contracts and it can be multi-year and whatever it is, just like any professional sport, which is what we are in almost every area, that would solve it,” Kiffin said. “Professional sports has certainly figured out how to handle free agency and have a window and the ability to move around.”
When the portal opens in December, what are people inside college football expecting? A free-for-all of players transferring?
If most of the best players already know where they’re going to go, it will be a quick process. On the outside, yes, there will be a mass of players entering the portal, but if a lot of them have a plan, they’ll also exit quickly.
It will be difficult for coaches to manage it if they miss on players and need to scramble to fill a need. That process could be hectic, and it’s adding a lot of pressure and work only a few weeks before the early signing period.
“It basically forces you to evaluate everybody out there that you think there’s any chance (to transfer), which you don’t know who they’re going to be,” Frank said. “So you’re evaluating, to some degree or another, everybody trying to figure out if they did go in the portal what would we do? Because now you have to act so much faster on all the things that it takes for offering the kid.”
And that means a wild two weeks before national signing day on Dec. 21, right?
Yes. High school prospects will be impacted by these few weeks. Say there’s a recruit that’s on the edge of getting an offer or not. If that school fills the need with a transfer before signing day, that recruit would likely be out of a scholarship.
There are schools that would rather take a transfer with experience than take a chance on a high school prospect who hasn’t proven anything yet.
If a big-name college player enters the portal at the last minute, that could impact current commitments and scholarship numbers, so it will definitely be something to watch on how coaches navigate the month of December.
Coaching changes could impact the list of names who decide to transfer late, like when Williams and receiver Mario Williams followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC, and a few other coaching changes this past offseason.
It will also put a strain on the entire department since most transfers will now take place in this small window. Administrators will have to work to get transfers admitted into school, while also doing paperwork on the players transferring out. Simultaneously, the staffs are trying to onboard high school prospects who are signing early and looking to enroll in January.
“Now you’re asking academic departments on campus to do all of this during a holiday, and that was already happening, but now it’s happening for everybody who is in the portal,” Frank said. “As opposed to a percentage of them, it’s everybody at once. It’s going to be breakneck speed.”
Are there schools that are setting up for a big transfer window?
New coaches will likely use the portal to rebuild rosters quickly. We saw that with Kelly at LSU, Napier at Florida and Riley at USC. It has become a faster way for them to build the program than waiting two to three years via recruiting.
Six Power 5 programs already have changed coaches: Nebraska, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Colorado and Auburn. Those schools, depending on whom they hire, could be in position to be more active in the portal.
Does that lead to success?
UCLA decided to go all in on the transfer portal as opposed to high school recruiting. The Bruins have seven total high school recruits in the 2023 class, second-fewest among all FBS schools behind Arizona State, which fired Herm Edwards in September.
UCLA is doing that on purpose, though, and banking on the number of transfers that will enter the portal will match up with their needs. It’s proving effective this season, as the Bruins are off to an 8-1 start and ranked No. 12 in the first College Football Playoff reveal.
For the Bruins, 37.6% of their starters are transfers, compared to the average of 20.9% for the rest of FBS teams. That’s what has worked for UCLA and Chip Kelly, but taking in transfers doesn’t guarantee success. Michigan State and coach Mel Tucker have used the portal to build their roster and saw success in 2021, winning 11 games and striking gold with running back Kenneth Walker III. It hasn’t gone the same way this season, though, as the Spartans are 4-5 with three games remaining.
“The difficult part about all this is building your team’s culture and sustaining that culture by bringing in new faces,” an FBS personnel director said. “You have to do your homework and you also have to make sure you’re getting the guys you want.”
Not every team has gone the route of the portal, with Clemson and Dabo Swinney taking only three transfers on the roster. Some have used it to quickly fill a few needs, as Alabama brought in defensive back Eli Ricks and running back Jahmyr Gibbs to play immediately.
What is clear through the past two seasons is that there isn’t one strategy that has proven to work. Each scenario and each coach’s process differs. Coaching staffs must find the right balance and the right blueprint that will give their team success while navigating this new landscape that has dominated college football.