- ESPN staff writer
- Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
- University of Florida graduate
BACK IN 2013, Kliff Kingsbury found himself with an enviable problem.
His first Texas Tech team was on its way to eight wins, and heading into Year 2, the coach was about to have an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback position. During a two-year period he calls fun but “incredibly stressful,” Kingsbury had to figure out what to do with three NFL-caliber quarterbacks — and one available job.
It led to some hard conversations, some public frustration about who was benched and who was starting — and then, eventually, to a whole bunch of transfers.
First, Kingsbury’s part-time starter in 2013, Baker Mayfield, bolted in December of that year. He had won the job once. Being asked to win it again during an open competition before the bowl game added stress to what Mayfield already considered an uneasy positional rotation.
In his stead, Davis Webb won the job, but once he got hurt in 2014, the guy filling in — a freshman named Patrick Mahomes — was far too gifted to give it up. Webb underwent shoulder surgery and stuck around to compete, until Kingsbury eventually called Webb into his office before the bowl game in 2015.
Kingsbury knew Webb was too good to sit, so he suggested Webb try to parlay a transfer into NFL viability, offering his help to find the second-year QB a landing spot.
So if anyone can speak to a new era in which transfer quarterbacks have come to dominate the top of the NFL draft — Joe Burrow is expected to become the third straight to go No. 1 next week — it’s Kingsbury.
“Russell Wilson was an outlier — now guys are going first in the draft and winning Heismans after transferring,” says Kingsbury, who’s now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, who transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma for his senior season. “As a coach, you can’t say it doesn’t work. The way the NFL is adapting to the player rather than the system adapting, you’ll see more and more.”
This year, the best example is Burrow: Second fiddle to Dwayne Haskins on Ohio State’s depth chart 23 months ago, Burrow flipped that uncertainty into superstardom at LSU and a likely No. 1 selection in next week’s draft.
The team holding that selection, the Cincinnati Bengals, digs how Burrow flipped the script. “Transferring in is not easy,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the NFL scouting combine in February. “I’m a [former] transfer quarterback. I know the pitfalls of that, and I know how hard it is to have a team buy into you once you get there.
“His story is such a great story of perseverance, dedication and hard work, believing in yourself and then ultimately winning at the highest level.”
Burrow is about to join a long line of transfer QB success stories. From Heisman Trophy winners to middling late-rounders, transfers are taking ownership of their careers instead of waiting on a coach’s promise to eventually play.
It worked out for just about everybody involved in Kingsbury’s conundrum back in 2013: Mayfield walked on at Oklahoma and became a Heisman winner and No. 1 pick. Webb landed at Cal, became a third-round pick and is now on the Buffalo Bills’ roster. And Mahomes — well, he has had a pretty OK start to his NFL career with the Chiefs.
The draft numbers tell an even fuller story: In 2010, just one of the 14 quarterbacks selected — seventh-rounder Levi Brown, a Richmond Spider-turned-Troy Trojan — played for multiple schools (not counting junior college). Wilson was the sixth quarterback taken in 2012, and the five who went before him played for just one school.
But three drafted quarterbacks from the 2017 class made moves in college, followed by four in 2018 and five (of 11 total) last year.
If your favorite team is looking for a quarterback in the first few rounds of the 2020 draft, there’s at least a 40% chance he has played for multiple schools on his way to training camp. That includes three of the top seven of this year’s crop — Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Washington’s Jacob Eason. And let’s not forget next year’s potential No. 1 pick, Justin Fields, who transferred to Ohio State from Georgia in 2019.
All of these quarterbacks did the simple cost analysis: Leave, or risk being left behind.
SINCE RETIRING FROM the NFL, Jordan Palmer has worked with quarterbacks from high school to the pros as a private coach.
Over the years, he has seen plenty of high schoolers enter the pothole-filled recruiting trail without a proper road map.
“Particularly if you’re not from a big high school with guys who can give you advice … most of these high school kids don’t have the experience or the resources to make a really quality decision,” says Palmer, who is training Burrow this year ahead of the draft.
But in a transfer situation, players know exactly how to play Round 2: It’s now a business decision that they control.
In most cases, these quarterbacks, with a little planning, can play at their new school immediately. NCAA rules in place for more than a decade force undergrads to sit out one full season in almost all cases, but graduate transfers — those who earn their degree in three years — can play right away without penalty.
When Webb left Texas Tech, he had his degree. He needed something else: more passing attempts. “I got 12 games on film I wouldn’t have gotten if I stayed,” Webb says. “No way I would have been in my position otherwise.”
He wasn’t looking for promises: Webb says he didn’t need schools telling him he was guaranteed a starting spot. He simply wanted a chance to compete in an offense that fit him and a good graduate program.
“During History of Rome [class], I was Googling Cal Bears footage,” says Webb of his last days at Tech. “I was going to put in the work to make sure I was headed to the right place for me.”
In 2017, James Morgan was a backup quarterback at Bowling Green when the coach who recruited him, Dino Babers, left for Syracuse. Morgan decided it was time for a change of his own.
Once Morgan decided to transfer, a friend in a recruiting service helped him gather a spreadsheet with college coaches’ emails from all levels. He picked out 30 programs with a need at quarterback and blasted about 60 to 80 recipients.
FIU assistant coach Bryn Renner was one of the only respondents. Two years and 5,312 yards later, Morgan is expected to be a middle-to-late-round pick this month — he has held video interviews with the New England Patriots and about 10 other teams.
“I didn’t know who would want me,” Morgan says now. “If you need to do something in your best interest, you have a limited time to make a change.”
Players aren’t the only ones doing the selling. In most cases, coaches are going after these guys with an underlying message: We can help get you to the league.
Fields signed with Ohio State, he says, because head coach Ryan Day “knows what it takes to get quarterbacks to the NFL.” Gardner Minshew famously headed to Washington State after coach Mike Leach asked him if he wanted to lead the nation in passing.
“The kids are older and wiser [as transfers], but it’s still college football recruiting, you know?” says one offensive coordinator from a Power 5 school. “Promises are made. Coaches that need a quick fix can get an experienced player and integrate him into the offense pretty quickly and sell a fast track to the NFL.”
Coaches across the country designate a staff member to monitor the transfer portal at all times, so if an attractive quarterback hits the open market, he’s getting a call within minutes.
In other cases, a coach with a previous relationship can reach out when his new team needs help. After Nathan Peterman decided to leave Tennessee, he zeroed in on Pitt — where Jim Chaney, who helped recruit Peterman to Tennessee but left shortly thereafter, had just taken a job as offensive coordinator.
Peterman started most of the next two seasons for Pitt after transferring and, as a senior in 2016, led the ACC in pass efficiency, yards per completion and yards per attempt.
“The advice I give [younger players] is: Keep the relationships open. Don’t ignore a coach,” says Peterman, now a restricted free agent with the Las Vegas Raiders. “I was able to help Pitt win games, and I could tell NFL teams that I handled my transition the right way.”
ALTHOUGH TRANSFERRING generally isn’t considered a deal breaker, teams always ask about the breakup. During interviews, teams like to find out why a player transferred, and Webb says some do more homework than others.
But for the most part, NFL teams have absolutely no issue with quarterbacks playing for multiple schools.
“With Joe Burrow, it didn’t work out at Ohio State,” Kingsbury says. “But everybody raves about his character, and you don’t hold that against him at all.”
One general manager pointed to Minshew, who bounced from junior college to East Carolina to Washington State before winning the starting job with the Jacksonville Jaguars last year.
“You get more game film, which is ultimately what we want when evaluating quarterbacks,” the general manager says.
As an NFC executive put it, when players at other positions transfer, it is far more worrisome. If an offensive guard can’t earn one of five positions on the line, for example, he is either running from expectations or simply not good enough.
But quarterbacks are at the mercy of “three kids going for one spot, or one bad practice or one thing the coach saw in another guy that he liked and you can’t control,” the exec says. “At that point, the guy has to throw his hands up and move on.”
Of course, transfers don’t always work out as cleanly as Minshew’s.
Washington Redskins quarterback Kyle Allen, a former five-star recruit, showed major promise at Texas A&M but split time with Kyler Murray and told CBS Sports in 2016 that he was turned off by the post-Johnny Manziel A&M culture.
He transferred to Houston before his junior year, believing then-coach Tom Herman would remain long enough to usher the school into a Power 5 conference.
So he sat one season per NCAA rules, but in the meantime Herman took the Texas job and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite took over. Once Allen got in the lineup, he was benched after four games amid issues with turnovers.
“You’re sitting there at the end of the year and not playing and wondering, ‘Is this the end of my NFL career?'” Allen told ESPN this week.
The NFL mostly shunned him in the 2018 draft process. But then-Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Scott Turner watched him work out and took a chance. The Panthers offered Allen a $3,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent — and he put the money straight into savings, taking nothing for granted.
Last year, Allen started 12 games — a longer consecutive stretch than he ever got in college — for Carolina once Cam Newton went down. He threw for 3,332 yards and 17 touchdowns in those starts, and then-Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw enough to bring Allen with him to Washington via trade.
“I’m sure I would have gotten drafted a lot higher [in a different scenario],” Allen says. “At the same time, I’m not sure I’d be mentally ready to play in the NFL like I am now, as prepared to play. I think from a straight-up preparation standpoint, experiencing things, adversity, multiple offenses, multiple coaching staffs, going through that prepared me extremely well. I was betting on myself.”
THIS DRAFT SEASON, three high-profile quarterbacks did the same thing — Burrow; Hurts, the battle-tested quarterback who helped Alabama to a national title; and Eason, who left a crowded Georgia quarterback room after Jake Fromm, also a 2020 draftee, took over the job.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley says he isn’t the only one who loves that Hurts is “gonna be forever remembered and loved by two major institutions, two elite programs.”
NFL teams love it too because of how he handled an unwieldy transition in 2018: staying on as a backup to Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama and playing brilliantly in relief during an SEC title game win.
“[Teams] absolutely value that,” Riley says. “Not everything is gonna go your way, but he handled himself with class, and there’s confidence that comes with learning something new like he did with our offense.”
Riley is something of a don of quarterback transfers. Winning three straight Big 12 titles with three different signal-callers — transfers from three different schools — lends endless cachet. Asked about transfers blowing up his phone with hopes of getting in his system, Riley acknowledges the obvious.
“We’ve definitely had several either reach out directly once in the [transfer] portal or have the coach or someone like that to gauge potential interest,” Riley says. “With the run of success we’ve been able to have with different skill sets, there are a lot of guys out there who have confidence that, if they get in this system with the offense we have, it can be a big positive for their career.”
But despite the transfer benefits that Riley’s Sooners and others have experienced, Riley has concerns about the sheer volume of available quarterbacks — even before the passage of a current NCAA proposal allowing athletes in all sports to transfer once without sitting out a year.
Right now, only players who have successfully completed an undergraduate degree can play elsewhere immediately without petitioning the NCAA, which is what Fields successfully did. Recently adjusted rules state that an athlete can receive a waiver to play right away if proven “documented mitigation circumstances” require a change of schools to better the athlete’s well-being or health. Fields’ lawyer was Thomas Mars, who, after helping many transfers navigate this process, was hired by the NCAA.
Although the coronavirus pandemic that has affected all of college sports could slow the NCAA’s ruling, many within college football believe its passing is inevitable. Coaches don’t love it, but athletic directors see it as necessary, and the Big Ten Conference has put all its support behind it.
The days of coaches blocking players from making intraconference transfers appear to be ending.
Riley believes players deserve to have influence on the transfer process, but he’s concerned about the implications — such as players wanting to bail on their teams after one bad week on campus, and coaches recruiting less high school talent as a result.
“There have to be some type of parameters of it, or it will get worse before it gets better,” Riley says. “We can’t forget too, we have a pretty damn good product. Let’s not mess up what’s good with it too.”
A YEAR FROM now, don’t be surprised if NFL scouts and execs are raving about another under-the-radar transfer — or two — who went from the bench at one college to a monster senior year at another.
Fields is a very good bet to be a top-of-the-first-round pick, and a sleeper ex-transfer candidate might be K.J. Costello, who was a four-star recruit out of Santa Margarita Catholic in California. Costello chose Stanford over Michigan and USC because of the relationships he built with the coaching staff, the school’s top-shelf academics and his eagerness to learn a pro-style system. (It didn’t hurt that he’s also a huge fan of John Elway and Andrew Luck.)
Like most quarterbacks learning Stanford’s dizzying playbook — complete with 130 plays, most of which are eight to 10 syllables long with endless motions and shifts — Costello redshirted his freshman year. He then started 29 games over three seasons, leading the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (155.0) as a junior and setting the stage for an explosion onto the NFL scene in 2019.
“When it was time to make that happen,” Costello says, “I got hurt.”
A concussion and a thumb injury torpedoed his plans. His efficiency rating dipped more than 30 points (121.6) in five games played in 2019.
And so a promising NFL prospect made the same decision that Burrow, Murray and many others have in recent years: He transferred, and he will finish his career 2,200-plus miles away in Starkville, Mississippi, trading Stanford’s pinot-grigio-splashed tailgating scene for the cowbells of Mississippi State.
After he entered the transfer portal in December, Costello had his phone blowing up within minutes. Several college coaches wanted in on the 6-foot-5 quarterback with the big arm and calm demeanor.
Newly hired Mississippi State coach Mike Leach called Costello the morning of Jan. 10, a day after taking the job. Costello had played variations of the Air Raid in high school and had several good friends who raved about playing in Leach’s offense at Washington State. He’d also been intrigued by playing in the SEC even before Leach took the job.
After getting classically trained at Stanford, it was time to find a garage rock band.
“I’ve always really liked to go up-tempo,” Costello says. “Now I’m kind of going back. Going to the line, one little hand signal getting to running up-tempo, it’s cool to evolve a little myself.” Costello wants to help MSU win games on the biggest stage. But playing in multiple systems can only enhance his NFL attractiveness, he figures.
“There was no recruiting pitch — it was getting down to the details, why I would be a value add, how and why I would get better, and the severity of the need at quarterback,” Costello says. “A lot of times guys in pro-style systems, coaches have to decide, can he translate to an Air Raid guy? Maybe this will help answer questions that I can do both.”
Costello called his Stanford experience “incredible,” which reinforces a common theme among all young quarterbacks interviewed: Playing at one school offers a sense of comfort.
In a pure business sense, though, Costello says, a move can be like a “one-year trade” in the NFL.
The cost analysis every college quarterback must make sometimes comes down to this: Stay for legacy or leave for résumé.
“You’ve got to take full advantage of the opportunity when it comes,” Allen says. “You have to ask yourself: Is staying here going to align with my goals?”
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