College football coaches eager to catch breath as transfer portal's May 1 deadline breaks roster churn

College football coaches eager to catch breath as transfer portal’s May 1 deadline breaks roster churn

Eli Drinkwitz can’t wait for next Sunday. He’s not alone.

“Hell, yeah,” Missouri’s coach told CBS Sports. “We’re all waiting for that day.”

May 1 marks the day the transfer portal shuts down for this academic year. It closes for three months before reopening Aug. 1, the start of the 2022-23 academic year. Players in the portal by May 1 can still transfer after that date, but the deadline provides a shred of roster certainty amid what has risen to free agency in college football.

With only one week to go, there is heightened anticipation of a final, dramatic bum rush to transfer freedom before the portal’s doors close.

By May 1, spring practices will largely be over. Position battle losers will have decisions to make. A bottleneck could form. Coaches everywhere are looking forward to exhaling if they can make it through the next week.

“Because then, [once it’s closed], your team is your team,” Drinkwitz said. “You can get kids out of the portal by then, but you can’t lose anybody else. We all thought [the big push] was going to be this week, and we haven’t seen it yet.

“All of us were like, ‘It’s going to be a mass exodus to the portal.'”

Judge for yourself. More than 10% of the FBS transfer portal entries in April (26 of 252) came last Thursday, according to Susan Peal, who manages the National Letter of Intent for the NCAA.

“Whether we see a spike after this week knowing we’re going into the last week [is unknown],” Peal told CBS Sports.

It’s just another example of the collegiate model being reconfigured before eyes. So, why not one final drama-filled production before we take a three-month hiatus?

As of Friday morning, exactly 6,610 players had entered the transfer portal in the last academic year (across all three divisions). Combined, there are approximately 680 schools in those divisions. That’s roughly an average of 10 portal entries per school.

Another consideration: In the last three years, slightly more than one-third of all FBS players in the portal have been walk-ons.

It also reaffirms the musical chairs aspect of the portal. There aren’t enough roster spots when the music stops playing.

Through the first three years of its existence, slightly more than half of the FBS players who entered the portal got picked up by another school, Peal said. Trying to predict if that number will fluctuate either way is too early to tell, she added.

The numbers remain relatively flat year-over-year with 242 portal entries in April 2021 and 252 in April 2022 (with eight days remaining as of Friday). The portal is still a moving target. Any definitive conclusions to be made about trends begin and end with Peal.

“Not to say anything about [third-party sites tracking] the transfer portal; they don’t have the real data,” she said.

For the moment, the May 1 deadline had to play into the decisions of two Arizona State starters who entered the portal on Thursday. Leading returning wide receiver Ricky Pearsall and 2021 freshman All-American linebacker Eric Gentry both left. There will be others.

“I talked to a personnel guy who said there will be 20-30 guys a day until May 1,” said Chris Hummer, who keeps close watch of the portal for 247Sports. “I don’t think a lot of them will be super quality guys.”

Does it matter at this point? For coaches, managing the portal has become a daily case of survive and advance. The predicted nature of Wild, Wild West free agency has developed into the Wild, Wild West on steroids.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin is the self-described “Portal King” having welcomed 14 transfers to Oxford, Mississippi. The quality of that portal “class” has Ole Miss ranked No. 1 by 247Sports. Those transfers have played more than 250 combined FBS games.

The portal was implemented in August 2018 as a response to decades of coaches being able to “block” players from transferring to the schools of their choice. We are just now coming to terms with its full impact. Over the years, intraconference transfer rules have been relaxed. The one-time transfer exception, installed on Aug. 1, 2021, has now made the portal a one-stop shop where all underclassmen can now pick up and leave without sitting a year in residence.

It only seems like it’s taken forever to get to this point.

USC coach Lincoln Riley and Alabama coach Nick Saban criticized the current transfer environment — as well as name, image and likeness rules – in an Associated Press story last week.

Fair feelings, except Riley is counting on Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams to be his quarterback. Williams has potential as a championship quarterback and with his NIL value. Riley also took WR Mario Williams and cornerback Latrell McCutchin from his old program.

The NCAA isn’t coming to the rescue anytime soon. NIL emerged because the courts determined the NCAA had illegally capped athletes’ compensation. Transfer freedom developed, at least in part, because of concern over similar legal liability regarding restrictive transfer rules.

Clearly, an adapt-or-die culture has emerged in both areas.

“I had no choice but to dip into the transfer portal,” LSU coach Brian Kelly told CBS Sports. “My preference would be to top the tank off when it comes to the portal. I don’t want to build our program through it, but you had to [for now]. You can’t wait around. There is no three-year plan.”

For Todd Berry, it’s been one giant, “I told you so”. The executive director of the American Football Coaches Association has spent months reflecting the views of his constituency. FBS coaches would prefer transfer portal “seasons” — perhaps one after the regular season and one during the spring — to lend some certainty to what has now become the biggest headache for coaches: roster management.

“We’re completely out of control,” Berry said. “[The portal is] killing high school recruiting, which is a shame. We’re killing the scholastic model, which is a shame.”

There are preliminary figures backing up the assertion that coaches are relying more on transfers at the expense of recruiting high schools players. The latest numbers from Peal show the number of signed FBS high-school prospects is down 20% in the last two years. In that same period, FBS transfers doubled from 372 to 741. That number represents the total scholarship players who transferred from any division.

In fact, 2021 marked the first across-the-board decrease of high school signs in all sports, according to Peal.

Of course, there is a huge asterisk next to all of this. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all college athletes enrolled amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. That gave thousands of athletes, who otherwise would have run out of eligibility, the opportunity to remain on rosters.

“You have that factor and you have the factor of, are coaches recruiting transfers more than those out of high school?” Peal said. “That is yet to be known until we can see a few more years of, ‘Is this the trend?'”

Berry said he knows one team that is down to 62 scholarship players amid transfer attrition. The team, which he will not name, could not play a game today because of a lack of depth at a certain position.

The AFCA supports relaxing the scholarship maximum of 85 to make up for some those deficiencies. As mentioned above, the NCAA did just that during the COVID-19 in the interest of health and safety. A big challenge for coaches now is getting back down to that 85 before next season.

“Our coaches believe it’s the only way to do it; it’s the only other solution out there,” Berry said. “We’re messing with players’ health and safety if we don’t relax the maximum.”

The issue is mostly with football, which has never dealt with this sort of turnover. Men’s basketball is a culture used to transfers. Even before the one-time exemption was created, 40% of Division I players were transferring before the end of their sophomore years.

“Two different sports and two different numbers,” said new Missouri basketball coach Dennis Gates. “For us, it takes one or two players to make a big-time difference. In football … it takes a little bit more. A lot more. We can find that one player in the portal who can change our entire season. They have to find [more than one].”

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