We have reached an epidemic when it comes to college football quarterbacks transferring.
It used to be that a player would finish his high school career, sign with the college team of his dreams, then work for however long it took to win the starting job at that school.
That concept is as outdated as leather helmets today. These days, a quarterback either wins the job by his second year in college or else he’s off to a new destination.
The latter approach has certainly worked for many players. Both Alabama with Jake Coker and Auburn with Cam Newton have won national championships in the last decade with quarterbacks who previously played first at other big-time college programs. Coker saw he was going to be stuck behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State, so he came home to Alabama and was undefeated as a Tide starter.
Newton was behind Heisman winner Tim Tebow at Florida before running into problems off the field in Gainesville. After one year in junior college, he resurfaced in Auburn and, like Coker, went undefeated and won a national championship. He also won a Heisman in his one season at Auburn.
The transfer of Coker and Newton made perfect sense and they used the transfer rule in order to reach great success. The rules today are even more liberal, allowing players who have graduated to transfer to any school of their choosing without having to sit out a year before playing. Until this year, the school the player was leaving could prohibit a player from transferring to certain schools, including those in the same conference or those on the future schedule of the original team.
That restriction has now been removed, clearing the path for even more transfers.
Coker, a former star at St. Paul’s, believes that rule makes sense.
“I think that should have happened a long time ago,” Coker said. “Players have a short window for being successful. There’s a lot of money in college football and the chance to pay pro football, so I can’t blame anybody for transferring, especially now.”
Even so, Coker believes many quarterbacks are too hasty in deciding when to bolt from a program. In his case, there was no logical path to playing time at Florida State after Winston won the starting job and was on his way to being the best player in college football and the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
“Kids probably move on quicker than they should,” Coker said. “A lot of that is just nervousness. Every kid wants to start right off the bat. I do think they should wait around and develop in most cases. At Alabama a lot of guys, not just quarterbacks, wait around two or three years and when they’re ready to play, they go take advantage of that chance and become great players.
When you’re confident and trust your coach, that’s the way to go. Some guys who know they aren’t going to play probably lack a little confidence.
“For me at Florida State, I saw that Jameis was playing. When he was named the quarterback I decided it was time to move on to a place where i could play. It worked out pretty well for me, that’s for sure.”
It’s worked out well for many quarterbacks. The last three championship teams at Auburn were quarterbacked by transfer quarterbacks — Newton won the national title in 2010, former Georgia Bulldog Nick Marshall won the SEC title in 2013 and former Baylor Bear Jarrett Stidham won the SEC West last season.
Three or four SEC teams will be quarterbacked by transfers this season. In addition to Stidham, Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow is expected to take over for Purdue transfer Danny Etling at LSU, while Terry Wilson originally attended Oregon but is now in line to be the starter at Kentucky.
At Tennessee, Stanford transfer Keller Chryst is battling returning starter Jarrett Guarantano for the starting spot. Ole Miss is depending on former junior college star Jordan Ta’amu to be a star this season.
It goes the other way, too.
Will Greer left Florida and is now a Heisman favorite at West Virginia. Shea Patterson left Ole Miss and is in line to lead Michigan this season. Jacob Eason left Georgia but will have to sit out this season at Washington. Former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett is trying to resurrect his career at South Florida.
To further solidify the point, the reigning Heisman winner is Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma.
A recent story in USA Today pointed out that there will be only seven senior career backups in college football this year. In other words, with the exception of those seven players, every quarterback who has reached his senior year with his original team has become a starter. Only two of those seven — Chase Forrest of Cal and Grayson Muehlstein at TCU — are at Power 5 schools. Both Army and Navy have one such senior.
Western Kentucky’s Drew Eckles is the unicorn in college football these days. He is the projected starter this season after working for four years to earn the spot. He attempted only one pass in 2015, 12 in 2016 and 11 last season. Now he’ll be the starter.
You have to applaud Eckles for sticking it out and finally winning the job. But it’s hard to argue with the successful path many other college quarterbacks are taking so often these days.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.