Every year around this time, we are inundated with news about recruiting, and are reminded of how important it is for college coaches to restock their rosters with scores of gifted high school seniors from all across the nation.
And indeed, there’s no debating that bringing in fresh faces is important. The best teams usually have the best recruits.
However, despite a coaches best efforts, there are often holes to fill and production to make up. Enter transfers. The transfer market has exploded over the last few years, and this season in the Big 12 conference, we’ve seen multiple players excel wearing a jersey from a school that they didn’t originally sign with out of high school.
This could very well go down as the Year of the Transfer in the Big 12 conference.
Back in July, the subject of transfer athletes came up quite frequently at Big 12 media days. Most coaches, who themselves had added transfer players to their rosters, seemed tentatively optimistic on the topic.
Many of them also made mention of another popular sentiment about the rise in transfers in college football, namely that it promotes entitlement. That was the unapologetic position of Bill Snyder, who retired earlier this month:
“You gotta play nine games in a row. You’re going to have guys go down, you’re going to play a lot of people and if you’re weak at any spot then these great teams in the Big 12, especially offensively, they’re going to capitalize on that.”
Whatever your position is on the side of the debate, it might be a conversation that is quickly becoming somewhat irrelevant. Winning is king in college football, and 2018 showed us that getting quality transfers at key positions can be pivotal to a team’s success.
Take the 2018 Texas Longhorns, for example. Texas was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll, yet head coach Tom Herman has managed to get the Longhorns to the Big 12 championship and a New Year’s Six bowl in his second year on the job.
A large part of Texas’ success came on the legs of Tre Watson, a graduate transfer from Cal who actually played against Texas in 2016 when the two teams met.
The multi-faceted back out of Corona, California struggled with injuries during his time in Berkeley, so it’s not surprising that he decided to get a new start in the Lone Star State. And, if you saw the more plodding Golden Bears’ offense this season, you can see why the short yardage passing attack for the ‘Horns might have been seductive.
Watson is currently the leading rusher for the Longhorns, having amassed 695 yards on the ground. There’s a good argument to be made that without him, Texas wouldn’t have had the same offensive success that allowed them to beat teams like Oklahoma and Texas Tech, both schools known for putting up a bunch of points.
West Virginia was one win away from getting to Jerry World, and the Mountaineers did it on the arm of Will Grier, who transferred from Florida after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Grier’s decision to become a Mountaineer paid off for both himself and West Virginia, as he’s gone on to have a record-setting senior campaign.
Let’s also not forget the Baylor Bears, whose rebound to bowl eligibility after going 1-11 last season was definitely helped by transfer players. Quarterback Jalen McClendon, a graduate transfer from North Carolina State, came into Waco with little fanfare. Nonetheless, he ended up competing with Charlie Brewer throughout 2018 for the starting job.
McClendon threw 91 passes this year, and was responsible for three touchdowns for the Bears.
The biggest addition for Baylor was arguably former Tennessee Vols running back Jalen Hurd. As a junior in Knoxville, Hurd decided that the hits his body was taking out of the backfield would make him less likely to have a long career in the NFL.
He switched positions to wide receiver and took his talents to Waco, where the move appears to have paid off. Hurd is currently 54 yards away from posting a 1,000-yard season receiving, and on a team that has been known over the years as “Wide Receiver U,” Hurd is the leading receiver by a healthy margin.
The senior also has doubled as a short yardage back for the Bears this season, who went from averaging 24 points per game in 2017 to 28 in 2018.
Of course, that doesn’t sound like an impressive number, but small improvements are a big part of why 6-6 Baylor isn’t staying home this December.
After losing every close game they played last season, this year the Bears beat Kansas State and Oklahoma State by a combined seven points. Could they have won more than one game without Jalen Hurd? Certainly.
Was the transfer senior, one of the more experienced players on this roster, crucial to why the Bears are going bowling? I think there’s no question.
And that brings us to Kyler Murray, who just won the Heisman over the weekend, handing the Sooners their second straight Heisman winner.
Murray is the ultimate example here. His original recruitment to A&M was itself a bit of a circus, one that included him taking a last minute visit to rival Texas before signing with the Aggies.
At A&M, Murray became one of many highly recruited quarterbacks to transfer out of College Station, something that ultimately hurt then-head coach Kevin Sumlin’s ability to win at a high level there.
Murray wasn’t assured of success coming into 2018, as a number of other players in a similar position had underachieved somewhat at their new school. Fellow A&M transfer Kyle Allen, a former five star recruit, was eventually benched in 2017 at the University of Houston.
Another former Aggie and highly rated recruit, Kenny Hill, did have some success in the Big 12, but inconsistency plagued him while he was at TCU.
So there was reason to be skeptical about Murray coming into 2018, but the redshirt junior ended up having arguably the best season of any Oklahoma quarterback – maybe even any Big 12 quarterback – ever.
What 2018 has shown us is the impact that transfers can have not just on a team, but on an entire conference. Without Murray, is there any doubt that the Sooners would have had trouble getting to 11 wins and a College Football Playoff berth?
Oklahoma was in single possession games against Army, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia. In those games, the Sooners went 4-1, and it’s likely they would have taken more losses without Murray.
Despite this season having been a “down year” for the Big 12 in a lot of ways, there are plenty of teams who would not have been as well off without key players who came to them from other places.
Of all four teams in the CFP, Oklahoma will be the only squad with a starting quarterback who didn’t come onto the team the old-fashioned way. And it’s appropriate that the only conference with a CFP representative is one that dipped heavily into the transfer market and reaped the rewards.
There’s certainly no hint that the rate of transfers coming into and going out of the conference is slowing down. Yesterday, we found out that TCU quarterback Shawn Robinson is transferring out of Fort Worth to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Not coincidentally, his backup, Michael Collins, is a transfer from Penn. Rumors abound, however, that the Frogs will be looking for immediate help for 2019 at that position. How would they do that? Probably by dipping their toe back into the transfer market.
We will continue to have debates about whether it’s good for college football to have so many athletes transferring in and out. But, there’s no doubt that it was key to on-the-field success in the Big 12 this year, and this is a league that’s been known for innovation almost since its inception.
Coaches tend to embrace finding new ways to win in this conference, and it doesn’t look like that trend will be slowing down anytime soon.
The transfer market is alive and well in the Big 12.