Why grad transfer success stories no longer apply to just college football elite

So maybe K.J. Costello won’t play the part of Joe Burrow this season after all.

The Mississippi State (nee Stanford) quarterback gave a Burrow-like recital at Tiger Stadium in the Bulldogs’ season-opening 44-34 upset of defending national champion LSU on Sept. 26. Costello threw for an SEC-record 623 yards and matched his personal high of five touchdown passes. In the two games since, Costello has thrown one touchdown and seven interceptions, including a personal high of four picks in the 24-2 loss at Kentucky on Saturday night.

So maybe there is only one Burrow (nee Ohio State), but there are plenty of Costellos. His performances straddling the mediocrity line underscored a new reality for college football: The graduate transfer is not for just the elite anymore. Grad transfers have gone mainstream.

Yes, Burrow and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (nee Alabama) finished 1-2 in the Heisman Trophy race last season. Yes, Jake Coker (nee Florida State) took the Crimson Tide to the national championship five years ago, and Russell Wilson (nee NC State) led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl nine years ago. I can go back further than that, to the OG — Original Grad — cornerback Ryan Smith. Soon after the NCAA passed the grad transfer rule in April 2006, Smith moved from Utah to Florida and started on the Gators’ 2006 national championship team. Not just started. “We wouldn’t have won the national championship without him,” Colorado State defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, Smith’s secondary coach at Florida, told me a few years ago.

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They are the grad transfer success stories, and perhaps their high profiles opened wide the gates of the transfer portal. In 2014, Division I programs (FBS and FCS) enrolled 67 grad transfers. Five years later, that number more than tripled, to 225. This year, nearly 500 graduates entered their names into the transfer portal. That isn’t a sign of how many will come out the other end of the portal and find a place to play this season. That number can’t be compiled until everyone begins playing. But you could create a few two-deeps out of grad transfers alone, and college football continues to thrive, an indication this might be the last stop before modified free agency.

Among the graduates blossoming on their new teams are running back Khalil Herbert of No. 23 Virginia Tech (nee Kansas), the nation’s leading rusher (149.5 yards per game), and Kenny Yeboah of Ole Miss (nee Temple), who leads FBS tight ends with 118.3 receiving yards per game. Yeboah caught seven passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the Rebels’ 63-48 defensive nightmare of a loss to No. 2 Alabama.

The NCAA membership will vote in January on whether to allow every student-athlete, with or without a diploma, to transfer once without having to redshirt. Between the number of grad transfers and the NCAA’s increasing willingness to grant waivers to undergrads — take a bow, quarterback Justin Fields of No. 6 Ohio State (nee Georgia), wide receiver Reggie Roberson of No. 17 SMU (nee West Virginia) and running back Jashaun Corbin of Florida State (nee Texas A&M) — college football already is well on its way to free agency.

Sonny Dykes deftly employed grad and undergrad transfers to transform SMU into a 10-win team last season. The Mustangs, after defeating Memphis 30-27 on Oct. 3, became the first 4-0 team in the nation this season. Dykes has played the transfer rule like Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. He figured out soon after arriving at SMU in 2018 that he could position the Dallas school as a haven for disaffected Metroplex natives who wanted to return home from faraway campuses. SMU signed 13 transfers before the 2019 season.

“This wasn’t even a conversation for years,” Dykes said. “Very seldom did anybody graduate that had any eligibility left.”

The NCAA passed the graduate transfer rule in 2006 as a carrot to raise graduation rates, just as the practice of keeping student-athletes on campus during the summer became universally adopted. Players going to class 12 months a year accumulated credits more quickly than they had been and began graduating earlier.

“Football is the king of creating unintended consequences,” Dykes said. “The NCAA and college football, we do it to ourselves all the time. We say, ‘Wow, this might really be great for these guys to stay here over the summer and graduate.’ You look up and your best player transfers out. Well, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

One other unintended consequence for coaches: They bristled as players began to take advantage of the transfer rules. The guidelines of managing a roster changed with the times, and some coaches didn’t want to change with them. The NCAA started out demanding that a grad transfer had to obtain permission from his first school in order to leave for his second. That went away. For every David Shaw of Stanford and Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M — who believed from the start that once the student-athlete graduated, he had fulfilled his commitment to the program — there was a Nick Saban of Alabama, who believed that rule took away his ability to demand his players follow academic rules.

Of course, if the player had graduated, that argument went out the window. Not to mention that coaches have been leaving for new jobs without a second thought since the days of Walter Camp.

“It’s OK for me to transfer, but it’s not OK for any of my players to transfer? I’ve never really subscribed to that way of thinking,” Dykes said.

Sometimes a coach can leave and bring his quarterback with him. Colorado State fired head coach Mike Bobo last year. South Carolina hired Bobo as offensive coordinator. He brought senior quarterback Collin Hill to Columbia. Hill knew Bobo’s offense so well, he won the first-team slot over returning starter Ryan Hilinski.

The transfer rules have been great for Dykes at SMU too. Quarterback Shane Buechele, an Arlington native, left Texas with a diploma and two years of eligibility to play for the Mustangs. Then there’s UCLA grad transfer Brandon Stephens of Plano. A reserve running back with the Bruins, Stephens discovered his future wouldn’t change under coach Chip Kelly. Stephens called Dykes and told him he believed UCLA had played him out of position, that he really should play cornerback, and he would walk on at SMU and prove it.

“Two days in, we realize he’s one of the best players we have on our football team,” Dykes said. “He starts every game at corner for us last year, will start every game for us this year and I think will have a chance to play in the NFL eventually.”

Not to mention that Stephens will earn an MBA. “That’s the kind of stuff that falls into your lap sometimes,” Dykes said.

Grad transfers might someday become as prevalent as junior college transfers. One big difference: Grad transfers will never have to answer questions about their academics. They’ve already displayed the ability and discipline to earn a four-year degree. Even if they do it in three years.

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