Quarterback Transfers Present Programs With Challenges

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An annual deluge of quarterback transfers turns college football’s spring into a second recruiting season, as programs either try to plug the gaps missed during the winter signing season or fill immediate, pressing needs.

While there are transfers across all positions, quarterback transfers are of both higher frequency and greater significance. The former is a real-world example of Reese Bobby’s credo: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”


Every other position on either the offensive or defensive side cycles through multiple players. Even for those on the second and sometimes third string of the depth chart, they’ll see action each week.

The second-string quarterback is only afforded live-game opportunities in case of blowouts or injuries. This may not be such a bad proposition for younger quarterbacks who can gain confidence, experience and familiarity with the offense.

But for those upperclassmen who have earned their undergraduate degrees, why wait? Presumably, no Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback wants to spend his career either waiting for an injury or performing mop-up duty. If he can’t finding playing time at one program, assuredly there is another out there where he can see meaningful snaps.

USC said farewell to one such veteran quarterback this offseason, Max Wittek. Wittek made two starts in 2012 after Matt Barkley sustained a shoulder injury, but lost the No. 1 job to Cody Kessler early in the 2013 campaign.

Kessler remains atop the depth chart, beating out ballyhooed 2013 recruit Max Browne this spring. Browne remains at USC, though his situation is much different. He has two years more of remaining eligibility than Kessler, while both Wittek and Kessler are redshirt juniors.

Now, Wittek cannot be the immediate solution for an FBS program in need of a 2014 starter because he has yet to graduate, per the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. His option for playing in the upcoming campaign is to transfer to a Championship Subdivision program, a move that has benefited plenty of FBS transfer quarterbacks in the past.

Aaron Corp is one example from USC. The one-time Trojan landed at Richmond after Barkley beat him out prior to the 2009 season, and Corp finished his career strong as a Spider.

Bo Levi Mitchell transferred to Eastern Washington from SMU and won the Walter Payton Award in 2011, given to the top offensive performer in the FCS. Mitchell was succeeded at Eastern Washington by Kyle Padron, another SMU transfer, who left when he lost the Mustangs’ starting job to Garrett Gilbert.

Gilbert came to SMU from Texas, where he’d been supplanted by a combination of Case McCoy and David Ash. And at SMU, Gilbert was in the same conference as G.J. Kinne. Kinne became Tulsa’s starting quarterback after falling behind Gilbert on Texas’ depth chart.

Whew. Got all that?

Quarterback transfers can turn into a shell game, one which Texas is again playing. The Longhorns were reportedly interested in Wittek before Saturday’s report, as Wittek offered a possible solution to Ash’s on-going concussion issue.
Fresno State Logo
Other programs added their own quarterback transfers to address concerns this offseason. Fresno State is one such example. The Bulldogs are replacing star Derek Carr, whose departure to the NFL leaves a Grand Canyon-size chasm in their 43.4 point-per-game offense.

Duke transfer Brandon Connette arrived after spring practice, thus has ground to make up in the competition with Brian Burrell, Myles Carr and Zack Greenlee. But Connette’s experience at Duke, where he helped the Blue Devils reach the ACC Championship Game, is a decided edge.

And given Connette has just one season of eligibility remaining, his commitment to Fresno State suggests certain assurances for a leg-up on the depth chart.

Connette is in a more favorable spot at Mountain West member Fresno State than those quarterbacks transferring into power-conference programs, if precedent is any indication.

Sure, Russell Wilson stands as a shining example of how much a talented veteran can mean to a team. A three-year star at NC State, Wilson’s All-America season at Wisconsin powered the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, and is now the best-case scenario a program can hope for when adding a transfer.

But Wilson was replaced the next season by Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien, whose tenure at Wisconsin was marked with inconsistent play and injuries. O’Brien finished his collegiate career at Div. II Catawba.

Wisconsin having to go back to the transfer well is an example of a program not having its own, homegrown successors ready, either due to injury or their own transfers. The Badgers appear to be righting ship, but a program can easily steer off course for years.
Quarterback Transfers at Texas have caused depth issues
Take Texas. Since losing Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy, it has faced misfortune and attrition at quarterback. The Longhorns’ struggles provide an interesting case-study into how repeated departures can negatively impact a program.

Texas lost Kinne and Gilbert in succession. Connor Wood and Connor Brewer left for Colorado and Arizona in subsequent years. That’s a lot of turnover at one position, and Oregon is experiencing its own similar turnover.

The Ducks lost one-time Darron Thomas heir apparent Bryan Bennett to FCS Southeastern Louisiana. Bennett was stellar in 2013, leading the Lions to the FCS Playoffs. In the past weeks, the Ducks parted ways with Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs.

With Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota back and Jeff Lockie having presumably beaten out Rodrigues for the No. 2 spot, the two transfers might not seem like a big deal. And indeed, they may not be, particularly with talented freshman Morgan Mahalak on his way into the program.

But Lockie is unproven in meaningful game situations. If he doesn’t work out after Mariota’s gone, a la Gilbert succeeding Colt McCoy, Mahalak could be expedited into the role prematurely. With the ever-present possibility of injury, the hit depth takes with multiple transfers becomes a very real risk.

Quarterback transfers will remain a prominent part of the college football landscape, thus coaches are faced with the tenuous task of making the right moves to ensure the additions made will help the program–not just in the short-term, but in the long run, as well.