Lessons from another wild year of the transfer portal

Shane Beamer had an opportunity to transform South Carolina‘s roster this offseason, and he took it. Like most coaches, Beamer targeted the transfer portal and tried to find players with experience that could help his team win at a faster rate than just recruiting high school recruits.

He signed former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler and tight end Austin Stogner, Central Michigan safety Devonni Reed, former Georgia running back Lovasea Carroll and receiver Antwane Wells Jr., among a handful of others.

More than 2,000 FBS players have entered the transfer portal in 2021 and 2022, in what has become a secondary recruiting tool for coaches across the country. Beamer did what nearly every other coach in the country is doing, by taking advantage of the quantity and quality.

“It’s never ending and it’s just one of the million things you’re balancing,” Beamer told reporters in February. “The portal, your own roster, high school recruiting, your staff, it’s an endless ball of fun.”

The opportunity for players to transfer one time without penalty has created a free-agency frenzy with college football rosters turning over at a higher rate than they ever have. The portal has added a whole new element to the evaluation process to try to build the best roster they can build.

“It’s a s— show,” one Power 5 personnel director said of the transfer portal.

“Imagine it’s like the NFL and every person was potentially a free agent after every season,” the personnel director said. “How do you build a culture at that point when you’re rebuilding every offseason? We’ve had to start thinking more like NFL teams and adapt to how we do everything.”

It’s more complicated than just waiting for a player to enter the portal, reaching out and hoping for the best. A ton of work is put into the evaluation process, the recruitment, avoiding penalties for tampering with players who aren’t yet in the portal and ultimately succeeding with the high-impact transfers that could change a roster overnight.

While the end result is the only aspect that’s shown, the portal has created a chaotic new aspect of college football with four key components: organization, tampering, NIL and recruiting.

The College Football Live crew discusses possible ways to improve the college football recruiting calendar to work more harmoniously with the transfer portal.

Organization is key

Coaches have seen two waves with the transfer portal throughout the calendar: after the season ends and after spring ball. Players submit paperwork to their compliance departments to have their names entered into the NCAA database, which lists out each player seeking a transfer.

New names pop up in the database as they are entered, and coaches can sift through the potential transfers as they come in. There’s no notification process, so personnel employees are charged with constantly checking the portal, twitter, news outlets and sources to find when players are officially in the portal. The postseason and spring are typically when their focus is relegated to mining the portal and making sure they aren’t missing any names that go in on a daily basis.

But the process to evaluate needs or who they would want to target comes well before that.

Most programs now designate someone within the recruiting department to monitor the portal, but the personnel assigned to evaluations are adding more to their plate. As they prepare for opponents, whether it’s in the offseason or during the season, the evaluators are taking notes on every player on the opposing team that shows up on film.

They’re evaluating them for the upcoming games that season, but also compiling lists just in case any of them were to enter the portal.

“You’ve got 200-plus teams, that every single player on that team could hit the portal at any second. It’s not like the NFL where you know this guy could be a free agent or get cut, you never know,” a personnel director said. “We try and get ahead of things as much as we can with having a list. Like, ‘Hey, these are the running backs, that if they ever hit the portal, we would be interested in.’ We do that for every position.”

Some use Google Docs to organize it, some use outside sources, like Pro Football Focus, to help grade players that might not have a ton of snaps on film, but they’re constantly compiling lists of player evaluations that they might not ever need.

While they’re trying to analyze potential transfers, they’re also analyzing their own roster for potential holes in the future. They’re able to predict expected departures from NFL-caliber players or seniors moving on, but they can’t predict when one of their own players might transfer or decide to enter the NFL draft early.

“There’s really no guardrails, a player can leave 365 days a year, if they choose,” USC coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN in February. “That’s just part of how it is right now. You can’t predict all of that, and you can almost drive yourself crazy.”

The only real safeguard they have against unexpected transfers from their own team is building good relationships, having open communication and what coaches are now calling recruiting their own roster. They have to make sure the key players are happy and not looking for new opportunities. Losing a player who doesn’t contribute or hasn’t helped the team isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that scholarship can be used for someone who will help in the win column.

That doesn’t ensure there won’t be departures, but understanding where they might have a void at certain positions helps the personnel department be more efficient in how they evaluate and track the portal.

“We would evaluate a bunch of people we thought could hit the portal. So, halfway through the year, we knew we were going to have a need at a certain position,” one personnel director said. “We would just go through, find some guys that were excelling at the Group of 5 schools that might look to make a jump to Power 5. Once we have that list, it gets hard, because they have to actually get in the portal since that’s technically the only way you can contact them.”

Once a player is in the portal — and if he hasn’t already made up his mind on where he wants to transfer prior to entering — the schools then have to balance the recruiting process with the high school recruits as well. Each program is limited to 56 official visits per year, which includes high school recruits and transfers.

The visits come from the same pool and have to be balanced, but coaches are taking different approaches when it comes to the visits. A high school recruit, who has three to five years ahead of him, has different goals and points of interest than a transfer.

If a transfer is coming in with one year of eligibility remaining and looking for an NFL opportunity, the coaches aren’t going to present the same visit as a high school recruit.

“That aspect changes a lot for what we do and how visits go,” one personnel director said. “Once you get into November, having an idea of how many official visits you’re going to dedicate to transfers, how many to high school kids and how many spots are in your signing class do you want to be high school kids or transfers. Sending the head coach on the road and to where, it’s adding a much bigger pool to all the limited amount of time we have.”

Tom VanHaaren examines how college coaches have changed their approach to recruiting to account for the bevy of players available in the transfer portal.

Tampering is part of the process

That process is how it’s handled for the small number of players that don’t already know where they’re going when they enter the portal. The three personnel directors that spoke to ESPN for this story all said the majority of players they see in the portal have already made up their minds based on the conversations they have with high school coaches, trainers and handlers throughout the process.

One personnel director estimated 80% of players have already made a decision before entering the portal.

NCAA rules prohibit schools from having contact with a player until he is officially in the transfer portal. That hasn’t stopped coaches and players from tampering, though, and circumnavigating that process.

“An unseen problem that people don’t realize is that once a kid hits the portal, the school can cancel his scholarship immediately starting the end of the semester,” one personnel director said. “The problem is, you put kids in a situation where they know that risk, so any smart kid isn’t putting his name in the portal until he knows he’s going to have somewhere to go. You created a situation where schools aren’t allowed to talk to kids before they’re in the portal, but no kid wants to go in the portal until he knows he has a school to go to.”

That has created an environment where high school coaches, handlers and agents are fielding potential interest for players from coaches at other programs. Coaches know other programs are going to participate, and they don’t want to be left out if an athlete is going to make up his mind on where to transfer before his name ever enters into the portal.

The transfer market has become so lucrative to filling immediate needs that coaches have to participate and are ensuring they fill their roster holes.

“I think every school in America would say, ‘If a high school coach calls you and asks if you would be interested in so-and-so if he hits the portal, we would answer that honestly with a yes or no,'” one personnel director said. “Schools that are calling high school coaches to say if so-and-so is in the portal, we would be interested, I think everyone has to make that decision on their own of where that line feels comfortable. If a coach calls you, though, and you say, ‘Coach, we can’t comment on that until he hits the portal,’ you’re never going to get anyone.”

The NIL factor

The opportunity for players to make money off of their name, image and likeness has also factored into the portal process.

If players at one school see others at another making more money, there has been incentive to switch schools and try to capitalize on those opportunities. It typically isn’t the driving force for the transfer, but it has become a part of the decision-making process.

“I think it’s a huge factor for these kids. I think the crazy thing is that some calls we used to get were, ‘Hey, this player might be hitting the portal, will you guys be interested?'” one personnel director said. “And now, a lot of calls are, ‘Hey, this player’s about to hit the portal, here’s how much it’s going to cost in NIL deals. You want them to come there?'”

“You’ve got 200-plus teams, that every single player on that team could hit the portal at any second. It’s not like the NFL where you know this guy could be a free agent or get cut, you never know.”

One college football personnel director

Part of the rules for name, image and likeness require that schools don’t facilitate any NIL deals and they’re not to be used as enticement to recruitment. Without much guidance from the NCAA, however, alumni groups, boosters and collectives have created legal means to bring in NIL deals for players no matter the actual market value.

If a program doesn’t have the necessary connections to build an NIL relationship for the players, they could miss out on important transfers.

“I think the real surge has happened now as recruiting has gotten competitive,” Riley said of NIL in February. “It’s a factor and anybody that says it isn’t is not paying attention. … I think it’s going to continue to be another way that we as a program can separate ourselves. And we absolutely plan to do that.”

Recruiting never stops

The portal has become a necessary tool to help teams build winning rosters and has created new challenges for coaches and personnel departments in a short period of time.

“I don’t know if (the transfer portal) has doubled the work, but it’s definitely significantly increased the amount of work and the information we have to know,” one personnel director said. “It’s doubling the amount of prospects for evaluating and all the other stuff that goes into it with a transfer prospect. It’s a continually changing environment that we have to constantly be adapting to.”

The one-time transfer rule has helped add to that chaos, but one of the personnel directors thinks it might also help slow things down in the future. College football has seen an increased number of players enter the portal, taking advantage of the opportunity to transfer once without having to sit out a year.

But once a player uses that transfer, it becomes more difficult to leave a program, so there is a chance those players end up sticking around at their next destination longer than the first. That is also being used as a strategy with the transfer portal that coaches are OK with missing out on a high school prospect because they still might get a chance to sign him later on.

“Sometimes we take the approach that we don’t want to be the first school to sign the kid, you want to be the second,” one personnel director said. “High school recruits hold a lot of power, because at any point, if they get upset, they can leave. There’s not a whole lot we can do to keep them here, because they have this transfer exception.”

If a player transfers and takes advantage of the one-time transfer rule, it seems less likely they will transfer again given the fact that they would have to sit out a year. It gives some of the leverage back to the coaches to have more certainty with the roster, and it’s an effective way to utilize roster management.

It could mean the transfers will slow down in the future, or it could just mean that a whole new group of younger players will cycle through the portal continuously as they go throughout their careers. Regardless, it has created a chaotic situation that everyone is trying to navigate and figure out as they go.

“It’s like there’s too many different ways that you can add players at the same time,” one personnel director said. “For the high school kids, it’s all more straight forward, because you know where everyone’s at in the process. But the transfers, we don’t know who’s going in, who’s available, when we can add them or how to get them.”

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