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Tales from the transfer portal: How BYU found two graduate transfer running backs, kept a promising linebacker

South Carolina’s Ty’Son Williams, Rice’s Emmanuel Esukpa became Cougars despite few ties to BYU, while Payton Wilgar remained there

PROVO — Ty’Son Williams had heard about BYU because a high school football teammate in South Carolina was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a rather vocal Cougar fan.

“But I didn’t know where it was,” Williams said.

Emmanuel Esukpa was more familiar with the private school in Utah because his former running backs coach at Rice had left the previous year to take a job coaching the same position group in Provo, and Esukpa “did a little research” to learn about AJ Steward’s 2018 destination.

So how did the fifth-year graduate transfer running backs both end up at BYU?

“It probably started when I put my name in the transfer portal,” Williams said.

“I put my name in the portal, and that started the recruiting process,” Esukpa said.

By now, college football and basketball fans are familiar with the transfer portal, which was instituted in October 2018 by the NCAA to make it easier for Division I student-athletes to transfer to a different school and receive a scholarship without having to ask their current school for permission. It is basically just a spreadsheet that includes players’ names, current school and contact information.

Once a student-athlete’s name is in the database, other schools are free to contact them.

Life in the transfer portal

“It is not like your phone is ringing off the hook,” said Williams, the more high-profile of the two transfers because he was a four-star recruit in high school and was leaving South Carolina of the SEC. “It is kind of a process.”

Still, the 6-foot, 220-pound Williams, who ran for 328 yards and four touchdowns for the Gamecocks in 2018, says he got a “good amount” of phone calls, text messages and emails in the weeks that followed his entrance into the portal. Graduate transfers such as Williams and Esukpa with proven track records are highly sought-after because they are immediately eligible and don’t have to sit out a year like other transfers.

Ty’Son Williams speaks about transferring to BYU during football media day in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Ty’Son Williams speaks about transferring to BYU during football media day in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Williams says he can’t remember the names of all the coaches or schools that contacted him, but still can recall the first time he spoke to Steward and having his interest piqued about BYU.

“Most of it is still about connections and relationships, and I developed one with coach (Steward),” Williams said. “The portal doesn’t do everything. Connections can happen in a lot of different ways. That’s the best way I can put it.”

For instance, Williams says he used “a lot of different avenues” to get the word out, including social media.

“The transfer portal doesn’t solve all your problems,” he said. “Putting it out on Twitter helped a lot, too.”

Portal isn’t perfect

Certainly, some former Cougars — and even a current one — are learning that the portal isn’t perfect, doesn’t always work.

Linebacker Payton Wilgar put his name in last winter and missed spring practices, but decided to return to BYU and is now in the running to be a starter. Some coaches, such as Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, have said that once their players enter the portal, they’re finished at their old school.

At BYU, running back Riley Burt departed for Utah State, receiver Akile Davis and defensive back Isaiah Armstrong found homes at Northwestern State in Louisiana, offensive lineman Jacob Jimenez landed at San Diego State and quarterback Stacy Conner ended up at Snow College.

But portal entrants Trevion Greene, Tevita Mo’unga, Christian Folau, Johnny “Ku-J” Tapusoa, Wayne Tei-Kirby and Ula Tolutau either retired from football or have yet to publicly announce their next school.

In May, CBSSports.com estimated that more than 700 football players remained in the portal, which is why Esukpa considers himself “fortunate and blessed” to have been accepted into a graduate program at BYU.

BYU landed one other transfer who was in the portal — former Utah offensive lineman Mo Unutoa — but the son of former Cougar great Morris Unutoa must sit out a year and will have two years of eligibility remaining in 2020.

Esukpa’s transfer story starts with Steward

Esukpa said student-athletes can’t personally get into the portal; Their school’s compliance officer or a coach must do it for them. He said he gave Steward the heads-up that he was entering the portal, but the first coach from BYU to officially contact him was offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.

“I got some calls, but I didn’t answer a lot of them if I didn’t recognize the number,” Esukpa said. “I would just listen to their voice mails and call back the schools I was interested in. … A lot of players are in the transfer portal, so you have to use other methods, too. I put my (news) out there on Twitter, for instance.”

Emmanuel Esukpa speaks about transferring to BYU during football media day in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Running back Emmanuel Esukpa speaks about transferring to BYU during football media day in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

One of those coaches that Esukpa did call back was USC’s Clay Helton. Suiting up for the Trojans in his final season of college eligibility was enticing, Esukpa admits, but in the end the relationship he had already established with Steward carried the day.

“Coach AJ is the reason why I came here,” Esukpa said. “But I also bought into coach Grimes’ schemes and his philosophies and all that stuff. Also, Kalani (Sitake) is an amazing head coach. BYU was just a better fit for me as a player, and just as a person off the field.”

Still, turning down the cardinal and gold wasn’t easy.

“They are a storied program, a legendary program,” Esukpa said. “They have had a lot of great running backs. Of course, it was hard to turn down, but I knew where my heart was at, which was at BYU.”

Esukpa said the weirdest thing about the transfer portal is that he still gets inquiries about his availability, even though BYU announced his admission into the program back on March 27.

Sitake supports the portal

Steward said BYU football staffers checked the portal on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis last winter and spring and reported possibilities to him and other coaches. He would check it weekly, at least. BYU doesn’t contact as many transfer portal inhabitants as other programs, Steward believes, “because it is more of a niche program” looking for rare student-athletes who have DI talent but can handle the rigorous academic and lifestyle requirements.

“I just feel sorry for the guys who entered the portal but didn’t get any opportunities to play or get picked up by other schools,” Steward said. “Their careers could be over … I think the portal has pros and cons, just like everything.”

Sitake has been a big proponent of the portal, “which has been great for us,” he said after practice on Monday. “I have never held anyone back from transferring and I have released anyone who wanted to be released. So I think the portal is good for the kids, for them to be at a place they want to be at.”

Would Williams and Esukpa be at BYU without it?

“I think we wouldn’t have found them without AJ Steward and Jeff Grimes and all the other coaches,” Sitake said. “Those guys did an amazing job looking at the needs we had with this team, and filling them.”

After all, recruiting is still about connections and relationships, he said. But the transfer portal can be a big help.