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What might have been: Charlie Brewer, the transfer portal and second-guesses

As well as the Utes have performed this season, one wonders how things might have gone had Utah started the season with Cam Rising at quarterback

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Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer takes a snap during game against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Sept. 11, 2021.

Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer takes a snap during game against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Sept. 11, 2021. With Brewer at the helm, the Cougars snapped a nine-game losing streak to Utah. Much has changed since that game; Brewer left the program and the Utes have climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll and are headed to their first Rose Bowl.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

College football’s regular season is finished and now it’s time for second-guessing and wondering what might have been.

Let’s start with Charlie Brewer.

A year ago he transferred from Baylor — where he had been a four-year starter at quarterback — following a season in which his team won just two of nine games. He entered the transfer portal and eventually landed with Utah, hoping he’d have a more successful team. He started the first three games — two of them losses — and then lost the starting job, which prompted him to enter the transfer portal again, hoping for the second time in 10 months to find another school and team.

Then this happened:

Baylor, the first school he left behind, finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in the national polls and is headed to the Sugar Bowl.

Utah, the second school he left behind, is No. 10 and headed to the Rose Bowl.

As Rooster Cogburn once said, “Well, that didn’t pan out.”

Speaking of second-guessing yourself, do Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ever revisit the decision they made at the end of training camp last August?

They chose to start the season with Brewer at quarterback over Cam Rising, another quarterback from a Texas school (University of Texas) who joined the Utes in the winter of 2019 via the transfer portal. After losing two of those first three games, Whittingham and Ludwig turned again to Rising, who had been the starter at the outset of the 2020 season before getting injured in the opener. It seems more than a coincidence that the Utes have won nine of the 10 games since Rising became the quarterback, including their first win in the Pac-12 championship game.

It’s probably safe to say there are more Charlie Brewer stories than Jalen Hurts stories. As Brewer discovered, the transfer portal can be a lot like changing lanes in heavy traffic; as soon as you change lanes, the one you left opens up.

Do the Utah coaches ever allow themselves to wonder what might have been if they had made Rising the starter from the beginning of the season, when the Utes lost two close games, to BYU and San Diego State? Even with three losses, the Utes have climbed to No. 10 in the rankings, but with one or two fewer losses they might have been contending for a berth in the national playoff.

The new transfer portal has facilitated more player movement in the college game than in the professional ranks. By the end of November more than 100 players had entered the portal, hoping to be beamed up to a new team and more playing time. No position flocks to the portal more than quarterbacks, there being only 130 FBS starting jobs in the country to go around. 

The following quarterbacks are on the move according to reports on the internet: Adrian Martinez (Nebraska), Harrison Bailey (Tennessee), Jake Haener (Fresno State), Dillon Gabriel (UCF), Quinn Ewers (Ohio State), Tyler Johnston (UAB), Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Michael Penix (Indiana), Taisun Phommachanh (Clemson), Max Johnson (LSU), Myles Brennan (LSU), Chevan Cordeiro (Hawaii), Jack Sears (Boise State), Layne Hatcher (Arkansas State), Jack Plummer (Purdue), Zach Gibson (Akron) and of course Brewer. More are sure to join the exodus.

They’re all hoping to do what Jalen Hurts did a few years ago. After losing the starting job at Alabama, he transferred to Oklahoma and played well enough to be drafted in the second round of the NFL draft. Now he’s a starter in the NFL.

It’s probably safe to say there are more Charlie Brewer stories than Jalen Hurts stories. As Brewer discovered, the transfer portal can be a lot like changing lanes in heavy traffic; as soon as you change lanes, the one you left opens up.

For the coaches’ part, you wonder if they feel a certain obligation to start the big-name transfers, especially quarterbacks, despite their claims that they promise nothing. Maybe they’re blinded by credentials and reputation. Brewer came to Utah having already thrown for 10,000 yards and 68 touchdowns. That had to weigh heavily in the decision to make him the starter.

One thing is certain, the transfer portal has created a strange new dynamic for coaches and players.