The NCAA’s so-called transfer portal — which sounds like something out of “Star Trek” — has been with us only three years and we’re only just learning all its ramifications. With certain stipulations, it allows players to transfer to another school without redshirting, as previously required.
Kyle Whittingham and the University of Utah have made full use of the portal. Whether that has been a wise move or not remains to be seen, but so far it has not delivered, and the Utes — coincidentally or not — are weathering one of their worst stretches. They have lost four of eight games (three of seven if you discount the win over FCS Weber State).
At least a dozen players transferred to Utah since the 2020 season, most of them from big-name schools, which is surely part of their appeal. Only four of them have made a real impact so far (it should be noted Utah also had a number of players transfer out).
Charlie Brewer, a four-year starter at quarterback for Baylor, was expected to be one of the most impactful transfers in the nation this season. He left the school this week after losing the starting job in the third-game loss to San Diego State.
It is a familiar storyline for the Utes. Another quarterback, Jake Bentley, a four-year starter at South Carolina, transferred to Utah after the 2019 season and wound up as Utah’s starter in 2020. He was benched in the season finale against Washington State and afterward entered the transfer portal for the second time. Utah’s starting quarterback now is Cam Rising, who transferred from Texas to Utah in 2019.
When asked if he had learned anything about quarterbacks and the transfer portal, Whittingham told reporters, “... they go in a lot and that’s the position that has the most activity by ratio. In other words, you have five O-linemen that start and just one quarterback. There are probably as many quarterbacks as O-linemen total in the portal. That is a position that’s very fluid. A lot of movement at that position.”
Whittingham once observed years ago, after losing a transfer to another school, “A lot of times these things just don’t work out (for the outgoing player).”
That certainly seems to be the case, at least anecdotally. The reason Whittingham and other coaches eagerly comb the transfer portal is because they can sign players who will make an immediate impact. But here’s what has happened to the 12 who arrived at Utah from other schools this year:
• Charlie Brewer (Baylor, quarterback, Sr.) — Brewer, who has thrown for more than 10,000 yards in his college career, started three games and then was outplayed by Rising against San Diego State. He’s gone.
• Ja’Quinden Jackson (Texas, quarterback, Fr.) — He’s the second-string quarterback now that Brewer has packed his bags.
• Tavion Thomas (Cincinnati/Independence CC, running back, So.) — Thomas, who was expected to be the team’s lead back, rushed for 107 yards against Weber State in the opener and 26 yards the next week against BYU, but he fumbled in each of the first two games. Whittingham says he has not given up on Thomas, but Thomas had just one carry (for 0 yards) in the third game against San Diego State. Micah Bernard, a freshman, has become the team’s go-to running back.
• T.J. Pledger — (Oklahoma, running back, Jr.) — Along with Thomas, Pledger generated a lot of excitement in camp. So far, he has had six carries for 11 yards and three catches for 25 yards.
• Josh Calvert (Washington, linebacker, Fr.) — Calvert has not played.
• Brandon McKinney (Washington, defensive back, Sr.) — McKinney is the starting safety and ranks third on the team in tackles, with 20, nine of them against San Diego State.
• Chris Curry (LSU, running back, So.) — Curry has played sparingly and has had three rushing attempts.
• Theo Howard (UCLA/Oklahoma, wide receiver, Sr.) — Howard has four catches, one for a touchdown against San Diego State.
• Michael Williams (Arizona State, punter, So.) — He’s the holder on special teams, but has not been used as a punter.
• Elijah Shelton (Utah State, defensive end, So.) — He has not played.
• Munir McClain (USC, wide receiver, Fr.) — He played on special teams against Weber State.
• Lolani Langi (Washington St., linebacker, So.) — He has not played.
With coaches relying increasingly on the transfer portal, it’s fair to wonder if it’s worth it. Does it affect the morale of the team’s existing players who have worked and waited for an opportunity to play, only to be bumped to the back of the line by a player from another school. Coaches might respond that it motivates their players. Those same coaches are also pressured to win immediately — the average collegiate coach lasts only about 3 ½ years.
Whittingham was asked if it was better to develop quarterbacks immediately out of high school than to sign quarterbacks from the transfer portal who have one remaining year of eligibility (a la Bentley and Brewer).
“There’s merit to that, too,” he said. “The bottom line is, who gives you the best chance to win right now? I guess you could say, well, we’re just going to look two or three years down the road. But that’s not how most football coaches operate. Not how any of them operate that I know of ...”