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College football’s new game: Quarterback Dominoes

Blink and you might miss which high-profile college quarterback is on the move

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Southern California quarterback Jaxson Dart celebrates a touchdown against Arizona State on Nov. 6, 2021, in Tempe, Ariz.

Southern California quarterback Jaxson Dart celebrates a touchdown against Arizona State on Nov. 6, 2021, in Tempe, Ariz. The former Corner Canyon High standout recently announced he has entered the transfer portal and will be moving on from USC.

Darryl Webb, Associated Press

Eric Kjar, the Corner Canyon High School head football coach and quarterback guru, was teaching class recently when suddenly his phone was bombarded with messages from head coaches and offensive coordinators from some of the most prestigious football schools in the country.

“My phone was just blowing up,” he said. “I wondered what the heck is going on?”

It turned out that one of his former quarterbacks, Jaxson Dart, who started for USC last season and was deemed the Trojans’ quarterback of the future, had entered the transfer portal. Coaches were calling to get a read on the quarterback’s plans and perhaps sign him. Dart himself called Kjar to tell him the news and to discuss his options and has continued to reach out to his former coach. So did Lincoln Riley, who had just traded the head coaching job at Oklahoma for the head coaching job at USC.

“The coaching carousel starts again,” says Kjar, whose former quarterbacks include players at Ohio State, USC and the New York Jets.

During the last week or so, Kjar has continued to receive calls from coaches at USC, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Nebraska, UCLA, Arizona State, BYU, Utah and others, as they attempt to woo the prized QB. Dart has visited Ole Miss, Oklahoma and BYU. Ole Miss is probably the frontrunner at this point.

Dart’s move is part of a growing trend in college football and just another link in a chain reaction that began while he was still in high school. Welcome to the world of Quarterback Dominoes, the game that was begun by the creation of the transfer portal.

Let’s begin here: JT Daniels, a five-star recruit, was USC’s starting QB until he injured his knee in the 2019 season opener and lost his starting job to Kedon Slovis. So Daniels transferred to Georgia in time for the 2020 season. He won the starting job in 2021, but was injured again and eventually beaten out for the job by walk-on Stetson Bennett, who led the team to the national championship. Daniels has entered the portal for the second time.

Meanwhile, Slovis — remember him? — started for three seasons at USC,  but then was injured himself in 2021, opening the door for Dart, who played well enough in six games that he won the job. He did what Slovis did to Daniels. Slovis transferred to Pitt.

And still the dominoes continued to fall. When Spencer Rattler, a Heisman Trophy candidate at Oklahoma early last season, lost his starting job to Caleb Williams during the 2021 season, he transferred to South Carolina. That left the job solely to Williams. But wait … 

Since Riley left Oklahoma to take the head coaching job at USC, Williams has indicated he will follow the  coach to Los Angeles, leaving Oklahoma without either of its two starting quarterbacks from last season. That brings us back to where we started. As a result of Williams’ decision, Dart packed his bags and entered the transfer portal.

Follow all that?

Because of the transfer portal, college players have more mobility than NFL players; it has created what one coach called “free agency” in the college ranks. And of course no position uses the portal more than quarterbacks for the simple reason that there is only one starting position per team and there are only 130 FBS teams.

According to 247 Sports, 24 starting FBS quarterbacks have entered the portal in the current offseason — or 18.5% of starting quarterbacks. That doesn’t even include former blue-chip recruits Quinn Ewers (Ohio State to Texas), Rattler (Oklahoma to South Carolina) and Connor Bazelak (leaving Missouri), who are almost certain to be starters at new schools next season.

One quarterback told 247, speaking of the quarterback movement, “It’s literally wild.”

Literally? (People keep on using that word; I don’t think it means what they think it means.)

Talented quarterbacks are fleeing to the portal to be beamed up to other schools. Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 8,000 yards for UCF before sustaining an injury in 2021, announced that he would be transferring to UCLA, only to change his mind 18 days later and instead transferred to Oklahoma. Bazelak was the SEC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2020; Ewers was the No. 1 quarterback recruit of his class. And Rattler was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2021 after his breakout performance in 2020.

The transfer portal has played a big role at quarterback in Utah schools, as well. Charlie Brewer, a four-year starter for Baylor, transferred to Utah in 2021, started three games and then transferred to Liberty after losing the starting job to Cam Rising, who transferred to Utah from Texas in 2019. Rising took the Utes to the Rose Bowl.

After starting 24 games for Arkansas State, Logan Bonner followed his coach, Blake Anderson, when the latter became the new Utah State head coach. He led the Aggies to an 11-3 season. Baylor Romney, a superb and often-used backup, transferred out of BYU (destination unknown) because often-injured Jaren Hallhas a headlock on the starting job — that is, unless Dart transfers to BYU. Dart visited the school recently.

According to 274 Sports, there were 248 four- and five-star quarterbacks from 2010 to 2019 and 63% of them transferred at least once. That number increased with the creation of the transfer portal in the fall of 2018. According to 247 Sports, since 2016 — the first class that could use the transfer portal — 20 of 21 four- and five-star quarterbacks transferred at least once, and the classes from 2016-19 saw 68% of those quarterbacks transfer at least once (and more could still leave in the future).

It already seems like a long time ago that players had to sit out a year after transferring to another school. It’s a different era in the college game.