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If transfer portal had existed decades ago, BYU’s ‘quarterback factory’ might never have happened

Thanks to the portal, the QB position has become a revolving door at college programs around the country

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Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis warms up against Syracuse during game, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis warms up against Syracuse during game, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Pittsburgh, Pa. The former USC Trojan and Pitt Panther has transferred to BYU for the 2023 season.

Barry Reeger, Associated Press

Kedon Slovis is a mobile quarterback. He must be, because he keeps moving from one school to the next. He’s on the move again. He’s making his third address change in three years, having played three seasons for USC and, most recently, one for Pitt.

Now he’s coming to BYU.

BYU backup quarterback Jacob Conover, even before Slovis committed to BYU, saw the writing on the wall and entered the portal. He announced in early December that he was transferring to Arizona State. Two weeks later, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Drew Pyne, announced he also is transferring to Arizona State. He had learned that Notre Dame was going to shop the portal for another quarterback, despite a fine performance by Pyne last season (he won eight of 10 games and threw for 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions).

There isn’t much reward for loyalty anymore, and there isn’t much loyalty. Players spend years at a school, paying their dues, waiting for a chance to play, enduring early-morning weightlifting sessions and long practices and film sessions with the hope that their turn will come. That’s what Conover has done for three years in Provo. He waited behind Zach Wilson and then Jaren Hall and threw just 11 passes. Now Slovis will be handed the job. All he has to do is show up.

Players are quick to move to other schools. If the transfer portal had existed 40 years ago, BYU’s quarterback history would look much different. It might not have become the “quarterback factory.”

As a sophomore in 1978, Jim McMahon replaced injured starter Marc Wilson and played well enough that BYU played both of them, going with the hot hand. But the following year, BYU decided to make Wilson the starter and redshirt McMahon. McMahon fumed. Wilson led BYU to an 11-0 regular season only to lose the Holiday Bowl by one point. He was the 15th overall pick of the NFL draft.

McMahon won 22 of the 24 games he started the next two seasons and set 75 NCAA records. He was the fifth overall pick of the NFL draft. But in today’s world, he would’ve entered the transfer portal before his redshirt year and played for another school.

Steve Young inherited the job in 1983, following McMahon. He was on the roster in 1980 and knew he would be stuck on the sideline behind McMahon the following season. If the transfer portal had been available in 1981, Young might have bolted to another school. Instead, he remained at BYU and in 1983 he was the best quarterback in the country as a senior, like Wilson and McMahon.

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BYU quarterback Steve Young throws a pass. Young was among a number of talented Cougar QBs who had to bide his time in Provo until his number was called.

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Young passed the job to Robbie Bosco, who led BYU to a 13-0 season and a national championship in 1984, but before that he was stuck on the sideline for three seasons. If the portal had been invented then, he might have fled to another school after the 1982 season, knowing he had to wait out a third season behind Young.

Quarterbacks in that era expected to serve an apprenticeship. Quarterbacks in the modern era expect to play right away or at least early in their collegiate career; the transfer portal has made it easy to go to another school.

According to ESPN, more than 3,000 FBS players entered the transfer portal last year, and quarterbacks were the most sought-after players among them. They included three of the best quarterbacks of 2022 — USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, Oregon’s Bo Nix, and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler. According to Athlon Sports, about half of all FBS teams started a transfer at quarterback this season. 

It’s become an annual game of quarterback dominoes. To wit:

• JT Daniels was USC’s starting quarterback in 2018, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2019 season opener and Slovis played so well that he nailed down the starting job for 2020.

• Daniels transferred to Georgia in 2020 and won the starting job in 2021, but was injured again and lost the job to walk-on Stetson Bennett, who led the team to the national championship.

• Daniels entered the portal for a second time and landed at West Virginia, where he started 10 games this season before losing the starting job, again.

• Slovis, meanwhile, started three seasons at USC after Daniels departed, but was injured in 2021, which opened the door for Jaxson Dart (a graduate of Draper’s Corner Canyon High), who played well enough to win the starting job for 2021.

• Slovis transferred to Pitt and won the starting job, but he had the worst season of his college career, which might be why he’s transferring to BYU. Slovis produced his best season as a freshman in 2019, and in the three years since then his play has declined annually.

• Then there’s Dart, who, having won the starting job at USC in 2021 over Slovis, was projected as the starter for 2022. But wait. In the offseason, Williams used the transfer portal to move from Oklahoma to USC so he could continue to play for head coach Lincoln Riley, who left Oklahoma for USC. So Williams transferred in and Dart transferred out — to Ole Miss, where he was the team’s starting quarterback this season. Williams won the Heisman.

• Follow all that? Well, we’re not done yet in this chain of quarterback dominoes. Rattler was a Heisman Trophy candidate and Oklahoma’s starting quarterback in 2021, but he lost his starting job to Williams. He transferred to South Carolina, where he won the starting job in 2022 and, like Slovis, had the worst season in his four-year college career. That left Oklahoma’s quarterback position solely to Williams — except he transferred to USC. So Oklahoma went from having two excellent quarterbacks, to having to start from scratch.

The transfer portal and the ease of transferring causes at least as many problems as it fixes for today’s mobile quarterbacks. Time will tell if it produces the results Slovis is hoping for in his fifth season as a roving quarterback.

BYU’s current 112-player roster includes no fewer than seven quarterbacks on Aug. 5, 2021.

BYU’s quarterbacks Jacob Conover (17), Cade Fennegan (11), Jaren Hall (3) and Baylor Romney (16) leave practice in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News