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‘It’s free agency within college football’: How Utes are being impacted by the NCAA transfer portal

The Utes have both gained and lost talented players during the offseason

Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson prepares to take a snap during spring camp in Salt Lake City. Jackson arrived at Utah via the transfer portal after spending his first college season with the Texas Longhorns.
University of Utah Athletics

As Utah, and every other college football program in the country, is finding out, the transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away.

The Utes benefited from several key additions from the NCAA’s transfer portal during the offseason, including Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, Texas quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson, Oklahoma running back T.J. Pledger and LSU running back Chris Curry.

“We feel like we’ve hit home runs,” Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said about the influx of Power Five transfers.

But the Utes have also lost players like wide receivers Bryan Thompson (Arizona State) and Samson Nacua (BYU) to the transfer portal. Last December, running backs Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore entered the portal before the season ended.

As spring practices help coaches formulate the depth chart and a pecking order going into the offseason, some players might explore other options in the coming weeks and months.

“I’m sure there’s going to be more guys enter the portal. Problem is, it’s so saturated now that there’s literally one scholarship for every four or five players in the portal,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “People have to be careful and smart in how they handle things. We come out of spring and if you’re not where you want to be, then I’m sure some guys will exit.

“You hope the majority of them will continue to fight and compete and help the team anyway they can. Hopefully, that’s not becoming completely a thing of the past, to be a team guy and help out and find a role and embrace it, whether it’s special teams or whatever the case may be, and help your team win a championship. ... We’re hoping the majority of our guys take that mentality and attitude instead of sticking their name in the portal.”

Is it difficult to keep players happy these days, what with the portal so readily available and the prospect of transferring without penalty on the horizon?

“It’s a little bit different now. We’re getting ready for that one-time transfer done. Guys have an opportunity to go ahead and leave. We have the portal, that we didn’t have before,” said Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald. “So guys can hop into the portal and wind up going. The problem is, there’s a misconception about the portal. There are a lot of guys sitting in the portal that don’t have a home.

“A lot of guys don’t understand that. I think a third of the guys that hopped into the portal wound up receiving a scholarship. You might want to transition to somewhere else, but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s a tough process.”

McDonald said situations can change.

“I have guys that wound up leaving the program because they wanted to play. We had Ty Jordan and I had four or five guys that were very talented,” he said. “For example, (running back) TJ Green went to Liberty. He’s a very good football player. I didn’t know that a freshman was going to come in here and take the reins. These guys have dreams, too. Each situation is mutually exclusive.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” he continued. “It is different for sure. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re going to treat them as men and respect them. But that’s not going to change us coaching them hard.”

Whittingham said he wasn’t necessarily caught off guard when Thompson and Nacua decided to leave the program last winter.

“Nothing surprises you anymore. … You react and fill the void proportionately with the portal. It’s just the way college football is now. It’s free agency within college football,” he said. “The way we look at it is, your high school guys are your draftees and your free agents are the portal guys. You’ve got to have both. You have to be able to get a blend of those incoming players.”

Newly hired receivers coach Chad Bumphis looks on during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes lost a few receivers through the transfer portal, but Bumphis says it’s just “next man up” for the Utes.
University of Utah Athletics

For newly hired wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis, it wasn’t difficult to inherit a position group where two of its top players had decided to leave.

“In this program, you know that it’s next man up. Those guys see this as an opportunity to get on the field,” he said. “Obviously, we have the (Britain) Coveys in the room, who have been very successful. We’ve got some guys coming along. There wasn’t much stress. They saw it as an opportunity to get on the field and make plays. They’re excited to show what they can do. Making plays is what it’s all about.”

Ludwig is pleased with the way his quarterback position became deeper and more experienced with the addition of Brewer and Jackson.

“Two very talented quarterbacks with different experience levels. Charlie, a multiple-year starter at the Division I level, and Ja’Quinden Jackson, a very talented freshman joining us,” he said. “We felt they were two men that could contribute and compete right away. They’re a great fit in that quarterback room.”

Part of what attracted Jackson to Utah is that “it’s an NFL-ready program. They get you ready for the NFL as a freshman. This program is amazing.”

Ultimately, McDonald said, he wants players that are willing to compete.

“We’ve got to do what’s best for the program. We went and got guys that can play. We’re going to compete. You can’t be scared of competition. If you’re scared of competition, this is not the place for you.”