Alabama, other BCS schools enter risk-reward game of QB transfers
Alabama Crimson Tide is one of several high-profile programs relying on transfer quarterbacks -- a trend littered with hits and misses.
BCS programs pinning hopes on a transfer quarterback in 2014 can look to New York/New Jersey this week for what they might hope for out of the deal.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Super Bowl-bound in just his second NFL season, vaulted Wisconsin to instant contention after moving from North Carolina State to the Badgers in 2011. Wisconsin won 11 games and a Big Ten title behind Wilson's 72.8 completion percentage, 33 touchdowns and four picks.
From Wilson to Nick Foles (Michigan State to Arizona) to Ryan Mallett (Michigan to Arkansas) and many more, transfer quarterbacks can microwave success for a team in transition.
When it comes to lateral moves at the power-conference level -- not, say, a Garrett Gilbert downgrade from Texas to SMU -- every success story seems to have a backfire to match. The Wisconsin quarterback that followed Wilson, former Maryland starter Danny O'Brien, fizzled out quickly in Madison.
The numbers from last year's high-level quarterback transfers aren't pretty. But more on that in a moment.
Some players simply weren't good enough to win the job where they were.
"There's some risk in that, but that's why you do your own evaluation," said NC State coach Dave Doeren, who coached two transfer quarterbacks in 2013 and will do so again with former Florida signal caller Jacoby Brissett. "You've got to know the player you're getting."
Alabama might not worry about cautionary tales because of former Florida State QB Jacob Coker's immense talent. He almost beat out Jameis Winston for the starting job last summer. But with 295 career passing yards in spot duty, there are no guarantees he'll convert third-and-longs in Death Valley.
A pair of former Florida quarterbacks will probably start in the ACC this season -- Brissett for the Wolfpack and Tyler Murphy for Boston College. Both have started SEC games, but that's not why Doeren feels safe with Brissett.
Doeren said he had two quarterbacks on his roster when he took over in December 2012, so he brought in Brandon Mitchell from Arkansas and Pete Thomas from Colorado State, to mixed results, though a foot fracture in the season opener deflated Mitchell's momentum.
NC State's uncertainty a year ago makes Brissett even more of a coup, as Doeren sees it, because he's not simply filling a roster hole that recruiting should have covered.
"With Jacoby there's no real downside because we've known him," Doeren said. "I recruited him [while a coordinator] at Wisconsin."
The transfer game looks promising in 2014, but transitional quarterbacks took a hit last season. Yes, Zach Mettenberger had a big year for LSU, but the Tigers acquired him through unconventional means -- serving as a landing strip for a player booted off his previous team (Georgia) for legal issues. That's not a sustainable model for teams scanning the open quarterback market.
Extracting Mettenberger, there were at least five schools from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences that primarily started transfer quarterbacks -- Pittsburgh (Tom Savage), Vanderbilt (Austyn Carta-Samuels), NC State (Thomas/Mitchell), Kansas (Jake Heaps) and West Virginia (Clint Trickett).
None of those quarterbacks threw for more than 3,000 yards, and Savage was the only one to record more than 11 passing touchdowns. He had 21. Heaps, formerly of BYU, was last in the country in yards per game at 128.5.
The average transfer quarterback production for those teams last season (numbers rounded off):
• 183 of 312 passing (58.8 percent), 2,185 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 10.8 games.
In a college environment where 400-yard passing games are not rare, this stat line is rather pedestrian, though the short learning curve of a transfer in a new system should be considered. And Carta-Samuels gets toughness points for winning three games for Vandy on a torn ACL.
Similar to Boston College and NC State, the teams relying on transfers last year all had head coaches in their first three years on the job. They realized a quarterback void early in their tenure and found a solution.
Which sort of makes LSU and Alabama looking to the open market a bit surprising. These are well-established programs with serious recruiting clout.
After all, a coach hopes to recruit well enough where in three to five years "you don't have holes in your depth chart," Doeren said.
Apparently Alabama has a hole, at least for a year. Otherwise senior Blake Sims or Luke Del Rio (now transferred to Oregon State) or five-star incoming freshman David Cornwell would be vying for a starting job.
Perhaps Sims and Cornwell still can, but Coker didn't sign with Alabama to be a backup.
One FBS coach told me he doesn't know any staff that actually likes quarterback transfers because "it usually means you don't have one."
"It's admitting you haven't recruited or developed a quality QB," the coach said. "Guys who transfer obviously couldn't win the job at their own school most of the time."
That traditional powers look outside their own recruiting classes for a quarterback accentuates the scarcity of truly great quarterbacks.
That doesn't mean you can't find talent. Top 25 programs that recruit well might not have two great quarterbacks on their roster -- but they probably have at least two good ones.
Their new teams could get elite production -- or middling results -- from the quarterbacks and neither outcome would surprise based on transfer trends.
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