Catch or No Catch: Transfers get a second chance to shine in the NCAA

Sometimes a change in scenery is what an athlete needs to reach their full potential. We’ve seen it time and time again in professional sports — Randy Moss solidifies himself as a Hall of Famer on the Patriots; LeBron James wins his first championship in Miami; James Harden becomes an MVP-caliber player in Houston. However, leaving one program for another is still considered somewhat taboo at the college level, and this comes at the expense of the players.

On the whole, administrators and NCAA rulemakers are slowly accepting the notion of a player leaving their school for another in college football (and basketball for that matter). This spring, the NCAA loosened many of its regulations against transfers playing immediately for their new schools.

This is a good thing. In many cases, college football recruiting can mislead high-level recruits as to what their role on a team or experience at a school will be. Far too often, players arrive at a school and ride the bench for two to three seasons after being told they’d have a “chance” to start right away. What they weren’t told, however, was that that chance is usually slim to none.

Why bring this up now? Well, several transfers have set the college football world ablaze this season. In particular, LSU redshirt senior Joe Burrow, Ohio State sophomore Justin Fields and Oklahoma senior Jalen Hurts are all quarterbacks who have become Heisman favorites after being cast aside at their previous schools.

Hurts graduated from the University of Alabama last spring after going 26-2 as a starter. You’d think this would be a reasonably happy end to a college career, but not in this case. Hurts had been riding the bench behind junior Tua Tagovailoa since the National Championship game following the 2017 season, and he had one year of eligibility left. 

Thus, he followed the storied path of Sooners quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and transferred to Oklahoma to learn under head coach Lincoln Riley. The result? More than 2,000 yards through the air and 700 on the ground thus far. What’s better? He’s resurrected his NFL chances at Oklahoma, and he’s on pace to have his best season yet.

Fields was one of the most highly rated recruits ever coming out of high school, and he committed to his hometown Georgia Bulldogs at the beginning of his senior year with the impression that he’d be able to compete with then-sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm for the starting job in 2018. Even after Fromm won the job, Fields believed he’d receive significant snaps throughout the season. In reality, Fields never had a real chance to dethrone Fromm, and the offense used his talents sparingly, if ever.

Fields transferred to Ohio State in the spring following the departure of current Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Thus far, he’s been nothing short of electric for the undefeated Buckeyes, throwing 22 touchdowns and rushing for another eight.

Burrow, however, is the most compelling of the three. After riding the bench for two years at Ohio State behind former quarterback J.T. Barrett, Burrow battled Haskins for the starting job. After learning that Haskins would start, Burrow transferred to LSU in May 2018.

Burrow’s first year in Baton Rouge was a moderate success; he was a key offensive player for a team that won the Fiesta Bowl. But this year, Burrow has been simply unstoppable through the air, throwing for more than 300 yards in six of his eight games. If LSU stays undefeated, or if Burrow keeps up his production, the Heisman Trophy is his — plain and simple.

What makes all of these players’ stories so compelling is that there was no guarantee that any of their situations would pan out. It’s a potentially life-changing gamble, especially for those players who see football as their future. There are other transfer quarterbacks — like Missouri graduate Kelly Bryant and Washington junior Jacob Eason — who have resurrected their NFL dreams after being shunted aside at their previous schools, but these three have proven more than any others that, sometimes, all you need is a second chance.

As a college transfer myself, the pursuit of a better situation than the one you chose originally is near and dear to my heart. Again, there’s no guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for in a new environment. In fact, it might even be worse, and there’s just no way to find out until it’s too late.

That’s why it’s always heartwarming to see transfers balling out on their new teams. For a select few players, transferring can be the opportunity that changes the trajectory of an entire career. For others, it’s a second chance to prove one’s talents in the game they love.

Sometimes, the grass actually is greener on the other side. Just ask Hurts — he’s waited a long time for an opportunity like this.

Matthew Philips is a senior writing about football. He is also a former lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Catch or No Catch,” runs every other Tuesday.