College football: Quarterback transfers put coaches in a bind

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Ohio State will open conference play against Wisconsin with an “OR” in fine print on the depth chart between the two quarterbacks. Urban Meyer doesn’t  seem to mind.

His Heisman-contending starter at quarterback, Braxton Miller, hasn’t played since the first quarter of the second game, but Meyer has reason for confidence in backup Kenny Guiton. The senior has played about as well as could be expected even for the standard Miller set during a 12-0 season.

Meyer is one of the lucky ones. Miller is undoubtedly his starter when healthy. Having Guiton on the roster is more a luxury than any kind of dilemma.

“It’s a blessing to have it,” Meyer said. “We just have to manage it the right way.”

Keeping a quality backup quarterback like Guiton on the roster is as difficult as it’s ever been. Multiple teams have needed to go to the second-string option before the calendar has turned to October only to find their quarterback situation is not as luxurious as the one in Columbus.

2013 TRANSFERS TURNED STARTING QUARTERBACKS
Includes only quarterbacks who began careers at FBS programs
Previous school in parentheses

Drew Allen, Syracuse (Oklahoma)*
Ronnie Bell, Georgia State (Ohio)
Steven Bench, USF (Penn State)
Allan Bridgford, Southern Miss (Cal)
Terrance Broadway, UL Lafayette (Houston)
Austyn Carta-Samuels, Vanderbilt (Wyoming)
David Fales, San Jose State (Nevada)
Taylor Graham, Hawaii (Ohio State)
Cody Green, Tulsa (Nebraska)
Garrett Gilbert, SMU (Texas)
Jake Heaps, Kansas (BYU)
Adam Kennedy, Arkansas State (Utah State)
Nick Marshall, Auburn (Georgia)^
Ross Metheny, South Alabama (Virginia)
Zach Mettenberger, LSU (Georgia)
Tom Savage, Pittsburgh (Arizona, Rutgers)
Jameill Showers, UTEP (Texas A&M)
Pete Thomas, NC State (Colorado State)
Connor Wood, Colorado (Texas)
Scotty Young, Louisiana Tech (Texas Tech)*
*Began season as starter, now a backup
^Began career as cornerback

Nearly every major program in the country has been impacted by a quarterback transfer, either coming or going. Roughly 20 starting quarterbacks at the FBS level started their careers at another FBS school only to transfer. And that doesn’t include dozens of backups.

College players are more familiar than ever with the roster landscape. Depth charts and commitment lists have been readily available for years, allowing quarterbacks to survey the field of new destinations where they may fit. A quick Google search can determine if an offensive coach might be a schematic fit.

“All the resources out there have instigated young people transferring,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who had one of his three starting quarterbacks from 2012 transfer before the season. “If things don’t go well or if they don’t look like they’re the future, they’ll transfer.

“If you have two quarterbacks, you’re fortunate.”

One of the latest to feel the transfer sting was Florida when two-year starter Jeff Driskel suffered a broken leg against Tennessee. Tyler Murphy performed admirably in relief, going 8 of 14 for 134 yards and a touchdown in the 31-17 win over the Volunteers. He also rushed for 84 yards and a score.

Murphy, a two-star recruit from Connecticut, was not intended to be the top quarterback off the bench when Will Muschamp and predecessor Meyer were drawing up recruiting classes. Jacoby Brissett, a top-100 prospect, competed with Driskel to start last season. After being relegated to the bench, he transferred to NC State, where he’ll sit in 2013 before being eligible next year.

“There’s only one ball,” Muschamp said. “If a guy’s not playing, greener pastures are somewhere else. That’s part of the deal, and that’s why I want to sign a quarterback every year.”

Texas has gone to backup quarterback Case McCoy after two head injuries to David Ash. Freshman Tyrone Swoopes may be an option down the line, but the Longhorns have also watched three quarterbacks who would have been eligible this season transfer — Garrett Gilbert (SMU) and Connor Wood (Colorado) who are starters elsewhere plus Connor Brewer, who is redshirting at Arizona.

Notre Dame was fortunate to have an experienced backup in Tommy Rees when Everett Golson was suspended due to academic issues, but depth at the position could have been greater had highly touted freshman Gunner Kiel stayed on campus. Kiel transferred to Cincinnati two months before Golson was declared ineligible.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spoke in approval of Kiel’s move, and the Irish have another highly regarded freshman on campus in Malik Zaire. Quarterbacks like Kiel have good reason to want to test the transfer waters, moreso than other positions.

Even Muschamp, with his depleted quarterback depth, can agree with that.

“When you play defensive end, you can be involved in special teams and you can be in different packages, you’re not going to play the entire time,” Muschamp said. “When you look at our situation Saturday (against Tennessee), Ronald Powell, Dante Fowler and Jon Bullard are played 42 snaps in the game ... that’s why it’s not as prevalent at other positions.”

Muschamp may have told Brissett he was one play away from being the starter, but that’s tough on a young quarterback’s ego, especially one who has had designs on starting at a big-time program since high school.

Tom Savage heard the same at Rutgers. He started 11 games as a freshman in 2009, being named the MVP of a team that finished 9-4. The next season, Savage struggled early when he was benched for Chas Dodd four games into the season.

His pride damaged, Savage transferred to Arizona to play for then-coach Mike Stoops.

“I was a young, kind of bitter kid,” Savage said. “I was pissed off that I wasn’t playing.”

(Dodd, incidentally, was benched in 2011 for Gary Nova. Dodd remained on the roster as the backup).

After leaving when he was passed on the depth chart, Savage again found himself in the other common position where a quarterback will transfer — a new coach and a new system. Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez, a spread option coach. Savage is a classic drop-back passer. Savage, who played high school football near Philadelphia, also hoped to move closer East to be closer his ailing godmother. Though he moved again, Savage said he approached the second move with a little more maturity.

Finding a place that would spend two years worth of scholarship space for a quarterback who could only play for a year (plus a player who had already transferred twice) was difficult. Pitt coach Paul Chryst, who coached Savage’s brother Bryan at Wisconsin, allowed Savage to walk on before putting him on scholarship and naming him the starter this season.

Savage’s move paid off as he’s passed for 861 yards and nine touchdowns in three games, but he’s plenty familiar with the risk/reward proposition of transferring.

His brother transferred from Wisconsin to junior college to Hofstra, where he started for a year before a back injury ended his senior season. After watching his brother’s experience, he promised his father he wouldn’t repeat the ordeal.

“When he transferred and he went through it, I told my dad that if I ever get recruited, I’m never going to transfer,” Savage said. “You don’t hear too many kids transfer twice, but I ended up being pretty lucky. It was tough to even find an opportunity to play because a guy transferring twice is kind of a red flag.”

NOTABLE 2013 TRANSFERS ELIGIBLE IN 2014
Connor Brewer, Arizona (Texas)
Jacoby Brissett, NC State (Florida)
Phillip Ely, Alabama (Toledo)
Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati (Notre Dame)
Wes Lunt, Illinois (Oklahoma State)
T.J. Millweard, Kansas (UCLA)

Like Savage, some quarterbacks and coaches end up lucky.

There was little reason for Guiton to look at greener pastures despite little hope of beating out Miller for the starting job entering the season. Although Guiton led Ohio State late in a win over Purdue last season, Meyer had no assurances Guiton would play at this kind of level before this season.

“It's not because the (previous) staff was screwing him over,” Meyer told reporters after Saturday’s rout of Florida A&M. “He wasn't very good in a lot of areas. (Since then) he pushed himself academically. He's an exceptional guy, and he didn't do things exceptionally. He was an underachiever, and to an underachiever, that's fighting words.”

A similar backup quarterback dynamic played out in Stillwater where perhaps Gundy didn’t know what he had.

Oklahoma State opened the 2012 season with freshman Wes Lunt starting at quarterback. Lunt was impressive enough to be named the starter during the spring, despite veterans Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh on the roster.

Lunt sustained an injury early in the season, opening the door for Walsh and then Chelf. When the 2013 season started, Chelf opened as the starter, but Walsh took over midway through the win over Mississippi State.

Lunt, once the precocious freshman, has transferred to Illinois.

Gundy may grumble that his quarterback depth has taken a hit with the youngest prospect leaving town, but he acknowledges it’s a fact of life in today’s game. (Gundy, it’s worth noting, initially blocked Lunt from transferring to a handful of high-profile schools, whether or not they were on Oklahoma State’s upcoming schedule).

“I can see both sides,” Gundy said. “I’ve never been a big fan of transferring. It’s just difficult. In some cases, players have had success, but over history there will be more cases of players who haven’t had success when they’ve transferred. But I do understand.”

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