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How Graduate Transfer Quarterbacks are Changing College Football

Dakota Prukop

Dakota Prukop

If one of Dakota Prukop’s former teammates is staging a reunion, party or get-together or perhaps needs some guidance about what he should be doing over the next five years of his life, he would be smart to contact the new Oregon quarterback and set up a meeting.

“I am a big-picture planner,” he says. “I look at things from far out.”

That is an understatement.

When Prukop was in high school, he decided to amass as many credits as possible that he could transfer to college. Doing that would allow him to have an easier senior year, so that he could focus on his play and on preparing for the NFL.

“I wanted a minimal course load senior year [in college], so I set it up so I was able to transfer 24 credits,” he says.

That bit of forward thinking not only gave Prukop an academic cushion at Montana State, but it also allowed him to graduate a semester early from the school and transfer to Oregon for the 2016 season. Last fall’s 20-credit semester may have included “an elective and an on-line class,” but it was still quite ambitious for an in-season athlete.

It was also a timely strategy that will benefit him and the Ducks. Prukop gets to play in the FBS ranks at the highest level and join a loaded Oregon team that should contend for the Pac-12 title and potentially — if Prukop adjusts quickly — a College Football Playoff berth. And UO gets an athletic QB who has played in a similar offense and who in 2015 amassed 3,822 total yards (797 rushing, 3,025 passing) while accounting for 39 TDs (11 rushing). Although Ducks coach Mark Helfrich is adamant that Prukop will compete for the starting role and has no guarantees of being the team’s regular signal-caller, Prukop’s talent and previous production, Oregon’s positive 2015 experience with Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams, and senior Jeff Lockie’s relatively uninspiring play last year establish Prukop as the favorite for the job.

Not that it is a completely safe move. Had Prukop stayed at Montana State, he would have been a third-year starter and one of the top passers in the FCS. But a shot at the big time, along with the fact that Tim Cramsey, Prukop’s offensive coordinator at MSU, had moved on to Nevada, convinced the quarterback to transfer. He’ll have one year to get it done in Eugene before he moves on.

“It’s a risky deal and a risky move,” Prukop says. “I was talking to my dad [Tim] a while ago, and he said, ‘What you did isn’t easy.’ It’s the same thing with Vernon. We had everything going for us at our old places. But the opportunity was just too much to pass up.”

Prukop isn’t the only quarterback who has decided that his final season of college football should be spent somewhere new. There is a growing collection of signal callers with one season — in most cases — to shine at new addresses.

What makes the graduate transfer so appealing is instant eligibility. Unlike most traditional transfers, who must sit out a year at their new school, grad transfers can play right away. It’s a de facto free agency that benefits the schools in need of a player and rewards student-athletes who complete their undergraduate degrees with eligibility remaining. 

Most of the graduate transfers are moving from one FBS school to another, but each diploma-holding QB is hoping that the new environment provides a chance at bigger things. Prukop is stepping up in class. Others are looking for opportunities to start for teams that have definite needs at the position, and they expect to have more success than they did at their previous stops.

Austin Appleby has moved from Purdue to Florida. Alec Morris left Alabama to compete for the job at North Texas. Trevor Knight is in College Station, ready to help Texas A&M after losing the starting job at Oklahoma to Baker Mayfield. At Boston College, Patrick Towles (Kentucky) is looking for a big final season.

“It’s a great rule,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says. “It gives a guy a chance to earn his degree and have a great opportunity at the school he chose first. He also gets the chance to go somewhere else and play.”

There is no guarantee all — or any — of them will succeed, but there is some recent precedent to give them hope.

In early 2015, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced C.J. Beathard had won the starting QB job over Jake Rudock and gave Rudock permission to transfer anywhere he wanted, including to another Big Ten school. Rudock chose Michigan and helped the Wolverines to a 10-win season. After former Notre Dame starter Everett Golson lost his job to Malik Zaire during spring practice last year, he moved on to Florida State, and in nine games, he completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,778 yards and 11 scores. At Louisiana Tech, Florida expatriate Jeff Driskel threw for 4,033 yards and 27 touchdowns after taking over for Cody Sokol, a graduate transfer from Iowa who played for Tech in ’14.

“A lot of whether it works for a team depends on its depth at the position and where a team is in terms of its system,” new North Texas coach Seth Littrell says. “Some of it is that teams have lost a couple guys and need some help, so they bring in a solid player with some experience and don’t have to force a young player into a tough situation.”

The new quarterbacks are guaranteed to attract a lot of attention. Even though there are other players at other positions who switch schools after graduating, none gets the same interest as do quarterbacks. Last year, Michigan had two such players, Rudock and defensive back Wayne Lyons, who left Stanford for Ann Arbor. Most of the country knew about Rudock, who started every game for the Wolverines, but Lyons remained largely anonymous. In 2015, Adams dominated the Oregon transfer talk, even though Matt Hegarty transferred from Notre Dame and played center for the Ducks all season.

“Last year, nobody asked about Matt Hegarty,” Helfrich says. “The questions were all about Vernon Adams.”

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There were times during the first few months at Michigan that Rudock’s teammates had to remind him that although he had been in college for four years, he hadn’t been at their college for four years. In other words, it was time to back off. It may seem odd for a 22-year-old to be starting again on campus, but Rudock learned quickly that fitting in wasn’t something that happened automatically, even to players who had started at QB for two seasons.

“I was an older guy, but I wasn’t an older guy in that program,” Rudock says. “It was important for me to remember that. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. There were guys who had been there for four years, and I couldn’t start calling people out as soon as I got there. I had to step back and let other guys do their jobs as leaders.”

Thanks to his great work ethic, outstanding preparation and how he grew under U-M coach Jim Harbaugh every week during the season, Rudock was clearly one of the most respected Wolverines by season’s end. It wasn’t an easy road, because he missed his former teammates in Iowa City, and learning a new terminology under a new coach required some advanced Rosetta Stone-style language training. By the end of the year, Rudock was quite comfortable and confident, and he had no trouble rallying his teammates — or giving them a push, if necessary. In about six months, he had gone from the New Guy to the team’s true elder statesman.

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“I was definitely more comfortable with the offense and play calls, and as far as with my teammates, I had a better feel for how to respond to them, what to say and how to say it,” Rudock says. “I liked knowing how to get my offensive teammates motivated and settled down.”

As Rudock prepares for football beyond his two Big Ten outposts, he understands that what he did wasn’t all that easy. Oregon’s Helfrich says that Hegarty’s move from Notre Dame to Oregon was complicated by the challenge of becoming a member of a quintet of offensive linemen. “It’s a fraternal group of guys, and Matt did a phenomenal job of winning them over,” Helfrich says.

But being a quarterback and running an offense mean gaining everybody’s trust, not to mention being responsible for the unit’s production on every play. The brotherhood of linemen is one thing. Being the one in charge is even more demanding.

“You have to know what everybody’s doing,” Rudock says. “As a receiver, you can be successful knowing just the passing game. If you don’t know everything as a quarterback, you won’t succeed.

“A lot depends on the system. It’s a lot of work, but there have been guys who have done it. You have to put the effort toward it, and you have to find out how to fit into it.”

It didn’t take Appleby all that long to recognize the biggest difference between life at Purdue and that in his new Gainesville home. The Boilermakers sure want to win — even though they haven’t done too much of it during Darrell Hazell’s three years in West Lafayette (6–30) — and the players there are committed to the program.

It’s just a matter of degree. Florida intensity — like its summer heat — burns a little hotter than it does in central Indiana.

“The culture and expectations here are obviously much higher than what I had been around,” Appleby says. “This is a winning program here that goes about its business to win an SEC championship and a national championship. It’s not that we didn’t have a good attitude at Purdue. There is a great group of guys there. It’s that it’s elevated here. That opened my eyes.”

Gator fans aren’t viewing Appleby’s arrival in Florida with the same excitement as when Tim Tebow came to campus. In three years with the Boilers, Appleby threw for 2,777 yards, completed 55.3 percent of his passes and matched his 19 TDs with as many picks. Last year, he started the first three games but was replaced by redshirt freshman David Blough. Although Appleby played in the final two contests of the ’15 campaign, when Blough was injured, he was not expected to be the frontrunner for the Purdue job heading into the summer.

Some might wonder why Jim McElwain would entertain the idea of bringing a QB with such an inconsistent tenure to town. The answer is pretty simple: The Gators don’t have another option with significant game experience. Treon Harris, who started the final eight games of the 2015 campaign after Will Grier tested positive for PEDs but completed only 48.1 percent of his throws, has moved to wide receiver. Grier transferred, leaving Appleby, true freshman Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio, a “traditional” transfer from Oregon State, in a battle for the starting job. It’s not the ideal situation for the Gators, but after last year’s late-season offensive struggles, Florida needs as much competition under center as possible. Appleby is happy to be part of that, even if there are those who believe Del Rio is the frontrunner for the position.

“I had a lot of opportunities [at other schools] where I got the message that I would start,” Appleby says. “But I wanted to come and compete. I don’t want it handed to me. I want to earn the job and prove to my teammates that I can lead them to a championship. I’m going to work hard and let my results stand for themselves.”

After only a couple months on campus, Appleby has already embraced McElwain’s pro-style offense, which gives the quarterback considerable autonomy at the line of scrimmage. “As much as the quarterback can grasp and handle, that’s what he gets,” Appleby says. “There is no ceiling.” Appleby seems invigorated by the new opportunity and doesn’t sound like someone who lost his job last year. Instead, he’s eager to compete at the top level of college football — the SEC — and to see if he can give the Gators the stability they need under center.

The most difficult thing for Appleby is that he has signed up for only one year. That means he must learn everything about the program as quickly as possible and prove to his teammates that he can lead them.

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” Appleby says. “I have been told that I am like an NFL free agent. The place where I was, I learned the offense over the course of four years and know it like the back of my hand. The offense is similar here; I’m just learning a new language.

“This is an unbelievable opportunity for me. I’m up for the challenge.”

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If any coach can be considered an expert on the idea of graduate QB transfers, it’s A&M’s Sumlin. Some might joke that in light of the two signal-caller defections (Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen) from College Station last December, Sumlin is an authority on all sorts of quarterback switches.

During his time in Aggieland, Sumlin has seen Jameill Showers (UTEP) and Matt Joeckel (TCU) leave town to spend their post-graduate seasons elsewhere. This year, Sumlin gets to experience the other side of the condition as he welcomes Trevor Knight, the hero of Oklahoma’s 2014 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Knight lit up the Tide for 348 yards and four TDs and threw for 3,424 yards during three seasons with the Sooners but lost his starting job to Baker Mayfield last year. Knight and Jake Hubenak, who threw for 307 yards and two TDs in the Music City Bowl loss to Louisville, will battle for the starting job.

“Trevor has had great success,” Sumlin says. “He’s from San Antonio, down the road, and I have a good relationship with [Oklahoma coach Bob] Stoops. He thinks the world of Baker Mayfield and Trevor Knight, and he’s giving Trevor the opportunity to go play for us. It’s a great opportunity for us to fill a void at a position of need. We needed quarterback experience and maturity level and some healthy competition.”

The QBs will work under new Aggie offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who spent the past four years at UCLA. The good news is that Sumlin’s preference for a fast-paced spread offense won’t be a problem for Knight, who worked under Sooners’ offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. “[Riley] and I have the same background,” Sumlin says.

The coach reports that Knight has been an ideal teammate since arriving from Norman in January. He’ll have the opportunity to learn Mazzone’s offense at the same time as Hubenak, who won’t have the advantage of a couple years familiarity with the system. Sumlin expects big things from his new QB, who will be charged with helping the Aggies improve on last year’s 8–5 record.

“He’s mature and a great locker room guy,” Sumlin says. “He’s a vocal leader and a leader by example who’s been through the fire and won some ball games. He’s not wide-eyed about work or wide-eyed on the field or about this league. He’s played against Alabama.”

He may get that chance again this year, and it could be a highlight of his one season on campus.

– By Michael Bradley