Junior college represents an important stop on the road to football relevance for formerly coveted QBs
There they sit on National Signing Day, colorful hats before them, smiles rolling across their faces amid beaming, proud parents, teachers and coaches, knowing that ardent fan bases are holding their collective breaths in anticipation of a dramatic decision.
Ah, life is good for the highly rated high school quarterback choosing between Power 5 programs.
But that happy, spotlighted first Wednesday in February often yields to something else, something less popular, well-defined and catchy: “Bounce-Back May.”
That’s not an official term for the Power 5-to-junior college transfer because the journey from pampered “Next Big Thing Behind Center” to “Unhappy QB Transfer” is often a circuitous route. Things can turn sour on or off the field slowly or suddenly and in a variety of ways.
For junior college football coaches, Bounce-Back May is often an intense time of phone calls, networking, obsessing over social media and meeting room debates. They pay close attention to spring football QB competitions, where depth chart computations can turn Signing Day smiles into frustrated frowns. It’s not unlike a waiver wire.
These coaches speculate about QBs yoked by a proverbial “team rules violations” or academic issues. And, yes, they raise an eyebrow at the police blotter that might separate a QB from a superpower program unwilling to take an extended PR hit.
“As far as Signing Day, we did not sign a quarterback,” Garden City (Kan.) Community College coach Jeff Sims says. “And we did not sign a quarterback because, to me, this isn’t the time of year you sign a quarterback. You sign a quarterback in May. You see who’s not happy and who fits where.”
Quarterbacks are compelling here because, at least in most cases, only one gets the vast majority of action. They also are the de facto team leader, the guy with the ball in his hands, making plus/minus decisions on every play. No position in sports includes so many physical and mental demands, and JC coaches know that signing a capable QB for a one- or two-year tenure can transform a team like no other individual player.
On the QB’s end, things are less appealing. Bounce-Back May makes concrete and inescapable a Point A of often high-profile quarterbacking failure, whether that’s about falling short in a competition, in the classroom or as a member of a team or a campus community.
JC coaches don’t sugar-coat what their programs are and their recruiting pitches. While “Last Chance U” started out as a Netflix series about East Mississippi Community College, it moved to Independence Community College in Kansas for season three, and the title truly applies to all JC programs.
“However many stars you once had by your name, that’s out the window -- you’re now at Iowa Western,” Reivers coach Scott Strohmeier says of his initial message to incoming players. “You need to make the most of the situation and buy into our system, where no one player is bigger than the team. I’ve had guys that didn’t buy in and it didn’t work out.”
Or, as Sims says, “Going to junior college is very similar to being an alcoholic. The first thing you have to do is admit there’s a problem.”
Take Kai Locksley, son of Alabama’s new offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley. It’s difficult to imagine a more twisting story for a former top recruit.
A four-star QB out of the Gilman School in Baltimore in 2014-15, he committed to Florida State but switched his pledge to Texas on Signing Day. Couldn’t be much more blue chip than that, right? But things didn’t go well in Austin. He redshirted, then switched to receiver. Along the way, Locksley complained. A lot.
“It was a bad timing thing,” he says. “Two pieces came together that didn’t fit at that time. I didn’t deal with that well. I was very childish and made immature decisions because the fit didn’t work.”
He transferred to Arizona Western in Yuma. Then, before suiting up, he decided he’d go to Marshall. But, realizing he’d have to sit out a year, he changed his mind. Upon doing so, he also decided he’d be a better fit at Iowa Western.
None of this fortified his resume.
“A lot of kids can go either direction,” Strohmeier says. “We told him this was his last shot, his last chance to prove it.”
He tried to reverse a downward spiral, but as he was battling for playing time after losing a preseason competition for the starting job to Kurt Walding, his brother, Meiko Locksley, was shot and killed on Sept. 3 back home near Washington, D.C.
He could have quit or fallen apart or submerged himself in self-pity. Instead, he rededicated and refocused himself, came off the bench and became the starter. He then put up big numbers and earned NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year honors.
“God was trying to send me a message,” he says. “I used my brother’s death as that light switch that needed to come on.”
Still, big-time offers didn’t follow. Locksley signed with UTEP, where he has two years of eligibility remaining. So he got back to the FBS level, just not at a Power 5 school.
Strohmeier likes Locksley’s story and its potential for redemption. He also likes that he’s got Walding coming back. That takes the pressure off during Bounce-Back May, though a JC coach always keeps his eyes on FBS spring quarterback competitions.
Tom Minnick, a two-time JC national runner-up at Arizona Western, offers a different story, though one also bred of success. He had two good quarterbacks this past season in Arizona State transfer Bryce Perkins and Jack Colletto, the Washington state prep Player of the Year in 2016.
Perkins put up good numbers as the starter and signed with Virginia, which wasn’t surprising. However, Colletto, whom Minnick projected as his 2018 starter, also earned attention with only spot duty. Memphis first raised an eyebrow, and then Vanderbilt joined the fray. A Pac-12 offer from Oregon State proved too tempting.
That, of course, is the stated goal of all JC programs: to send their players off to -- or back to -- the big time. Minnick is pleased with his program’s success in doing just that, only now he has to recalibrate for 2018.
“We’re hurting for [a QB] right now,” he said in February. “We thought we’d have Jack back and we’d be in the [national championship] mix right away.”
Bounce-Back May will be big for Minnick, who says he lost a potential transfer from a Big Ten school because of Colletto’s expected return. He’ll enter what he calls a recruiting “free-for-all,” wanting to add three quarterbacks to his roster after he signed one in February.
That means obsessively monitoring media reports on spring practices and QB competitions as well as Twitter and other social media postings. It means making strategic calls to friendly FBS assistant coaches. It means taking/making calls from/to players and parents and other putative player representatives, such as former high school coaches, 7-on-7 coaches or, yes, street agent sorts.
The JC recruiting competition for QBs doesn’t headline reports on Rivals or 247Sports, but it gets pretty heated.
“It’s gotten worse in the past couple of years,” Minnick says. “I won’t mention any names. It’s a sore spot for me after losing a couple of kids, kids that got lied to.”
Another challenge is that various junior college powers play by different recruiting rules and limitations, according to state policies.
While East Mississippi owns four national championships since 2011 under Buddy Stephens, it operates under significant limitations. The Lions can offer only eight out-of-state players among its 55 total scholarships. Many top JCs, such as Garden City, offer 85 scholarships and have no out-of-state limits.
Stephens says that stopped him from pursuing Cam Newton in 2008-09. Of course, he had future Ole Miss starter Randall Mackey coming back, and his program hasn’t lacked big-name transfers, from Bo Wallace (Arkansas State) to Chad Kelly (Clemson) to John Franklin (Florida State) to De’Andre Johnson (Florida State) to Lindsey Scott (LSU).
His latest A-list transfer is Messiah deWeaver from Michigan State, a former four-star recruit stuck behind Brian Lewerke on the Spartans depth chart.
“If you’re a quarterback, you want to come here because we are going to chunk the ball around,” Stephen says.
While JC coaches with more generous scholarship limits and rules often try to stockpile QBs, Stephens wants only three, and his third guy often plays a second position.
“Last Chance U” also highlighted two notable aspects of Stephens’ program, other than Stephens’ sometimes colorful temper. First, it’s obviously a meritocracy, as unheralded Wyatt Roberts beat Franklin out for the starting job, though that didn’t stop Franklin from bouncing back to Auburn and then Florida Atlantic.
And, second, Stephens, like most JC coaches, is willing to give players a second chance, even if their transgressions were horrific and caught on video, as with De’Andre Johnson. Johnson punched a woman in the face inside a Tallahassee bar in 2015, and the impossible-to-rationalize video immediately went viral.
Stephens says there was significant discussion at the coaching and administrative level about Johnson in advance of his getting offered.
“I go back to one question,” Stephens says. “Would I be OK with this kid coming to school here and being in the classroom with my daughter? That’s it.”
Johnson helped improve his image on “Last Chance U” -- he’s consistently expressed shame and regret over the incident -- but he still wasn’t able to return to a Power 5 school, though more than a few considered rolling the dice on him.
Says Johnson, “I didn’t get recruited the way I thought I would. It was definitely frustrating. It was humbling and motivating.”
While some JC coaches say they are skeptical of transfers who are booted from FBS teams for legal issues, particularly violent ones, others view second chances and rehabilitation as centerpieces of their mission.
Sims notes that he grew up in a house where his mom was challenged financially because his estranged father was a convicted drug dealer in St. Louis and went to jail for conspiracy to commit murder when Sims was starting college. As for college, Sims flunked out of Tulsa before getting his act together.
“I get nervous when I talk to reporters, but I try to be honest,” he says. “In our program, we do not judge people by what they did prior to being here. There’s a lot that goes into that answer, though.
“If a guy was already punished, who are we to punish him again? We give people the opportunity to come here. Playing football for us isn’t easy.”
He adds, “I don’t know if Garden City is a reward.”
Sims says his two best bounce-backs were Dominique Davis, a Boston College transfer who helped Sims and Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College win the national title in 2009, and Terry Wilson this year at Garden City.
Davis left Fort Scott for East Carolina and then the NFL and CFL. Wilson, an Oregon transfer, will battle for the starting job at Kentucky this spring.
“The common trait with Terry and Dominique is that the day they got here, they were our quarterback,” Sims says. “Where guys fail is when they show up and make the same mistakes they were making at the four-year that wasn’t getting them the starting job.”
Paul Peterson only took over at Snow College in 2017, but he’s an expert on being a JC QB in Ephraim, Utah. He was the Badgers starter in 2001-02 and earned JC Grid-Wire All-America honors before transferring to Boston College.
His QB this past season, Shane Johnson, ended up as a preferred walk-on at Texas A&M, so second-year Southern Utah transfer Nick Robins will battle for the starting job this spring.
But nothing is set for Robins, by any means. Peterson admits he’s on the lookout for a bounce-back. He says that’s how JC works, noting that another Snow success story, Josh Heupel, who won a national title at Oklahoma in 2000, displaced returning JC All-American Fred Salanoa in 1998.
“I try to scoop up as many guys as I can,” he says. “There are a lot of guys out there trying to give it a go. We’re year-round recruiting looking for a guy.
“That’s what junior college is all about -- trying to snatch those guys up and give them another opportunity.”
National Signing Day is awash in glory, and the adulation after becoming a starter at a Power 5 school invites NFL dreams.
For many others, there is Bounce-Back May and Last Chance U. It doesn’t come with klieg lights and confetti, but it does offer hope.
Those Who Slipped
Kai Locksley (right) and De’Andre Johnson profess contentment as well as greater self-knowledge as a result of their fall from Power 5 grace.
Yes, self-inflicted wounds diminished them. Yes, changing circumstances challenged and humbled them, as they fell from A-list quarterback recruits to grinding for junior college teams.
No, their redemptive stories don’t conclude with either back luxuriating at Power 5 programs, primed for future NFL close-ups.
But both used junior college turns to earn new FBS scholarships with good chances to start in 2018.
And, no, junior college wasn’t easy.
“In all honesty, it’s not for everybody,” says Locksley, who will suit up for UTEP this fall after starting out at Texas.
“It’s not for the weak-minded. You feel very alone. You’re on your own. It’s not like Division I where you have people calling you to make sure you’re doing this or getting to that. It’s up to you. If you are not a confident guy and don’t believe in yourself and you need motivation and structure, I’d transfer [FBS] school to school and sit out a year.”
Though both fell afoul of their original teams, Locksley’s story at Texas is very different from Johnson’s at Florida State. Locksley, son of Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, fell out of favor after complaining about the depth chart and a position change, both in the locker room and on Twitter.
Johnson was caught on video punching a woman in a Tallahassee bar in 2015.
Locksley’s post-Texas decision-slalom between two different junior colleges and Marshall was about getting back behind center as soon as possible. Conversely, Johnson wanted -- and needed -- to lay low after leaving FSU. At least, that’s what he figured out when no other FBS program recruited him.
At that point, he knew nothing about junior college football, but a call to his parents from coaches at East Mississippi Community College made it clear that his options were limited and a year off might serve him well.
“I knew in my situation it was going to be a process,” says Johnson, now in his second season at Florida Atlantic.
“They already had some quarterbacks and I knew I wanted to sit out a year and let things calm down and rebuild myself back up, spiritually and physically.”
Johnson did a good job rehabilitating his image at East Mississippi, both within the team and on the Netflix series, “Last Chance U.” But that wasn’t enough for a high-profile program to give him a second chance, since that horrific video is just a Google away and will be for years to come.
“I think De’Andre is a fantastic young man who made a bad decision one night,” East Mississippi coach Buddy Stephens says. “I wish people would give him a break.”
Stephens’ sentiments aren’t just self-interested. They speak to the thinking of many junior college coaches who see their programs as “Second Chance U,” where redemption is often the prime directive. Johnson, in fact, gets support from one of East Mississippi’s biggest rivals.
“What he did was horrible and nobody would say that it is right,” Garden City (Kan.) coach Jeff Sims says. “But if we sat down and lined out his punishment and he did his punishment -- in our society you are supposed to be able to move on. We talk all the time about forgiving. When is the punishment over and the rehabilitation beginning? When do you get another chance? Nobody is condoning what he did. We just feel like we are the ground floor that they get to rebound on.”
Neither Locksley’s nor Johnson’s journey since they left their Power 5 schools has been easy. Locksley left Arizona Western for Iowa Western because he wanted to prove he was a pass-first QB, but he ended up at No. 2 on the depth chart early in the season.
Then, on Sept. 3, 2017 his brother was shot and killed near his home in Washington, D.C.
“He handled it as well as any kid could going through that,” Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier says. “It was his motivation. His way of honoring his brother was playing well on the field.”
Johnson played well for East Mississippi and was a team leader from the beginning, but A-list offers weren’t forthcoming. Early in the 2017 season at FAU, he was diagnosed with blood clots in his arm, a condition that threatened his career.
But Johnson was cleared to play in the spring, when he battled with Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison for the starting job.
Both Locksley and Johnson admit some frustration with not getting back to the Power 5 level, as well as some residual motivation to prove those programs wrong.
Says Locksley, “The school I picked is the perfect opportunity for that. I definitely have doubters and people who are like, ‘Why would you go to UTEP?’ I think it’s another piece of the story that people are going to learn real soon.”
Those Who Returned to Power 5
The quarterbacking journeys of Terry Wilson and Lindsey Scott (right) are roughly equivalent. They fell short on the depth chart at Power 5 contenders, soberly considered their options, took junior college seriously and now are rebooting at other Power 5 schools.
Wilson, the favorite to replace Stephen Johnson at Kentucky after a successful season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, chose Oregon out of high school for a pretty straightforward reason.
“Because it was Oregon,” he says, making an assessment that most college football fans understand, as the Ducks are about bling-y facilities and gear, fancypants offenses and Pac-12 and national contention.
The same goes for Scott, who was admitted to Harvard but was more entranced by the SEC’s bright lights than aged buildings covered in ivy when he signed with LSU. When things didn’t go well on the depth chart, he called East Mississippi Community College and asked if they had a spot.
“Sitting out another year and not playing football [as an FBS transfer] wasn’t appealing,” Scott says. “So JUCO was a good idea. You get recruited all over again and you get to play.”
Scott led East Mississippi to its fourth national championship since 2011 and bounced back to Missouri, where he’ll likely battle to be Drew Lock’s backup this fall in order to position himself to win the starting job in 2019.
While Scott clinically pursued East Mississippi, Wilson didn’t have a specific plan set when he decided to transfer from Oregon after Justin Herbert won the starting job and almost instantly became a budding star.
“The day word got out about me transferring from Oregon, I woke up with messages from maybe 10 different JUCOs calling me,” Wilson says. “I was confused at first because I’d never heard anything about junior colleges, never been to any junior colleges in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
“One of my biggest pet peeves is when a Division I transfer comes to our place and wears all the gear of his previous place,” Garden City coach Jeff Sims says. “The reason it’s a pet peeve of mine is the reason he’s not at the previous place is because they didn’t want him to stay.”
While Sims wasn’t specifically talking about Wilson, Wilson admits that looking backward was a part of his experience, an experience that gained depth and meaning as he learned some hard lessons.
“When I first got there, I was stubborn,” Wilson says. “I didn’t want to accept the fact I was there. But after a while you have to accept why you’re there. You have to accept the truth.”
JC coaches and their QB transfers are using each other for their own reasons. The coaches want to win, and the QBs want to get scholarships to get back to FBS programs.
While success is measured for the QB by where he ends up after junior college, both Wilson and Scott admit they feel loyalty to their bounce-back destinations.
As Scott explains: “[Junior college] can be selfish in a sense, but you all are working toward the same goal, your individual efforts run into each other and make it a group effort. You have to be invested in winning games to get the [FBS] college coaches to pay attention.”