It’s always a fun off-season premise to consider, what if college football had trades? What if Notre Dame could trade one of its two proven quarterbacks for help at linebacker? What if Clemson could trade a piece of its offensive talent, which is abundant, for an experienced defensive player to shore up a unit that returns just four starters?
Though entertaining, these are obviously moot questions, the kind of hypotheticals that help pass the time during the long gap between one season and the next. However, that doesn’t mean some key real off-season transactions won’t play a critical role in the College Football Playoff race this season. This year’s crop of transfers includes some tantalizing prospects who could step into key roles this fall. Just narrowing this list down to the 11 most notable transfers excludes some other key additions like Barry Sanders Jr. at Oklahoma State and T.J. Neal at Auburn.
So keep an eye out—because some familiar faces in new jerseys just might shake up the season.
Duke Catalon, Houston RB
Catalon is understandably eager to take the field for the Cougars in their season opener. He’s waited patiently since his last game in 2013, when he was a senior at Eisenhower High in Houston. The former four-star recruit signed with Texas, but after redshirting in 2014, he transferred to Houston. After sitting out last season, he’s finally ready to make an impact. Catalon’s transfer perfectly fills a void for the Cougars, who lost their top two running backs, Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson (1,365 combined rushing yards last year), to graduation and No. 3 back Javin Webb to a dismissal for a violation of team rules. Catalon could help form a dynamic pairing with star quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
Luke Del Rio, Florida QB
Steve Spurrier may have jumped the gun when he declared Del Rio the starter last week, but it’s safe to say the Alabama-to-Oregon-State-to-Florida passer seems to at least be the leader to take over Jim McElwain’s offense. Del Rio’s path to the Gators has been lengthy—the former three-star recruit walked on at Alabama in 2013, redshirted, then transferred to Oregon State where he played sparingly in 2014 before transferring to Florida and sitting out the 2015 season—but he has shown strong indicators he could be productive for the QB-needy squad. Del Rio shined in Florida’s spring game, completing 10 of 11 passes for 176 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Gators are the defending SEC East champs but limped into the end of last season after quarterback Will Grier (who has since transferred to West Virginia) was suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. To hold off a highly touted Tennessee and an always menacing Georgia, Florida needs to rediscover consistency in its passing attack.
Keith Ford, Texas A&M RB
Ford was the victim of simply too much talent in Oklahoma’s backfield. Despite averaging 5.6 yards per carry with the Sooners, he got buried behind Samaje Perine’s breakout 2014 campaign and transferred to Texas A&M. Now eligible for the Aggies, Ford looks like the top option for a squad that loses last year’s starter Tra Carson. The SEC has no shortage of elite running backs this year, but expect Ford to draw some buzz. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s top back rushed for at least 1,343 yards in three of his four years at UCLA.
Kenny Hill, TCU QB
We’ve already seen one transfer quarterback steer his new Big 12 team to the playoff. Could Hill be the second? Hill’s mercurial career at Texas A&M featured both some early Heisman buzz and a benching all in the span of eight games in 2014. But the highs of that roller coaster nonetheless reveal his potential, particularly in an explosive offense guided by co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Hill is one of eight new starters for the Horned Frogs, but he has some weapons at wide receiver, including KaVontae Turpin along with Deante’ Gray and Ty Slanina, both of whom missed all or most of last season due to injury.
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M QB
Two former Oklahoma offensive skill position players reunite at Texas A&M as Knight joins Ford in the Aggies offense. The quarterback lost his job with the Sooners to Baker Mayfield but took a graduate transfer to Texas A&M, where he was named the starter in April. Knight seemed destined for greatness when he picked apart Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl with 348 passing yards and four touchdowns, but he struggled through much of the 2014 season before getting supplanted by Mayfield in 2015. The senior showed a solid grasp of the offense in the Aggies’ spring game, completing 25 of 36 passes for 282 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Geno Lewis, Oklahoma WR
A former transfer quarterback gets a capable transfer wide receiver to throw to. Mayfield and Sterling Shepard formed one of the top QB-WR pairings in college football last season, but now the former Texas Tech passer must find a new primary target. That could be DeDe Westbrook, who caught 46 passes for 743 yards last season. Or it could be Lewis, a graduate transfer from Penn State. Lewis fell out of favor in the Nittany Lions offense last season, catching 17 passes for 196 yards, but he’s just two years removed from hauling in 55 passes for 751 yards as a sophomore.
Hardy Nickerson Jr., Illinois LB
Unlike most of the players on this list who transferred because they were buried on the depth charts of their former schools, Nickerson Jr. could have continued to play a major role on Cal’s defense. Instead, he’s transferring to Illinois, where his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., is the Fighting Illini’s new defensive coordinator. The honorable mention All-Pac-12 linebacker is a significant addition for Illinois. He recorded 112 tackles last season and posted 246 in three years with the Golden Bears.
John O’Korn, Michigan QB
Jim Harbaugh’s first year at Michigan was a tremendous success with a transfer at quarterback, and he may turn to the same strategy again in 2016. With Iowa transfer Jake Rudock gone, Harbaugh must choose in a battle that looks likely to come down to O’Korn, a former Houston starter who sat out last season after transferring, and Wilton Speight, a junior who appeared in six games and attempted 25 passes last season. So far Harbaugh hasn’t dropped any hints of who might be under center when the Wolverines open the season against Hawaii. O’Korn clearly has the edge in experience, as he was the AAC Rookie of the Year in 2013, when he threw for 3,117 yards with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Dakota Prukop, Oregon QB
Will Oregon once again entrust an FCS graduate transfer to guide its offense? That depends on whether Prukop, the former Montana State star, can hold off Travis Jonsen. Prukop was an FCS All-America honoree with the Bobcats last season when he threw for 3,025 yards and rushed for 797 yards with 37 total touchdowns. But what at first seemed likely to be a coronation for the highly sought-after transfer has turned into a legitimate battle with Jonsen that will continue into fall practices. Unlike Vernon Adams, who transferred to the Ducks from Eastern Washington a week into fall camp last season, Prukop has the advantage of having gone through a full slate of spring practices. Of course, Adams earned the starting job within two weeks of his arrival; Prukop still has a fight on his hands.
Davis Webb, Cal QB
Webb was officially named Cal’s starting quarterback Thursday, an expected conclusion to what has been an unpredictable off-season for the former Texas Tech passer. Webb had originally committed to Colorado but flipped in May to the Bears and now will take the reins as the successor to No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff. The move makes sense for Webb, who will play under new Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who learned his offense from Dana Holgorsen and Kevin Sumlin, the same coaches who mentored Webb’s coach at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury. Webb should post huge numbers in the Bears’ pass-heavy attack after passing for over 5,000 yards with the Red Raiders.
Gerald Willis, Miami DT
Willis had no shortage of options coming out of high school as a five-star recruit in the class of 2014. He chose Florida, where he earned playing time a true freshman, recording 14 tackles and a forced fumble. But the defensive tackle ran into trouble and was kicked off the Gators after reported altercations with teammates and a personal foul when he was on Florida’s sideline and shoved Jameis Winston after the play. Still, none of that takes away from what Willis is capable of on the field. After transferring to Miami following the 2014 season and sitting out last season, he should give the Hurricanes one of the top defensive lines in the ACC.