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As Broad NCAA Change Awaits, College Football Is Facing a Recruiting Reckoning

Amid pending legislation on one-time transfers and athlete compensation, the transfer portal is exploding. But is there room for everyone to find a destination?

Mannie Netherly is quite happy these days, even without football.

He is a father to a five-month-old boy, has a solid job as a FedEx delivery driver and is studying to be an electrician at a Houston-area junior college. But that doesn’t mean he has no regrets about a football career that went south in a hurry.

A four-star signee with LSU in 2016, Netherly transitioned from receiver to cornerback and worked his way into the secondary rotation by the end of his second year in Baton Rouge, even recording a tackle in the Tigers’ rousing Fiesta Bowl win over UCF.

In March 2019, two months after that game, Netherly entered the NCAA transfer portal.

He never played a down of football again.

“You’re taking a big risk by putting your name in the portal,” says Netherly. “The grass is not always greener on the other side.”

Netherly is a cautionary tale of what awaits some players in the transfer portal: nothing. Because of the NCAA’s strict scholarship limitations and the latest portal surge, there are more teamless players than there are teams for them.

Hundreds of college football players find themselves stuck in portal purgatory without desirable landing spots. And there seems to be no end in sight for the latest stream of portal hoppers given sweeping new NCAA rule modernizations. The one-time transfer exception, which eliminates the one-year sit-out penalty for FBS transfers, is scheduled to pass later this spring, and athlete endorsement opportunities, often referred to as name, image and likeness, are expected to arrive by August.

RECRUITING: Top 25 Classes as National Signing Day Approaches

While available players are on the rise, available spots are plummeting. The NCAA’s annual 25-man signing limit is reducing opportunities, and the organization's decision to grant an extra year to athletes in light of COVID-19, while sensible, is creating a “super freshman" class that will further minimize roster spots.

In fact, as the 2021 National Signing Day approaches on Wednesday, college football recruiting stands, like the sport itself, at a seminal moment. This may be the last class of signees before a cascade of legislative changes forever alters recruiting.

Fewer high school players are expected to sign as coaches leave spots for a booming transfer market. Evaluations could grow increasingly difficult with coaches traveling far less as part of a COVID-19-inspired overhaul to the recruiting calendar. And more and more football players could see their careers die in the portal, like Netherly’s.

“Change is inevitable in college football. That’s what makes things better,” says Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “But we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing to make things better. We’re heading down a path where there are a lot of rules in place for reasons and you start lifting them and we’re opening a whole new can.”

LSU cornerback Mannie Netherly makes a tackle in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl

Mannie Netherly transitioned from receiver to cornerback before leaving LSU.

Since Aug. 1, about 1,500 players have entered the transfer portal, according to a 247Sports database that tracks portal movement. That’s just 200 players shy of the total number who entered the portal all of last cycle, from Aug. 1, 2019 to July 31, 2020.

However, portal numbers can be skewed. As many as one-third of those players are walk-ons, according to an SI examination of the portal. As of last week, only 964 of the 1,500 FBS players in the portal garnered a recruiting ranking from 247Sports (a vast majority of the other 500 are walk-ons).

Of the 964, nearly 60% (558) are uncommitted and still searching for a landing spot. The 964 players are split between those transferring from the Power 5 (557 players) and those transferring from the Group of Five (407 players). In a striking statistic, of the 299 Power 5 players who have committed to a new school, 60% took a step down in level, their next destination a Group of Five or FCS school. Just one-third of Group of Five transfers stepped up to the Power 5.

There’s also a collection of portal entrants, the number of which is unknown, who have had to swallow a very difficult medicine: They’ve become walk-ons. Some, like Netherly, may soon be out of football completely.

“Right now, there are a lot of kids in the portal that are not going to find scholarships,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “There may be twice as many people in the portal as there are places to transfer. There will be some who won’t be able to go to college if they don’t get a scholarship.”

The recent portal influx can be traced to the impending one-time transfer exception. Expecting the transfer legislation to pass in January, leagues of players rushed into the transfer portal to get a head start on a market expected to boom in the spring and summer.

Though the NCAA delayed its vote on the transfer legislation, the proposal is expected to be re-examined and adopted “no later than April,” says Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director who sits on two powerful NCAA rule-making committees, the Division I Council and Football Oversight.

Officials from every walk of college sports believe players are entering the transfer portal under the impression that the one-time exception is an easy way to find immediate playing time or to elevate their situation in some way. Oftentimes, that’s not happening.

They’re receiving “bad advice,” says one Group of Five assistant coach.

“They think they enter the portal and are automatically going to have a scholarship,” Fleck says. “The portal isn’t something where you teleport magically somewhere else.”

The transfer surge is expected to continue well into next year’s cycle, not only because of the one-time transfer exception but as a result of a COVID-19-inspired rule granting each athlete an extra year of eligibility. While the seniors who return for next season do not count against a team’s 85 scholarship limit, players from all future classes do.

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For instance, players who were juniors in the fall of 2020 and would normally have graduated by the 2022 season will now have the option to return as fifth- or even sixth-year seniors. They’d count against the 85. Meanwhile, some freshman classes in 2021 will be giant: 25 incoming freshmen will be coupled with roughly 25 “COVID-shirted” freshmen (true sophomores who were freshmen during 2020) for a 50-person rookie class. That leaves 35 scholarship spots for three classes.

While teams can have 85 players on scholarship each year, they can sign only 25 new players a year. The 100 signees over four years leaves a 15-player wiggle room for natural attrition. New transfer legislation and the impending COVID-shirter wave is causing unnatural attrition.

In the 2022 and 2023 recruiting cycles, coaches have one of two choices: retain their scholarship players and add fewer signees, or push out scholarship players and sign a normal class.

“The biggest challenge are these juniors who are going to be seniors [in 2022],” says Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell. “Those are going to be hard discussions.”

Players who are pushed out have one option: the transfer portal. One Sun Belt assistant coach expects as many as 500 to 1,000 more players to enter the portal by June, a ghastly large number that will almost certainly end some careers.

In light of the one-time transfer exception and COVID-shirters, high-ranking leaders in the sport believe the NCAA must loosen the annual 25-player limit on new signees, referred to in legislative terms as “initial counters.” Several conference commissioners have publicly supported the move, including Bowlsby and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who told SI last month “It has to change.”

“Next year, in theory, we have 50 freshmen on the roster and 85 spots,” says Troy Dannen, Tulane’s athletic director and a member of the Football Oversight Committee. “There is going to be a huge issue in 2022–23 and beyond if the 25 cap doesn’t change.”

Three proposals exist to adjust the 25-signee limit, says Lyons, but it’s unlikely that one will be adopted for this cycle. One proposal allows coaches to replace each player lost to the NFL, the transfer portal or for medical reasons, granting an unlimited number of signee spots in a one-for-one approach. Another similar proposal caps the number of replaceable signees at 10. A third proposal turns the one-year signee limit into a two-year limit, granting coaches 50 signees to be used over a two-year stretch.

Lyons and others are concerned that replacing departures with additional signee spots will “repeat history.” The 25-man limit was implemented to disincentivize the trend of coaches cutting or pushing out scholarship players in an effort to oversign high school players or transfers.

Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC, says the 25-man limit needs a “hard look” because of the concern, from a host of college athletic administrators and coaches, that teams will not consistently fill all 85 of their scholarship spots given the transfer movement. A transfer is leaving a scholarship spot empty at his former school and is using one of the precious 25 signee spots at his new school.

“It’s going to be hard for teams to have 85 when the season starts,” says Pat Chun, Washington State’s athletic director, who sits on the D-I Council.

As it pertains to the 25-signee limit, Bowlsby has a somewhat revolutionary idea that is probably a longshot. To inject more parity in college football, the Big 12 commissioner believes the annual signee limit could vary from school to school based on that program’s past success and failures.

“If you win the Super Bowl, you have a low draft choice. So maybe in the college environment you have fewer than 25 to distribute the talent, so the rich aren’t rich all the time and the poor have a chance to build their programs up,” he says. “It’s time to think differently about how the enterprise is managed.”

There are other longshot ideas for scholarship relief. For example, the SEC has proposed that all athletes who are COVID-shirted should not be counted toward the 85. That could result in more than 100 players on scholarship on a given team for multiple years.

Bowlsby calls the move “not likely,” and most other college administrators feel like the proposal has little momentum because of the finances alone. Sure, SEC teams and others in the Power 5 can afford to fund such a large number of scholarships, but what about the little guys?

“Let’s not reduce future opportunities for people coming into the system because we had to manage through a pandemic,” Sankey says. “It’s going to cost a little money but we ought to be spending that money on student-athlete scholarships.”

ACC athletic directors have recently discussed the SEC’s proposal, examining a way to find relief for what could be a real mess in 2022, says Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich.

“When players move up through that COVID-19 pipeline, how are they going to be counted?” he asks. “There is more to be discussed on that.”

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Nearly 600 players sit in portal purgatory, hoping that coaches hold open enough signee slots to add them over the spring and summer. For that to happen, the 130 FBS programs would have to each leave open roughly five of their 25 spots after this week’s signing period. That is unlikely given the number already signed in December’s early signing period.

For example, 18 of the top 26 programs in 247Sports’s team recruiting rankings have signed at least 21 players entering this week.

But coaches do plan to adjust their recruiting approach given the transfer surge. Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, says he’s heard from coaches who are planning in the future to dedicate half of their 25-player signee spots for transfers.

That could adversely impact high school and junior college recruiting.

“I think JUCO kids are really going to get impacted,” Chadwell says. “Those are the guys you try to get immediate help from. If you need an immediate impact, now you’re portal hunting.”

Portal hunting comes at a cost. Not only does a transfer punish his own school by leaving an empty scholarship spot, but he’s using a signee spot at his new school despite, many times, not having a full four years of eligibility remaining.

For coaches, the decision is quite simple: Take an unproven player to develop over four or five years or grab an older player who may need less development but might only have one or two years of eligibility.

“When you start looking at where we’re headed with the transfer portal, there are two ways of looking at it,” Fleck says. “The first signing day is like the draft. The second part is free agency and that’s the transfer portal. You’ll see less and less people signing 25 high school kids. I can see us being 80% high school kids, because that’s what makes our program our program. We do want players who can play multiple years.”

And then there are the coaches against transfers all together, fearing character, work ethic or talent concerns.

“I hate the portal,” says one Group of Five assistant. “Some people say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I think it’s B.S. Those guys are leaving for a reason.”

Not everyone feels that way. In fact, Berry is concerned that college football will evolve into a tizzy of free-agent movement—the time-honored history of developing high school players eschewed for the easy route of landing transfers.

“Why would you take a high school player rather than a proven college player?” Berry asks.

Chadwell believes more college coaches have left for the NFL this offseason as a way to escape the coming tidal wave of change (one-time transfer, NIL, etc.) about to crash upon the college game. Coaches are not necessarily building programs anymore, Chadwell says, as much as they’re building year-to-year teams like the NFL.

Barry says Group of Five coaches are worried about Power 5 teams poaching their best players, and Power 5 teams are fearing that their depth will suffer as talented backups leave for starting roles elsewhere. Recruiting a player from a college team before he enters the portal is against NCAA rules, but it’s still rampant now. With transfers eligible immediately and NIL upon the sport, officials expect even more illegal recruitment.

“Say it like it is,” says one SEC assistant. “You’re going to be recruiting but recruiting your own team to stay.”

Recruiting change isn’t relegated to the transfer aspect.

The recruiting calendar itself is receiving somewhat of an overhaul, as officials take what they are calling a “holistic” view. They’ve learned lessons from the yearlong dead period during COVID-19. Maybe coaches don’t need to visit prospects so much and spend weeks at a time on the road. Virtual recruiting through Zoom was successful enough at some places that a few coaches claim they know their current signing class better than any they’ve ever signed.

In short, expect more dead periods in future recruiting calendars.

“We just can’t turn the calendar back and say, ‘We’re going back to what we were doing in the past,’ ” Radakovich says.

For now, there is the task of lifting a dead period that has stretched from mid-March 2020 and is scheduled to end in mid-April. Officials are deciding on three options, Lyons says: (1) keeping the dead period through July, (2) instituting a Quiet Period, where players can visit campus and coaches can hold on-campus camps, or (3) completely opening recruiting with a Contact Period.

“This is all dependent on the virus,” Lyons says.

In the meantime, teams continue portal hunting and players continue portal waiting. As of last week, Arizona, Western Kentucky and Utah State led the nation having each added commitments from 11 players in the portal. WKU dove into the portal to replace players who have left for, yes, the portal. The Hilltoppers currently have a nation-leading 21 players in it.

The average Power 5 program has 8.5 scholarship players in the portal while the average Group of Five squad has 6.3. Those numbers will only rise, not only because of COVID-shirters or the transfer exception rule change. There’s another reason to expect more transfers, experts say. Some members of the latest signing class, because of the pandemic, never took a visit to the campuses of the school with which they signed.

“Some of these kids are going to show up and realize they don’t like it,” says one SEC assistant coach.

And where do they go? Into the portal, of course.

Netherly knows all about that. He spent months in the portal, and while he fielded a small handful of offers, most of them were for him to play defensive back. He wanted to play receiver. Five months after he officially withdrew from LSU, the Tigers won the national championship. Netherly spent that 2019 fall at a Texas junior college while his former teammates got title rings.

He’s back in Houston now, raising his child, working toward that degree and possessing a lingering regret that he’s using to advise young portal hoppers today.

“Looking back, I probably wish I would have stayed at LSU, not just for football but to get my degree,” he says. “A lot of kids, I know they know where they are going before they put their name in the portal, but if not, you’re taking a big risk. You’re gambling on yourself. I know there aren’t 1,500 scholarships out there.”