Zac Welch got the notification at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning from the NCAA. The University of Nevada offensive lineman was officially in the transfer portal.
Within 15 minutes, over 70 coaches reached out. By Friday morning, the Oak Ridge High School graduate had over 20 offers from schools across the country.
The reason for the madness? The NCAA recently changed its transfer rules, for the first time allowing college football players to switch schools without being penalized by sitting out a year. The result has been a huge swell of players looking to change schools, and a frenzy of coaches thrust back into recruiting players they might have missed out on the first time around.
“I immediately started getting calls and texts and coaches on Twitter followed me,” Welch said. “It’s actually been one of the craziest experiences of my whole life.”
Offensive lineman are prized transfers. And Welch has both FBS experience and four years of eligibility remaining.
Not every player who enters the portal receives the same amount of interest. As of late May, there were more than 3,000 college football players in the portal, ranging from the largest schools in the biggest division to the Division lll level. Some athletes stay in the portal for a week — some stay for a year or longer.
“I feel good now,” Welch said. “When I first entered the portal and first submitted my paperwork, I felt a little nervous because I felt I didn’t have a home to play football at. I was like a drifter inbetween worlds. Then when you get into the portal and start getting attention, that kind of all goes away because you realize it’s going to be alright (because) people want you to play for them.”
The transfer portal
On Oct. 15, 2018, the NCAA created the transfer portal to add transparency and organization to the process of changing schools.
When a player wants to explore a transfer, they have to provide a written notification to their university’s administrator. That administrator will gather the player’s pertinent information (including their email address, phone number and more) and enter it into the portal. The compliance office has two business days to digitally register that athlete in the portal. Coaches are able to see who is in the portal but it’s not available to the public.
Just because a player enters the portal, doesn’t mean they will leave the school. Once a player is in the portal, they will have the freedom to open their recruitment and talk to other coaches. When a player is in the portal and still enrolled at their respective schools, privileges, such as locker-room and weight-room access are not guaranteed by a school.
Athletes are able to withdraw from the portal at any time and return to their respective school. But, the school can decide whether to take that athlete back and restore their scholarship.
If coaches can leave, why can’t players?
UC Davis football coach Dan Hawkins said the NCAA’s rule changes are a good thing for college football. He’s adamant that student-athletes should have the flexibility to explore a transfer.
“People are always freaked out about change,” Hawkins said, “I’m not. The world keeps spinning. There may be some bumps along the way with the process and I’m sure there will be some adjustments with it. I’ve said it for a long time and I get the pitfalls, but a coach can leave, an AD can leave and everybody else can leave except for the kids. Sometimes I’m not sure that it sits well with me.”
Hawkins added, “I think to give (the student-athletes) some freedom is good. (What happens) is you’re 17 or 18 years old and you got some 45-year-old guy that snookers you into going someplace and then you figure out it’s too cold, too hot, too big, or too far or whatever it is. You (could) find out the coach isn’t what you thought he was going to be. Maybe your grandma gets sick and you have to go back home or you want to change your major. I mean why is it a person can’t have a little bit of slack — (these kids) are 17 or 18 years old. At the end (of the day the transfer portal) is a good thing.”
In April, the NCAA allowed athletes in all sports to transfer once without sitting a season. It has led to a huge rise in student-athletes hitting the portal.
Hawkins believes the increase in student-athletes entering the portal will balance itself out over time.
“I see both sides, trust me,” he said. “I see the other side of ‘what about the commitment’ or ‘what about putting in the work’ or a guy gets some adversity and he leaves. I think life has a way of leveling itself out. If nothing else, just the freedom to (transfer) makes a person feel better. I’m in favor of it. There are going to be issues, but there are issues with everything.”
Adapt or get left out
The era of one-and-done in college basketball forced coaches to adjust their recruiting tactics. Over the last decade and half, basketball coaches have recruited top players with the knowledge the best would stay in school for one year and then declare for the NBA Draft.
The transfer changes are here to stay and coaches around the country are adjusting. They have to or they risk being out-recruited.
That’s the mindset Sacramento State football coach Troy Taylor has: adapt and adjust.
“It has changed a lot really in the last month or so when they (started) allowing people to transfer one time,” Taylor said. “Basically anyone can transfer and before it was a more difficult process. You had to graduate or you had to sit out a year. It’s the biggest change in college football in quite awhile. You see the movement of players — (teams are) losing guys and then regaining guys through the transfer portal. For better or worse, there is a little bit more of a free agency element that you can change your roster relatively (overnight). Especially in a sport like basketball, where you can bring in five new guys or girls and all of a sudden, your team has changed.”
Over the last year, Sac State lost a handful of players to the portal, including quarterback Kevin Thomson (who transferred to the University of Washington) and cornerback DaRon Bland (who transferred to Fresno State). At about the same time, Sac State added quarterback Kaiden Bennett, wide receiver Jordan Chin, defensive lineman Ariel Ngata and offensive lineman Kaden Richardson.
“My impression on it is I’ve already kind of adapted that it’s here and you have to adjust and make it beneficial to your program in some way,” Taylor said. “We still believe that the best way to build a program is to sign high school guys that fit into what we’re looking for and develop them. In general, we’re going to build our program by bringing in high school guys and developing them. We’re big on the development process of bringing our athletes and helping them to improve and then you see the dividends.”
He added, “I’ve already kind of adapted my mindset to just adjust and don’t look at it as a good or bad thing. I don’t think anyone wants free agency in college athletics. But in the same sense, the NCAA is trying to allow some flexibility to student-athletes.”
Men’s basketball transfers rise
One of the many examples of an athlete looking for a change is UCLA men’s basketball player Johnny Juzang. After playing his freshman season at the University of Kentucky and averaging 2.9 points and 12.3 minutes a game, Juzang transferred and became the Bruins’ top scorer. He averaged 16 points and helped UCLA reach the Final Four this past April.
The transfer portal is also active on the women’s side. Take it from Sac State women’s basketball coach Mark Campbell. Immediately after being hired, Campbell hit the transfer portal to fill out his roster. The program already added University of the Pacific‘s Lianna Tillman and Baylor’s Aquira DeCosta.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program,” Campbell said April 21 when asked about recruiting. “We have open scholarships, so we are working the transfer portal right now. We are working hard to find players that will fit our style of play … we are going to recruit the globe.”
The portal is also contributing to coaches stepping away from the game. Longtime Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announced June 2 he would retire at the end of the upcoming season after 41 years at Duke. A source close to Coach K told Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, “He is obviously nearing the end of his career, but name, image and likeness coming into college basketball, and the transfer portal being out of control definitely sped up his timeline.”
How the transfer portal changed recruiting
Brandon Huffman is the national recruiting editor at 247Sports and has covered recruiting for 19 years. Although the amount of players in the transfer portal is a large amount, Huffman believes it will be even crazier next spring.
“It’s the craziest I’ve ever seen it and it’s only scratching the surface of how crazy it’s going to be in the next year,” Huffman said. “Because in a year from now, you are going to have spring practice ending and there are a lot of guys that committed to their future colleges sight unseen, meeting the coaches unseen. (Some of them will realize) this was not the best fit for me. Coaches pressured a lot of guys to make commitments last spring and summer because they didn’t know recruiting was going to look like. They kinda forced guys to commit when they weren’t ready and guys committed before they were ready because they were panicking they weren’t going to have a spot. After a year of dating, (some) of these guys are going to realize they don’t want to be married. We are just scratching the surface of how it’s going to be in the spring of 2022.”
The portal has only been around for less than three years, but transferring has been a common theme in college athletics for decades. Three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners changed schools. Baker Mayfield transferred from Texas Tech to Oklahoma, Kyler Murray left Texas A&M for Oklahoma and Joe Burrow went from Ohio State to LSU.
Another thing those three have in common is they were all the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in their respective years.
“People act like transfers only started happening since the portal,” Huffman said.“What really happened is it became more pronounced. Guys have been transferring since the beginning of time. … Transfers have happened forever, but I think with the portal it’s become more known. You are seeing a lot of rules that benefits the transfer.”
He added, “There is far more awareness of it now that there’s an official title. I think there are more transfers than ever. Colleges much rather recruit from the portal especially in the past year and half than ever before. Largely because at least the guys in the portal are somewhat of a known quantity. You have recent high school film and college film where you are not taking a risk on a 17-year-old. There’s a supply and demand there.”