COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s a small world at the top.
That saying has long defined the tight circles of celebrity, finance and philanthropy. Exclusive circles inherently and frequently overlap.
With the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings just a week away, the same can be said for the elite circle of quarterbacks who’ll dominate both the national title and Heisman chase. The LSU quarterback transferred from Ohio State. The Ohio State quarterback jumped from Georgia. The Oklahoma quarterback got beat out by the starter at Alabama. The Georgia quarterback beat out both the Ohio State and Washington quarterbacks.
To play the Kevin Bacon game in modern college football requires few degrees of quarterback separation. They’ve competed against each other at elite camps, worked together as counselors at the Manning Passing Academy, tracked each other on social media and often share the same quarterback trainers.
The sport’s top names – Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Justin Fields (Georgia to Ohio State), Joe Burrow (Ohio State to LSU), Jalen Hurts (Alabama to Oklahoma) and Jake Fromm (Georgia) are all familiar with one another. The top-end quarterbacks have been in a constant competition the past few years, from camp settings – QB Collective, Elite 11 and Rivals showcases – to competition at college training camps. It’s not surprising that some of their paths have crossed in the transfer portal, forcing them to jockey for position from high school, through college and right up until the NFL draft.
“It’s crazy,” said Quincy Avery, one of the sport’s top quarterback tutors who works with Hurts and Fields, of the overlap. “I think that’s one of the benefits and unique things about the transfer portal. It gives you the opportunity to go to the best situation for you. You can hand-pick it, see what’s going on and go in there ready to play.”
The quarterback recruiting and transfer market has essentially become a sport within the sport. The stakes have never been higher. For blue-blood schools like Ohio State, LSU and Oklahoma, a high-end season can be traced directly to the portal. The availability and flexibility of graduate transfers and an increasingly lenient NCAA waiver process has cross-pollinated the quarterback market and essentially turned every offseason into a dizzying quarterback frenzy.
The five quarterbacks above will all touch the title race in some way, either as a contender or potential spoiler. And there are direct ties between virtually all of them, as Lawrence and Fields shared a trainer growing up – Ron Veal – and both Fields and Hurts work with Quincy Avery.
“Trevor and Justin know each other extremely well,” Veal said, noting they have worked out together with him a handful of times. Veal has been a counselor on the quarterback camp circuit, including the QB Collective, and chuckles at how tight the quarterback circles are from that and social media. “They’re like, ‘I know you. I don’t know you, but I do know you.’”
The transfer portal has tied that world even tighter, as kids begin watching quarterback movement early in high school when peers start to commit. That continues through college with the portal. The story of Hurts transferring to Oklahoma after getting beat out by Tua Tagovailoa in 2018 is familiar to college football fans. Tagovailoa came off the bench to lead Alabama’s comeback for the national title of the 2017 season and outlasted Hurts the next fall, despite Hurts’ 26-2 record as an Alabama starter. Hurts went to Oklahoma, where he’s put up Heisman Trophy-caliber numbers — 34 total touchdowns and a 74 percent completion rate.
Then there’s Burrow, the Heisman Trophy favorite, who was recruited by former Ohio State assistant Tom Herman, signed with Urban Meyer and developed one season under then-coordinator Ryan Day. He left Ohio State after getting beat out by Dwayne Haskins in the spring of 2018, and Haskins leaving early for the NFL last year opened a spot for Fields.
While Burrow was immediately eligible for the 2018 season because he’d graduated, Fields got a waiver to leave Georgia after his freshman year to start this season at Ohio State.
“It’s so sensitive,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Yahoo Sports on Saturday of the quarterback market. “And they all want to play. It’s almost become year to year. You do everything you can to try and plan ahead and figure out who your next quarterback is going to be. It’s not perfect. These guys are a little fickle.”
Day went out of his way to credit Burrow, who has been astounding in the more wide-open offense brought in by new pass game coordinator Joe Brady. He’s nearly doubled his touchdown passes this season – 30 from 16 in 2018 at LSU – and he has completed 78.8 percent of his passes to put him on pace to comfortably break the NCAA record for completion percentage in a season. (Colt McCoy completed 76.7 percent of his passes in 2008.)
“I give Joe Burrow a lot of credit, he came in here and got developed,” Day said. “And now he’s doing a great job. I think that’s the right way to do it. It takes time for guys to develop. There are some special guys like Trevor Lawrence or Justin [Fields]. But I don’t know if that’s the best recipe for everyone. Sometimes they just need to have a little patience and put the work in.”
Every school in the top five has a starter who’s either arrived from the transfer portal or sent his competition into it.
Clemson’s Lawrence was the country’s top quarterback recruit in the high school class of 2018 and then managed to beat out starter Kelly Bryant during Lawrence’s gilded freshman season. (Bryant left for Missouri via the portal.)
Avery pointed out that a Power Five offensive coordinator called him recently and asked about the high-profile transfer quarterback circuit: “How do I get into this world?” The lesson of this season may be that anticipating, adjusting to and, ultimately, exploiting available quarterbacks is directly tied to winning big in college football. “It won’t slow down,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.
What Alvarez would like to see is consistency in rulings, as he’s advocating for a one-time transfer in all sports with no athletes having to sit out a year until their second transfer. That would eliminate the clunky and inconsistent transfer waiver process. “That way it’s clean-cut,” he said. “So some guys aren’t granted waivers and other guys have to sit a year.”
Regardless of the rules, the quarterback derbies will rage on. It’s a small world at the top, and programs tasting that rare air are eyeing any way they can remain there.
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