In the News

Transfers, young teams, and a story pitch

“Transfer portal” is now right up there with “polar vortex” as a label for something that is very real and normal but which has come to represent a much bigger phenomenon.

The transfer portal doesn’t do much other than provide transparency to a process that had been done behind closed doors. It does take some power away from schools to restrict who may and may not contact a prospective transfer, and it broadcasts to the world that someone is available. It makes the process slightly easier, but that’s not enough on its own to open the transfer floodgates.

A bigger change is the softening (and march toward elimination) of the requirement to sit out a year after transferring. Critics warn of a free-for-all transfer market, coaches fret over the loss of control of their roster, and the term “free agency” has become pejorative. Georgia’s been the beneficiary of more generous eligibility waivers: Demetris Robertson was immediately eligible to play last season after his transfer from Cal. Now Justin Fields’s waiver has been granted at Ohio State, and all eyes are on the status of Tate Martell at Miami. I don’t know why Martell’s circumstances are all that different from Fields’s, but that’s the way the media is playing the story. You almost feel for Jacob Eason who sat out last season without seeking a waiver.

The unmistakable trend can be summed up by “early.” Players are arriving earlier: 14 members of the 2019 signing class enrolled early to get a head start on playing right away. Even players who will end up redshirting are able to play earlier now. They’re leaving earlier too. The past two seasons have set records for the number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft. Graduate transfer rules make it more common for a player to seek a new opportunity for his final season. Those who don’t pan out or earn playing time right away will look to a loosening transfer process.

Coaches love to talk about their young teams, but that’s the new reality. All teams will be young teams. Successful coaches will be those who are able to manage rosters heavy on freshmen and sophomores with small groups of upperclassmen. It’s not just managing the numbers, though that will be a big part of it. The early signing period means that schools like Georgia that can fill most of their class early can spend the six weeks before the late signing period observing the transfer and attrition landscape and using those last few spots to fill needs with a prospect or a transfer. Coaches will also have to tailor schemes and how those schemes are implemented to make sure that they can be picked up rapidly and executed at the highest level by relatively inexperienced players.

Is there a model for how programs might be managed in the future?

The NCAA allows for an unrestricted one-time transfer in most of the sports it governs. You have to be in good academic standing, but there are only four sports to which the “sit out a year” rule applies:

If you transfer from a four-year school, you may be immediately eligible to compete at your new school if…you are transferring to a Division I school in any sport other than baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football (Football Bowl Subdivision) or men’s ice hockey.

Most of us focus on football, but what we’re dreading as an era of free agency is actually the normal for the majority of NCAA sports.

With that in mind, it would be interesting to see coaches interviewed from other sports who have had to deal with unrestricted transfers for years. Softball would be a great place to start – Alex Hugo, perhaps the best Georgia softball player in the past decade, was a high-profile transfer who played her freshman season at Kansas in 2013 and was immediately eligible to play at Georgia in 2014. Georgia of course has also been on the other end of transfers. These coaches live in this world already and could provide some good insight on how to manage a program.

(I’m trying to think through how unrestricted transfers might play out differently in a sport like football or basketball versus, say, softball. I’m inclined to think that there would be more frequent transfers in football/basketball since one year of exposure in the “right” system could be worth millions. There are of course professional opportunities for softball, but the incentives aren’t as great in Olympic sports to maximize the collegiate system for future income.)

The case of the rooster that didn’t crow

I had a couple of thoughts after reading Blutarsky’s post-Signing Day survey of the job Florida and Tennessee did (or didn’t do) closing the talent gap against Georgia.

First was complete agreement with this conclusion: “The gap isn’t closing, but the chance to break through on occasion may be rising for the two.” Tennessee and Florida aren’t going to concede anything to Georgia, and they have the resources to build teams that could challenge Georgia in years when opportunity collides with occasional peaks in talent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the position Georgia occupied for much of the past 25 years. We know all about the quest for “relevancy.”

My second thought was how interesting it was to see a certain program not mentioned. If you go back a year, Tennessee and Florida were both reorganizing under first year coaches. Which school was seen as the top challenger to Georgia in 2018? Will Muschamp’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Granted, Georgia was as overwhelming a favorite as it could be, but if there was a darkhorse in the East in 2018, it was South Carolina. If you wanted to go out on a limb with an upset pick that was shocking enough to get attention but plausible enough not to be dismissed outright, you picked South Carolina to win at home over Georgia.

This isn’t an argument that it’s wrong to leave South Carolina out of discussions like this; it’s more amazement about how much things have changed in a year. Was their window of opportunity limited to just last season? South Carolina’s 7-6 overall record, 4-4 conference record, and fourth-place SEC East finish in 2018 were all below expectations. There were some close losses that could have gone the other way, but we could say the same about several close wins. Injuries took a toll, but from an outsider’s perspective it looked as if South Carolina never overcame three very generalized deficiencies:

  • A below-average running game.
  • An up-tempo offense that never really realized its explosive promise.
  • A defense (40th in S&P+) that wasn’t up to par for what you’d expect from a Will Muschamp team.

Their ugly shutout loss in the bowl game didn’t do much for offseason happy talk, but was one disappointing season enough to send South Carolina from top contender in the East to an afterthought? If we can boil things down to one reason to be optimistic about the Gamecocks, it’s the return of senior quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley is arguably the second or third-best QB in the East, and his experience should be enough to matter in a couple of games. They get no favors with SEC West games against Alabama and Texas A&M, and Clemson should once again be a heavy favorite. It’s no fun mapping out a path to ten wins with Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson on the schedule.

The bigger question though is about talent. (We’ll use Rivals’ team rankings here.) Tennessee and especially Florida did do well this year, but South Carolina wasn’t too far behind with a Top 20 class and ten blue-chip (4* or 5*) signees. If you go back a couple of years to see how the 2019 teams might be composed, it looks a little better for the Gamecocks. Florida, SC, and Tennessee were all clumped together in the 2018 rankings at #17, #18, and #20. Florida had another Top 10 class in 2017, but again Tennessee and South Carolina were there at #15 and #16. The real disparity comes in 2016 when Will Muschamp’s first class was ranked in the mid-20s. Unfortunately those would be the seniors on the 2019 team. Florida can claim to have had an edge in the three most recent signing classes. South Carolina might be closer to Tennessee than Tennessee has been to Florida.

If the focus has shifted to Florida and Tennessee trying to close the massive talent gap with Georgia, a secondary story has to be South Carolina’s desperation to remain in that top tier of SEC East contenders. We could include Missouri and Kentucky in that group, but the Gamecocks would rather measure themselves against Florida or Tennessee in terms of resources, fan passion, recruiting, and what they’ve invested in coaching. They didn’t hire Muschamp to settle back into a perennial fourth-place SEC East position, and that’s the danger here. If Florida and Tennessee are making moves to become more competitive with Georgia, does South Carolina come along or get left behind?

Crean’s first recruiting coup

Monday was a good, good day for Tom Crean and the Georgia basketball program. The Dawgs got a commitment from elite 6’4″ guard Anthony Edwards from Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta. There’s some debate whether this is the highest-rated player ever to commit to Georgia, but that’s not important. If you’re even having that discussion, it means that Edwards is a player Georgia needs desperately.

Edwards is the type of attacking scoring guard sorely missing from the program, and his presence should elevate a talented frontcourt as Hammonds and Claxton continue to develop.

Some realty though –

1. Edwards can’t sign until the spring signing period begins on April 17th. Ashton Hagans was a Georgia commitment at one point last year. We don’t expect Georgia to blow up its program again this spring, but any Georgia football fan knows that recruiting doesn’t stop after a verbal commitment – especially when you’re talking about a prospect like this. There’s no reason to suspect Edwards’s pledge is anything but firm, but it’s not binding for another two months. Circle April 17th.

2. Transcendent program-changing lottery pick signings have had mixed results in college, and the programs they leave haven’t always been the better for it. Ben Simmons was outstanding at LSU, but his program and coach crumbled. Michael Porter battled injuries as Missouri struggled to get anything going. Darius Garland will never suit up for last-place Vanderbilt. The surrounding cast matters.

That said, Crean had to have a player like this. The common theme throughout the story of UGA hoops is lackluster recruiting especially when it comes to Georgia’s in-state talent. If Edwards turns out to be the beginning of a sea change in how his peers view the program, it will have been one of the most important moments in the program’s history. Crean had to have some credibility to start to gain the interest of those prospects. He’s not going to do it this year with results, so getting the commitment of someone like Edwards will open a lot of doors for Georgia’s recruiters.

So perhaps more important is what Edwards represents: an elite local prospect that stayed home. He told Dan McDonald from Rivals that “(Georgia is) my home. I want to put the school back on the map…I see that they need help, so that’s what I want to do.” If that message can begin to take hold among local prospects, Tom Crean will soon have the pieces he needs to realize his vision of an entertaining and competitive program at Georgia.

Georgia already has two 6’6″ 4* wings signed during the fall period, Jaykwon Walton and Toumani Camara. Georgia will try to take at least one more in the spring, and it would be ideal for one of the remaining spots to go to a point guard. Edwards understands the importance of bringing other top prospects along with him, and he plans to help recruit at least two highly-touted unsigned players:

“I got two of them, (6’9″ F) Precious Achiuwa and (6’5″ G) Lester Quinones. I’ve already been talking to them about it. Precious likes Georgia. Lester likes Georgia too and they are close friends, so I feel like we got a chance. I pray we have a chance.”

Eli’s Comin’

I noted on Signing Day that Georgia still might have an immediate need at tight end despite signing two TEs in the 2019 class. Ryland Goede is coming off ACL surgery, and Brett Seither will still be a bit raw. That’s not a slight against either’s potential to succeed at Georgia; it’s a statement about the need to have game-ready tight ends available early in the season.

It’s not a surprise then that Kirby Smart continued to work the transfer pool after Signing Day, and the Dawgs didn’t waste any time signing graduate transfer Eli Wolf from Tennessee. Wolf has played in eight games at Tennessee, caught eight passes with one touchdown, and was named a team captain after beginning his career as a walk-on. He earned recognition as the improved player on offense after Tennessee’s 2018 spring practice. Wolf isn’t much bigger than Seither, but you’d expect that a few years in a D-1 weight room would have him a little more prepared to contribute right away. He’s remaining active before heading to Athens “working out five days per week with a personal trainer in Knoxville specializing in speed and strength.”

Georgia now has five scholarship tight ends: Wolf (RSr.), Woerner (Sr.), FitzPatrick (RFr.), Goede (Fr.), and Seither (Fr.). Smart might not be finished adding transfers to the 2019 team, but we’re fairly certain that the TE position is set now. With Wolf and Woerner set to depart after 2019, TE will again become a priority for the 2020 class, and one of the best is right here in state.

UPDATE: Georgia has added a second graduate transfer: 6’5″ WR Lawrence Cager from Miami. Cager had a productive 2018 season with 21 receptions, 374 yards, and a team-high six touchdown catches. His size jumps out, and he gives Georgia, by my count, at least four receivers (not even tight ends) at 6’4″ or better: Cager (Sr.), Tommy Bush (RFr.), Matt Landers (RSo.), and George Pickens (Fr.)

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