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IOWA CITY — The story this offseason is not how many players have left Iowa, but how many returning players will take the field this fall.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Days that one position he felt might be lacking in depth is defensive tackle. The Hawkeyes did acquire Northern Illinois graduate transfer Jack Heflin last fall to add veteran experience following the departures of Cedric Lattimore, Brady Reiff and A.J. Epenesa, but were left with a similar situation this year when Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Heflin went to the NFL.
As of April of this year, the NCAA allowed all college athletes, not just graduate students, to transfer once without having to sit out for a season. With a few gaps in question, Iowa is mostly relying on its developmental programming to make existing players game-ready for fall. But some of its fellow Big Ten schools are taking advantage of the opportunity.
Iowa added one graduate transfer this offseason — Xavior Williams from Northern Iowa — but that was in anticipation of senior Matt Hankins’ potential departure. Hankins opted to stay for his sixth season.
Iowa also won’t have a tight end to back up junior Sam LaPorta with on-the-field experience.
Shortly after the transfer legislation passed, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said that Iowa will remain a program that primarily focuses on recruiting players who fit, but when multiple players move to the NFL, he sees the portal as an opportunity to fill gaps.
“We're dealing with that a little bit at the tight end position,” Brian Ferentz said in April. “We tried to do it two years ago with a tight end we got pretty serious with and he ended up going to a different school. That’s the difficult part about the transfer portal: you're recruiting, it's not free agency. We're trying to use it to bolster our roster more than build it.”
As of August 2021, Iowa has four transfers from four-year programs on its roster: Williams, senior defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg (Hillsdale), senior return specialist Charlie Jones (Buffalo) and junior punter Nick Phelps (North Dakota State). Jones transferred from Buffalo following the 2018 season, sat out his first year at Iowa in 2019, and played in 2020. Phelps enrolled at Iowa in 2019, but wasn’t on the team until he walked on in spring of 2020.
The Hawkeyes are tied with Wisconsin for fewest four-year transfers on current rosters in the Big Ten. There are seven teams in the Big Ten with double-digit transfers from four-year programs on their current rosters: Illinois (26), Michigan State (24), Nebraska (19), Rutgers (19), Indiana (15), Minnesota (11) and Purdue (10). Michigan State brought in 19 transfers from four year-programs going into 2021, Mel Tucker’s first full offseason as head coach; it also lost over 20 players to the transfer portal.
Change at the head coaching position can trigger a change of philosophy and personnel, especially when it comes to the transfer portal or recruiting.
“The thing I love about recruiting transfer-portal kids is they know the recruiting pitch already and they've been wowed by a graphic or how many followers they get or how many times somebody looked at their Instagram and all that jazz,” new Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said. “Now, they're a little bit more surreal and more focused on what's important in making decisions, which is being in an environment that you can have success.”
Greg Schiano returned to Rutgers for a second stint as head coach the same year Tucker took the MSU job. Bielema is the newest coach in the Big Ten and has the most transfers on his roster.
But at schools such as Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue, the story is different. Of Indiana’s 15 transfers, junior Jaren Handy from Auburn will be the first who can potentially take advantage of the new no-sit rule. The defensive lineman joined in May.
“We did use it more this year than ever before, and the consistent theme was finding guys that fit,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said at Big Ten Media Days. “It also allows us to meet a need at a certain position where we can give some young guys a chance to develop a little bit longer.”
Rutgers’ Aron Cruickshank was able to play immediately following his transfer from Wisconsin in 2020 because of a hardship waiver, bypassing the usual sit-out rule for undergraduate transfers. But juniors wide receiver and return specialist Josh Youngblood (Kansas State) and offensive lineman David Nwaogwugwu (Temple) are two transfers who have the opportunity to compete because of the new rule. At the time they were recruited, though, the rule had not yet been changed. Both would’ve had to acquire a waiver.
Schiano said that recruiting portal players for an immediate impact on the field requires trust in their relationships. Schiano was a volunteer assistant coach at Tampa Berkeley Prep when Youngblood played there and Rutgers strength coach Jay Butler also worked at the school. Nwaogwugwu was familiar with defensive coordinator Fran Brown and defensive line coach Jim Panagos, who used to coach at Temple.
“I think the portal is really a good thing for people that are trying to rebuild their program and get a jump-start,” Schiano said. “I was insistent upon this with our staff — that we can only take guys from the portal that we have a relationship with.”
Northwestern is tied with Maryland for 10th in the Big Ten with eight transfers from four-year programs on its roster as of August 2021. Six of them enrolled in the 2020-21 offseason. But Northwestern has acquired three quarterbacks from the portal in three years.
The Wildcats had a big void to fill when Clayton Thorson left for the NFL after the 2018 season. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson sat out that season due to the rule, but took over as starter in 2019 before an injury ended his season. The Wildcats finished 2019 with a 3-9 overall record and only one Big Ten victory.
While the transfer portal didn’t bode well for Northwestern the first time, the Wildcats added a more-experienced graduate transfer in 2020 in Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey. He led the team to a 7-2 season and Big Ten championship game appearance. Now, the Wildcats add sophomore Ryan Hilinski from South Carolina, who will compete for the job with Johnson, junior backup Andrew Marty and a number of underclassmen this fall.
“I think I was one of the last coaches in the country to take a transfer quarterback,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought we did what we had to do with Peyton last year was a byproduct of the way we played 2019. You can't say no to that type of player, but we're going to have five quarterbacks and, in an ideal world, you have five high school guys, but I don't think in today's college football that’s going to happen.”
Ohio State is more picky about its transfers, but it works. The Buckeyes currently have five transfers from four-year programs on their roster, third-fewest in the conference.
While Ohio State didn’t add a transfer after the rule change this offseason, its most noteworthy recent transfer portal acquisition was quarterback Justin Fields. Fields arrived on campus after his freshman season at Georgia in 2018 and gained immediate eligibility through a waiver to play in 2019. He led the Buckeyes to back-to-back Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff appearances.
The Buckeyes are reportedly trying to secure a waiver for USC linebacker transfer Palaie Gaoteote IV to become eligible this fall.
“What it’s forcing coaches to do is be really transparent in recruiting and over communicate,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. We’ve taken some guys, but we haven't had that many guys leave.”
High school recruiting season hit its stride this summer when the COVID-enforced dead period was lifted. So far, Iowa’s verbal commit Class of 2022 is a small one, but Iowa has time to look not only at high school graduates, but also an expanded transfer portal with players who can make an immediate impact.
“We're not out there shopping around, but it’s probably going to factor in at some point” Kirk Ferentz said. “Probably the biggest concern I have personally is just the player understanding that the grass may not be greener on the other side.”
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