On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, those inclined to look could glimpse something known to loose a bit of a spectacle: college football coaches coping with compromised power.
The loud decision to transfer from Oklahoma State by wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, and the louder decision to transfer from Clemson by quarterback Kelly Bryant - a senior and a graduate student, respectively and curiously - took root in June. That’s when college football coaches relinquished some power and those beings soaring across the American sky did seem to be pigs.
Of course, the coaches also gained a fresh slice of power with the NCAA’s new rule enabling athletes to redshirt after appearing in four games in a season, as it afforded coaches more flexibility without burning players’ eligibility. Yet after McCleskey and Bryant had hit the four-game mark and found their situations suboptimal, this week highlighted the relinquishing more than the affording.
Asked Monday whether “fifth-week transfers” might become a trend, Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy said, “If you were a betting guy, and I know you’re not, I would say you could stake some money on that.”
On Wednesday, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said during the ACC teleconference: “You know, I’m sure there may be more that’s coming down the road from other programs, whatever. And I hope the coaches don’t say, ‘Well, you know what, I’m going to play them five games so they don’t have any other options.’ “
In meeting with Gundy, the senior McCleskey had noted that the ball had not been finding its way to his hands with sufficient frequency. In a meeting with Swinney that the coach recollected as agony, Bryant had coped with the starting quarterback job going to hotter-than-hotshot freshman Trevor Lawrence. As a measure of power moves ever so creakily toward players within those meetings, both coaches spoke with aplomb. Gundy said of McCleskey: “Great man. Great family.” Swinney said of Bryant, “All I can say is another program, wherever he decides to go, is going to get a quality quarterback and a quality young man.”
While McCleskey’s decision came as a surprise to Gundy, and while his 152 catches for 1,710 yards and 15 touchdowns from 2015 to 2017 formed a good chunk of current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s 13,618 college yards and 92 touchdown passes, and while McCleskey’s 15 catches for 155 yards this year didn’t seem much of a drop-off even as it placed him fourth among Cowboys receivers - Bryant became the foremost emblem of the newfangled volatility in a sport that once zipped along in neater September-to-December increments.
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Just 267 days before his transfer announcement, he quarterbacked Clemson in a College Football Playoff national semifinal, finished a 12-2 season as the heir to the great Deshaun Watson, and anticipated graduating in May (which he did) and prepping for his final season of eligibility (as he did). Just 17 days before the announcement, he quarterbacked Clemson in a palpitating 28-26 escape from Texas A&M, then appeared on TV as a smiling face of Clemson.
By Tuesday, Swinney had said: “It’s a bad day to be the head coach. Most days, it’s good. And it’s a bad day. Because I love Kelly. You know, it’s emotional, emotional for him. Tough day. . . . Because he’s played well and there’s to a guy that’s ever been, as long as I’ve been at Clemson, there’s not a guy that’s more committed to this program as Kelly Bryant. There’s not a better leader. This guy, he’s the epitome of what you want. . . . So it was a very difficult conversation and he’s very disappointed, but, you know, I don’t have any doubt that he’ll show up and go back to work and respond.”
By Wednesday, the Greenville (South Carolina) News quoted Bryant, who revealed his decision to transfer to the newspaper: “I just don’t feel like I’ve gotten a fair shot,” and, “I’ve waited my turn,” and, “I’ve never been a distraction. I’ve never been in trouble with anything. To me, it was kind of a slap in the face.”
Gundy thought the rule might use some renovations.
“So let’s say you have five guys do it [transfer],” he said Monday at his weekly media session. “Well, I’m playing with 80 instead of 85 on scholarship, and I can’t replace those numbers.” He said McCleskey’s choice “surprised me because of his career. He’s a name guy, all that. But this new rule, with how liberal it is just to get up and walk out, is going to start to show whatever side of an ugly face it has in the future, in my opinion.
“And I’m not against the rule. I’m good. But they just need to tinker with it a little to make sure it’s better for everybody involved if a player just wants to leave. And everybody’s been wanting that, right? I mean, everybody in the country, the fans, and [the media has] been writing about it, ‘Kids need to be able to leave whenever they want.’ So that’s what everybody wants. So that’s where we’re at.”
He likened replacing any Week 5 departures to replacing any injured players. “Can’t pick a guy up on the wires, let’s put it that way,” he said. “So that’s why we have coaches and that’s why they get paid all the money they get paid, to figure something out, come up with a plan, let’s keep rolling.”
It can come down to degrees, and at Swinney’s Clemson, a qualifier for the past three College Football Playoffs, those degrees are rarefied. Bryant’s progress to supplant Watson fueled offseason transfers by Hunter Johnson (to Northwestern) and Zerrick Cooper (to Jacksonville State). Now Bryant’s transfer leaves the landscape to Lawrence, from Cartersville, Ga.
Where Bryant had entered Clemson’s 2015 class as the No. 3 player in South Carolina, according to the recruiting analysts at Rivals.com, Lawrence had done so as the No. 1 player in the United States in 2018, a reflection of Clemson’s capacity to rummage successfully around the tiptop shelf. Lawrence’s wows in his early games, such as his early and lofty passer ratings of 179.03 at Texas A&M and 216.58 at Georgia Tech, reflect a further wrinkle in the 21st century game: an enhanced readiness of freshmen who have apprenticed in college-like high school systems.
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“If I was worried about” a transfer “or I was deceitful in some way,” Swinney told Clemson reporters Tuesday, “I could have huddled the coaches up and said: ‘Hey, let’s make sure we start [Bryant] for Syracuse [this week, in the fifth game].’ And that way he’s got no options. That’s not how I operate. We don’t operate that way.”
That’s true as, for one reason, in this new and more mobile world with players watching and thinking and deciding, operating that way would qualify as unwise.