Analysis: Is transfer the right answer for Notre Dame QBs?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly sat relatively unaccosted Wednesday night as he soaked in a flat performance from the Notre Dame men’s basketball team against Miami from a courtside seat at Purcell Pavilion.

Eventually puncturing the Notre Dame head football coach’s veneer of privacy was former Irish hoops coaching icon Digger Phelps, who scampered a few feet from his seat to approach Kelly for a selfie on Phelps’ cell phone camera.

Kelly looked happy to oblige, perhaps relieved that it wasn’t another request to divulge how the upcoming quarterback competition between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire was likely to end.

The only certainty in the depth chart winnowing, already percolating long before spring practice kicks off on March 16, is that promising freshman Brandon Wimbush will be given the redshirt year in 2016 he was deprived of this past season due to attrition.

Meanwhile, the warped curiosity for many peering in from the outside isn’t as much about who will line up in the shotgun behind starting center candidates Sam Mustipher or Tristen Hoge against Texas on Sept. 3 in Austin, but rather whether the player who ends up No. 2 will still be on the Irish roster at that point.

Brady Quinn, former Notre Dame standout quarterback and current college football analyst for FOX Sports, bristles at the notion that a transfer is an inevitable outcome, and even more so that it’s a worthwhile one.

“I think there’s a misconception when you have a lot of talent at the quarterback position, and they’re kind of stockpiled, that one of them needs to go somewhere else,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

History both at Notre Dame and in the bigger picture tend to back Quinn up, especially if at the root of the transfer is the goal of expediting the NFL dream.

It hasn’t been exactly happily never after as far as defecting Irish quarterbacks are concerned, but there are more cautionary tales than successful sequels in other uniforms.

Even the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks to transfer, each with some semblance of statistical vindication at their new schools at various points, now find themselves battling perceptual battles this spring.

Everett Golson, who finished his one season at Florida State as a backup, went from intriguing late-round NFL Draft prospect to a draft long shot in a year.

Gunner Kiel, meanwhile, started Cincinnati’s spring practice on Feb. 25 as the Bearcats’ No. 2 option and could parachute out as a grad transfer this summer if he doesn’t win back his starting job.

Of the nine others who transferred before them in the post-Lou Holtz Era (counting Darrin Bragg who did a U-turn back to ND before actually enrolling at a new school), none of them went on to play a down in the NFL.

Of the seven who changed positions instead, three of them (Arnaz Battle, Carlyle Holiday and Abram Elam, the latter of whom was eventually expelled) actually ended up with NFL careers.

And of the only four post-Holtz Era QBs who never switched schools or positions, two were drafted into the NFL (Quinn and Jimmy Clausen), one was drafted by Major League Baseball (Evan Sharpley), and one jumped into coaching (Tommy Rees) after an NFL tryout as an undrafted free agent went nowhere.

For the nine transfers preceding Kiel and Golson, none of them finished with a career pass-efficiency rating of better than Zak Kustok’s 118.3. To put that in perspective, that’s almost 32 rating points behind what Kizer produced in 2015 as a first-year starter and would have ranked 92nd nationally in last year’s national rankings.

That’s not to say that among Kustok (Northwestern), Matt LoVecchio (Indiana), Chris Olsen (Virginia), Bragg, David Wolke (Western Kentucky), Demetrius Jones (Cincinnati), Zach Frazer (Connecticut), Dayne Crist (Kansas), Andrew Hendrix (Miami, Ohio), Kiel and Golson, there weren’t success stories and rises to the top of the depth chart.

But of those who did taste the No. 1 spot, more of them lost that status after reaching the top than those who sustained uninterrupted as a starter.

The former group includes Olsen, who was the Offensive MVP of the Blue-Gold Game the spring after redshirting as a freshman. Four months later, he was a memory, unwilling to incubate while Holiday was the starting QB.

The collateral damage for then-ND head coach Tyrone Willingham was that his younger brother, freshman tight end Greg Olsen, followed him out the door. But Greg ended up at Miami (Fla.) and every bit lived up to his five-star billing as a recruit.

Chris Olsen changed his name to Christian and largely languished at his own landing spot, Virginia.

He attempted 87 passes there, threw for 439 yards over three seasons and fashioned a 95.3 pass-efficiency rating, while never playing more than five games in a season. Olsen finally rose to No. 1 in 2006, but only after brother Greg talked him out of transferring a second time.

Yet after two starts, he was back on the bench in favor of a freshman, Jameel Sewell.

The transfer bug seemed to run in the family, though. The third of the college football-playing Olsens, quarterback Kevin, has transferred three times, from Miami to Towson to Riverside (Calif.) Community College to current school Charlotte.

“Sometimes it’s better just to be in the system, know it like the back of your hand and have one year where you’re really able to excel, and maybe win a national championship and then go on into the NFL,” said Quinn, whose own rapid development eventually nudged Holiday to wide receiver.

“Cardale Jones won a national championship at Ohio State and only started three games, and people were talking about him going into the NFL. People were talking about him being a second-round draft pick based on three games, if he had come out after the 2014 season.

“You could use the case of Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel at USC, too. Cassel barely ever played behind Leinart, and he actually had a longer NFL career than Leinart did.”

Looking at the current crop of NFL QBs, of the 32 who stood No. 1 on their team’s respective depth charts when the calendar turned to March, seven of them (22 percent) transferred at some point in their collegiate careers.

But only one of those seven — the Ravens’ Joe Flacco’s move from Pitt to FCS school Delaware — was the true depth-chart frustration transfer.

Russell Wilson, the poster child for transfers gone right, actually never wanted to leave his first school. But he frustrated then-N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien to the point that O’Brien showed him the door in the summer of 2011.

Wilson had thrown for an ACC best 3,563 yards and 28 TDs in 2010, but Wilson’s decision to play minor-league baseball irked O’Brien. He told Wilson he was going with Mike Glennon and invited Wilson to transfer, which he did grad-school style — with no waiting, to Wisconsin.

There he won the national pass-efficiency title.

Josh McCown was a starter at SMU when he transferred to FCS Sam Houston State, but he left to play in a more pass-friendly offense. Zach Mettenberger was asked to leave Georgia, while Cam Newton faced potential expulsion at Florida.

Aaron Rodgers started his career in the junior college ranks after not receiving a single FBS scholarship offer, then landed at Cal after a single, standout juco season.

Nick Foles left Michigan State after a year for Arizona to be closer to home after the deaths of two family members. To this day, he speaks glowingly about his MSU experience and particularly Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio.

“When I look at DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire and what they’ve done and the skill set I’ve seen from Brandon Wimbush, I think they’ll all have an opportunity to have a shot at the NFL if they stay put at Notre Dame,” Quinn said.

“The exposure and the big-time games they’ll play in at Notre Dame is something a lot of people overlook. It’s a misconception that these guys need to transfer and go somewhere else to have their opportunity to shine. Everyone seems to blow that out of proportion.

“A little patience can go a long way.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Andrew Hendrix (12), here at a 2012 practice with former Irish quarterbacks Gunner Kiel (1) and Everett Golson (5), may have had the most positive experience among recent Notre Dame QB transfers. (Tribune file photo)