Analysis: How impending changes in NCAA transfer policy might play out at Notre Dame
The tripwire in college football’s impending new reality regarding transfers is buying into the one-size-fits-all labeling or, worse yet, expending energy and resources trying to push back.
That doesn’t mean you don’t ask the tough questions, if you’re a coach or administrator, or help find solutions for the worst-case scenarios that might not otherwise be spelled out in the rule’s final draft.
“I would hope that we can find mechanisms that deter tampering,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune this week of the next seismic step in player movement beyond the transfer portal concept.
That is, the NCAA is giving serious study to a new rule that would conditionally bring an end to the one-year waiting period long imposed on student-athletes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s hockey and baseball.
“I don’t think that’s in the interest of the student to be re-recruited while they are a student at another institution,” Swarbrick continued. “So I recognize all the difficulties in that.
“We see it in basketball, with the role that proxies play. But to the extent that we can put anti-tampering elements to this, I hope we will.”
Yet Swarbrick was one of 15 Atlantic Coast Conference athletic directors who on Monday unanimously endorsed a one-time exemption for transferring athletes, shortly after the Big Ten had done so. They did so knowing there were plenty of dangling details.
On Tuesday, the NCAA surprisingly responded with a beta version, if you will, to perhaps be amended by feedback from groups, which include students themselves, over the next couple of months. In April, the NCAA’s transfer waiver working group presents its findings to the organization’s Division I Council for approval and enactment.
Four notable elements are in the working model at the moment that separate it from absolute free agency. And for a student-athlete to qualify for the one-time exemption to transfer without a year of sitting out, they’d have to check all four boxes:
• Leave the previous school academically eligible.
l Maintain academic progress at the new school.
l Leave under no disciplinary suspension.
l Receive a transfer release from the previous school.
The fourth condition contradicts the spirit of the transfer portal, which did away with the release concept and prevented coaches and administrators from blocking a student-athlete from transferring to a particular school or schools.
Its presence in the working model is perhaps insurance that the concept of tampering gets addressed somehow in the final version.
Still to be addressed, as Swarbrick pointed out, are concepts like how to deal with intraconference transfers, whether the 25-man scholarship limit per year needs to be adjustable based on the number of outgoing transfers, and how to calculate APR — the metric used since 2003 by which schools are measured and held accountable for players’ academic success.
So trying to project what the new reality looks like with a Notre Dame backdrop is inexact, but the school is shrewdly trying on the beta version for size and strategizing now to get ahead of the curve, just as it did when it came to the early signing period and the accelerated recruiting calendar.
Part of the latter was throwing science at roster management. In recent years, Notre Dame would go well over the 85-scholarship limit by the end of the signing period. But by the NCAA deadline to hit that max, the first day of classes of fall semester, the Irish would be at or just below it.
Previously, Notre Dame too often was coming up well short of the 85 maximum.
“As we’ve gotten so much better at managing the roster, part of that is just building the database over time,” Swarbrick said. “While we can’t tell you from the end of the season ‘til the start of the next perhaps who will leave, over eight years we have a pretty good statistical model that tells us ‘X’ amount of students will leave one way or another.
“So we’re getting much closer to the 85 max every year, because we built that reality into the model.”
And now the model will theoretically shift, but by how much?
In the coach Brian Kelly Era (2010-present), Notre Dame has had 61 players he recruited transfer, including impending departee wide receiver Michael Young. Twenty-eight of those, including Young, have been the grad transfer variety in which the player obtained his ND degree before leaving.
Only two of the Kelly Era transfers have gone on to play as much as a down in the NFL, defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA) and Aaron Lynch (South Florida). Wide receivers have been the most apt to transfer from ND; offensive tackles the least. In fact, there hasn’t been one.
“I think it would be reasonable that more student-athletes will explore transfer options if they don’t face the requirement that they sit out a year,” Swarbrick said.
Where ND deviates from the mainstream in this sudden and seismic transfer revolution is that its 4-for-40 approach to recruiting, stressing opportunities beyond football, could mitigate its expected spike in transfers.
But the Irish also are different when it comes to their track record of taking very few imports, something they must re-examine. Can they make the new transfer math work without a philosophical shift?
Coming into this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame had taken four scholarship grad transfers since the rule was implemented in 2006 — wide receivers Freddy Canteen and Cam Smith, safety Avery Sebastian and cornerback Cody Riggs.
The Irish added two more recently, both of whom are on campus going through winter workouts — safety Isaiah Pryor (Ohio State) and wide receiver Ben Skowronek (Northwestern). Pryor has two seasons of college eligibility left, Skowronek one.
ND could add another if the roster space allows. Irish Illustrated recently reported ND was kicking the tires on Stanford running back Trevor Speights. But even if he ends up taking an official visit, it doesn’t mean he’ll end up on the roster.
Virginia Tech wide receiver Eric Kumah visited last winter, and Notre Dame ended up passing on him. Other grad transfer candidates, who already have the no-waiting feature built in, at other position groups could emerge late in the spring.
Even rarer for the Irish football program have been undergraduate transfers. Florida State offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood and USC running back Amir Carlisle were the first scholarship-to-scholarship football transfers at Notre Dame in decades, early in the Kelly Era,
Recent graduate Alohi Gilman, a safety from Navy, is the only other one.
Swarbrick said getting the credits and academic profile to line up perfectly is much more challenging when it comes to undergraduate transfers than the grad transfers, but he didn’t rule out the need for Notre Dame to peruse and pursue more of both in the future.
“I think each case is a little different,” he said. “You find some undergraduate candidates who are uniquely qualified, fit the institution well. Alohi is a great example of that, and I think there will still be those opportunities.
“You’ve got a greater body of work with a grad student, both academically and athletically, so it is a little easier to evaluate. But we’ve had some grad transfers that didn’t work out, and some that did. The same with undergraduate transfers.”
Notre Dame’s most recent outgoing transfer, quarterback Phil Jurkovec in January, is still playing by the old transfer rules. He’s hoping to gain immediate eligibility for 2020 at his new school, Boston College, through the waiver process, which has been inconsistent and unpredictable at best.
“The easiest way is to say everybody can transfer and it’s unlimited,” Kelly said last June about the fickle waiver results, before there was a hint of the NCAA getting involved. “And it doesn’t matter if your mom is sick or somebody calls you a bad name. Everybody can transfer. Or everybody has to have residency (and sit out a year), which was the old rule.
“What we’ve done is we’ve kind of muddled that to where it matters how you handle yourself and who represents you. Now look, these are academic institutions, and it would make sense to attach some kind of academic enhancement to this.
“Maybe I’m not the guy to draw these rules up, but clearly something’s going to have to come along that kind of gets this thing back on track.”
Now it’s here, and the best-case scenario is that the NCAA could put the new reality into motion by the 2020-21 academic year. In fact, that’s the NCAA’s stated goal in its press release earlier this week.
Is that realistic, given all the questions and anticipated opposition?
“Let me offer just one observation, sports that have allowed this (exemption for years) have figured out ways to manage it,” Swarbrick said of sports such as lacrosse, swimming and tennis.
“Having said that, I never predict the weather or the NCAA legislative process.”