Culture wars: Notre Dame-USC rivalry offers modern referendum on the proper approach to the transfer portal

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Nov 19, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) celebrates the victory against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — No program restocked more aggressively through the transfer portal last offseason than USC.

The sixth-ranked Trojans, 10-1 as they face No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday night in Los Angeles, found a whopping 20 new players via that avenue after hiring coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma.

That includes the former Sooners combo of sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Mario Williams, along with Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh), running backs Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford) and numerous other starters and key reserves.

Dye is out for the season after suffering a serious leg injury two weeks ago, but nearly half of the Trojans’ two-deep roster — 10 on offense, nine on defense — was procured via the quick-fix of the transfer portal.  

The Irish (8-3) bolstered their roster last offseason with the modest additions of All-America safety Brandon Joseph (Northwestern), reserve defensive tackle Chris Smith (Harvard), punter Jon Sot (Harvard) and kicker Blake Grupe (Arkansas State).

“Culture war” might be too strong of a term for this prime-time renewal of a century-old rivalry, but some Notre Dame players still marvel outwardly at the storied programs' vastly disparate approaches to the portal.

“It’s definitely different just because you look at the transfer portal and there’s so much talent in there,” said Chris Tyree, Notre Dame’s junior running back. “You can just go in and pick guys, wherever they’re from, and put them on your team. That’s what’s different about our program. Everyone has been here for a long time. We did pick up transfers, but not many.”

A year after Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan was the quarterback on an 11-win Notre Dame team, the Irish struck out in their pursuit of wide receiver help via the portal last offseason. Prior Irish teams used the same method as they tactically plugged holes with Marshall right guard Cain Madden (2021), former Northwestern wide receiver Ben Skowronek (2020) and ex-North Carolina State cornerback Nick McCloud (2019).

Trojans cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, the grad transfer from Colorado who ranks second on the USC defense with three interceptions and fourth in tackles, was a high school rival of Notre Dame cornerback TaRiq Bracy in the Bay Area.

Notre Dame degree in hand, Bracy would have been a prime candidate for a similar relocation last winter, but he chose to return for a fifth year despite the Irish coaching change from Brian Kelly to Marcus Freeman.

“USC has always been a good program,” Bracy said. “Whatever their culture is and however they do it, they’re able to get it done. I personally have never been on a team like that, but they seem to make it work.”

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'I was blown away'

This overnight transformation of the USC program, which has gone from a 4-8 disaster to verge of the College Football Playoff, wasn’t supposed to be as easy as the Trojans are making it look.  

“It’s incredible,” veteran college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said this week on a national conference call with media members. “It has been a heck of a story.”

Herbstreit, the former Ohio State quarterback who will work Saturday night’s broadcast on ABC, will be getting his second in-person look of the season at the Trojans. A week after working Notre Dame’s 21-10 loss against the Buckeyes, Herbstreit got an early glimpse of USC’s potential in its 41-28 win at Stanford.

“Everybody wondered, with all these transfer portals, how would they be?” Herbstreit said. “They bring in Lincoln. He brings in Caleb Williams, and we all sat back in this new transfer portal era and thought, ‘OK, let’s see if they can become a team.’ And they have.”

It was more than just the surprising on-field chemistry of the Trojans that impressed Herbstreit that Sept. 10 night in Palo Alto, Calif.

“I was blown away with how they were playing as a group,” Herbstreit said. “Loving on each other, no one being selfish. That’s continued throughout the year.”

Even Joseph, expected to return after missing the past two games with a high-ankle sprain, noted during August training camp how difficult it can be for transfers to find their niche within a new team dynamic. There’s a vetting process, and that takes time.

“They do a good job of just putting the work in, putting their heads down and making sure that everyone trusts them,” Tyree said. “It’s similar to when I first got here as a freshman. You have to put your head down and do the work and make sure that everyone knows that you’re trustworthy.”

Notre Dame’s more traditional roster-building approach tends to build those bonds over a period of years, rather than months.

“Everyone that’s here is really close,” Tyree said. “You can go into every position room, and every position room is like a family dinner. Everyone is really tightly knit to each other, and I feel like that’s what makes us different from other teams. We have a true strong brotherhood from coach Freeman all the way down to the freshmen that just got here.”

Topping off the tank

Kelly’s turnaround of fifth-ranked LSU, which counts 26 transfers on its roster, is cut from a similar cloth as the one Riley has engineered out west.

Yet, even with quarterback Jayden Daniels taking the lead in short order after his arrival from Arizona State, Kelly sees the transfer portal as a double-edged sword.

“You can top the tank off, but the base — most of your tank — has to be through player development,” Kelly said recently on a Southeastern Conference media call. “Then you can bring in guys because they are going to assimilate to the culture that has been built. You don’t want the transfer portal and a number of those guys to set the culture, because they don’t know what it is — and it takes too long.”

De facto free agency via the transfer portal wasn’t an option for Kelly when he helped Notre Dame rebound from a 4-8 nightmare in 2016 to a 10-3 season that kicked off a run of five straight years with double-digit wins.

With a win against the Trojans and a bowl-game victory, Freeman can make it six straight years with 10 or more wins for a Notre Dame program that Kelly had to reset.

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Nov 12, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Brian Kelly during the fourth quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. LSU won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

“I think you have to be very careful,” Kelly said of the transfer-heavy approach. “Chemistry is still the one thing that can really upset a locker room, and (it’s about) finding the right guys and making sure that they’re good teammates. Just because they’re great players doesn’t make them great teammates.”

The speed-dating aspect of the portal, which hastily pairs needy programs with dissatisfied players, often leads to regrettable matches.

“You still have to have 11 guys who trust each other and are accountable to each other,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you can’t find that through watching film. You’ve got to get to know them, and you don’t get that opportunity through the transfer portal.”

'The only discouraging thing'

Asked if he would be in favor of some sort of roster restrictions when it comes to transfers, Freeman didn’t specify.

“I don’t have the answer for exactly the numbers,” he said. “My personal opinion on the portal is, if used right, it could be really good for college athletics.”

Wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. and defensive tackle Jacob Lacey have been in-season examples of Irish players that announced this fall they would leave as graduate transfers. Lacey, who strongly considered Clemson out of high school, announced Thursday he would transfer to Oklahoma, where former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is in his first season as head coach.

“We’ve had guys come here and put in their time and get their degree and say, ‘I want to go somewhere else and play more,’  ” Freeman said. “That’s great. Go and get another opportunity. Maybe things didn’t go so well here. Maybe because academically … if this isn’t the right fit for you, great, you get another opportunity to go somewhere and play the game you love.

“The only thing I don’t want it to encourage is when things get hard, you go run to the portal. That’s the only discouraging thing about it is you’ve seen, not a trend, but I’ve seen instances where, when things get difficult, that portal is there for you to go run to and go try to find an easier way. I’m sure that’s not why it’s there.”

With the FBS portal opening again on Dec. 5, Freeman likely will cite that same “Choose Hard” philosophy as he seeks to retain players that might feel stymied on a deep Irish roster.

“I don’t want to see young people make a mistake by, instead of embracing a challenge, embracing the discomfort that it takes to grow to maximize who you are as an individual, running to the portal and going to find an easier way,” Freeman said. “That’s always our message to our guys: ‘Stay and continue to fight. Continue to work.’ Because if you do the right things and you work tirelessly, at some point you’re going to get what you want.”

The Trojans, it seems, don’t have an exclusive copyright on “Fight On” as a concept.

“When you get what you think you want, there’s going to be another challenge ahead of you, man,” Freeman said. “Those challenges never stop. You get better as an individual. I want them to learn life lessons here and get through some difficult times. Because if you can learn to fight and persevere through those difficult times, this will help you throughout the rest of your life.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.