PINEHURST, N.C. — Imagine that Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson either chose to attend school elsewhere, could not throw a perfect spiral or was never born.
The butterfly effect suggests the Tigers’ offense would be led this season by Chad Kelly.
Certainly, there were pragmatic reasons for Kelly’s exit in April 2014 — tantrums mounted, in coach Dabo Swinney’s words, into a “pattern of behavior” too hot to handle — but what might have been at the core of Kelly’s discontent was his ability to read the writing on the wall.
Playing time is the typical college football player’s most valued currency, and the reality of quarterbacks is, in most cases, only one can play. There was a real chance Kelly, the fourth-rated dual-threat quarterback in Rivals.com’s 2012 class, would never have his chance to lead Clemson.
So, Kelly was dismissed from Clemson, logged a year at junior college, and now he’s primed to take over a ranked SEC program. That’s an unconventional road, but the end result isn’t much different than a growing number of collegiate passers who transfer, seeking a second chance at a different institution than where they started.
If he takes the first snap of 2015, Kelly would become Ole Miss’ eighth consecutive starting quarterback who began his career at another college.
The decision for a quarterback to find a new home, and the decision for a school to sign him up and plug him in, has to be a mutual arrangement.
“If you’re sitting behind a senior and he’s the starter, and you think your chances of getting on the field are better at another university, you’re probably going to look into that,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “Then as a coach, you’ve got to decide if that is the right move for the chemistry of your football team or not. That’s not ever an easy call either.”
Connor Mitch is the salty veteran in South Carolina’s quarterback room. He’s thrown a grand total of six college passes, completing two, as a redshirt freshman in 2014. Walk-on Perry Orth was 0-for-2 last fall, and Michael Scarnecchia and Lorenzo Nunez are freshmen.
Still, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said last week at SEC Media Days he never gave much thought to pursuing an incoming transfer to compete for the starting gig.
“We think we’ve recruited some pretty good quarterbacks, and we think they’re very capable of playing well for us,” Spurrier said. “When you bring one in from somewhere else, you’re sort of telling the guys you got, ‘we don’t think you’re very good,’ I would imagine.”
That might not be the best thing for the egos of young prospects like Mitch. Like Ole Miss and unlike South Carolina, Georgia is pitting a transfer (ex-Virginia QB Grayson Lambert) against unproven options who have only served as backups.
One of those Georgia backups was former Stratford High quarterback Jacob Park, the 2013 South Carolina Mr. Football. Park redshirted during the 2014 football season at Georgia and was among three candidates for the starting job entering spring practice. When Lambert signed with Georgia in June, Park decided to transfer to Navarro, a junior college in Texas. He will be eligible to transfer to a Division I program after one year.
Among the schools reportedly interested in Park for 2016 are Texas, TCU, Marshall and Colorado State. Former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is the first-year head coach at Colorado State, which matters, as one ACC school has discovered.
Players who do transfer from one power program to another carry with them the pedigree of experience.
Take, for instance, Florida castoff Tyler Murphy who joined his former offensive coordinator, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, in Chestnut Hill. As a Florida alum, Murphy utilized the NCAA’s graduate transfer waiver to play immediately as a fifth-year senior and set the ACC’s single-season rushing total (1,184 yards) for a quarterback.
“He had a great impact, given the fact we didn’t have any older guys on that roster,” Addazio said. “We needed a guy who had a few scars, a guy who’d been weathered.”
Even if a team’s green at quarterback, it’s got fourth- and fifth-year leaders who won’t easily cede control of a locker room. That’s the trick for a transferring quarterback demanding respect right away.
“Obviously it’s harder to gain the respect than for a guy who’s been there 2-3 years, but you build it with time,” said Virginia Tech senior Michael Brewer, entering his second year leading the Hokies. “I was a rookie to Virginia Tech, but not a rookie to college football.”
Then there’s N.C. State, winless in ACC play in 2013, the year NCAA transfer rules forced a season-in-waiting for Jacoby Brissett. His 23 touchdown passes last fall ranked third in the league and helped the Wolfpack improve to 8-5 overall. Like Brewer, he appreciates how long it took to earn his teammates’ trust and support.
“It took that year of me sitting out to gain respect from a lot of players, because I couldn’t go in from Day 1 and say I’m the leader of this team, so I’d better play,” said Brissett — like Murphy, a Florida transfer. “I’m still gaining a higher level of respect. The process never ends.”
Ultimately, losing the Gators’ quarterback battle and seeing an opportunity to start in Raleigh attracted Brissett to transfer.
“You don’t want to go anywhere where you’re going to sit out again,” Brissett said. “But also you want to go somewhere it’s going to challenge you to become better.”
Finding a second home isn’t too different than restarting the recruiting timeline, with a touch of free agency thrown in — minus the schools from which a transfer is blocked. In Brewer’s case, the ex-Texas Tech QB was barred from enrolling at another Big 12 school, anywhere in the state of Texas and all the Red Raiders’ opponents in 2014-15.
“For me, it was a business decision. I had already graduated. I was 21 at the time. I was going strictly for football,” said Brewer, who played for ex-Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris at Lake Travis (Texas) High School.
“If that meant having to leave the Southwest U.S. and go far from home, it was fine with me. I just wanted to compete, and I felt like Virginia Tech offered all that.”
Russell Wilson made the graduate exemption famous, transferring from N.C. State and thriving at Wisconsin. Myrtle Beach product Everett Golson looks to do the same, moving from Notre Dame to Florida State, as will Vernon Adams, from Eastern Washington to Oregon.
The Seminoles and Ducks met in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinals, lost Heisman Trophy finalists to the top two picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, and instantly reloaded with transfers.
“I think it’s a good thing for college football,” Brewer said. “If you put in your time and graduate, get your degree from a university, why not be able to go play somewhere else immediately?”
Addazio also likes the waiver’s intent, but cautions that success stories like Wilson, Murphy, or even Cam Newton, aren’t necessarily the exception nor the norm.
“Generally, transferring usually doesn’t work out so great,” Addazio said. “Because, why did they really leave? If you know, good for you. But if you don’t, sometimes history will repeat itself.”
Gene Sapakoff contributed to this report.