The FSU football transfer portal raid on Alabama’s roster

As speculation swirled about Florida State coach Mike Norvell replacing Nick Saban at Alabama last month, TJ Ferguson found himself looking at it from the opposite side. He was in the transfer portal considering a move from ‘Bama to FSU.

“Coach Norvell’s message to me was just: ‘I’m here,’” Ferguson said.

Now Ferguson is here, too — along with four of his former Crimson Tide teammates.

The quintet has brought an infusion of talent from Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee. All were blue-chip transfers in a portal class ranked fourth by 247Sports. Three were top-100 national recruits in high school: running back Roydell Williams, linebacker Shawn Murphy and Ferguson, an offensive lineman. A fourth (defensive back Earl Little Jr.) was 106th, and the fifth (receiver Malik Benson) was the nation’s top junior college prospect.

The group isn’t as top-heavy as the Alabama expats at Ohio State (second-team All-American Caleb Downs) or Texas (Iron Bowl hero Isaiah Bond and Lakewood High alumnus Amari Niblack), but no team has signed more players from the Tide’s diaspora than the Seminoles.

“I think honestly with all of us here, I feel like we can bring some of Alabama to Florida State and mix our cultures up,” Murphy said. “I think that would be great for all of us.”

Murphy is an outlier in the group; he’s the only one who entered the portal after Saban’s stunning retirement. Benson and Little were already committed to FSU by then. Ferguson chose the ‘Noles a day after Saban announced his retirement — and a day before Norvell announced he was staying at FSU.

The key figure in this migration, then, isn’t Saban. It’s Norvell.

He and his FSU staff offered all five players the first time. The ‘Noles were serious contenders for Ferguson, Little and Murphy in high school.

“I feel like it might not have been the right time then, but that played a big role in why I’m here now,” Ferguson said. “And I feel like it’s the right time now.”

You don’t have to look hard to understand why.

When Little was deciding on his first college, ‘Bama was on its way to the national title game (again). FSU was 5-7. Since then, Florida State is 23-4. The turnaround Norvell talked about in Little’s first recruitment has come to fruition.

“With Coach Norvell saying that he was going to do that and actually standing on his word and accomplishing that great goal, bringing that success to the program?” Little said. “That was a great thing.”

It could have been greater, of course. FSU started last season 13-0 and won the ACC but was left out of the College Football Playoff in favor of … Alabama. If that dynamic sounds awkward, it doesn’t have to be. Everett Golson quarterbacked Notre Dame’s last-second loss in a top-five matchup at FSU in 2014, then started for the ‘Noles the next year. It happens.

Though every member of the ‘Bama bunch picked FSU individually, their connections played a part, too.

After Little committed on Jan. 6, Benson asked what he liked. Two days later, Benson committed and started fielding calls and texts from other teammates in the portal. They wanted to know what Tallahassee was like and, in the case of Williams, where to eat.

“You’ve got to come see for yourself,” Benson told them.

A week later, the other three were on board.

“It makes it way easier to transition to everything going on,” Murphy said. “You see familiar faces, and you’re not doing it alone.”

Their decisions came at a crucial time for their new program. FSU lost 42% of last season’s production, ranking 83rd in the nation and third-to-last in the ACC, according to ESPN. It’s reasonable to expect the ’Noles to slip after all this turnover — unless the newcomers star.

The Alabama additions bring a combined 100 games of experience. Three started at least once. Little bolsters a secondary that lost three starters, while Williams and Benson can help replace NFL-bound stars Trey Benson and Keon Coleman.

But any optimism is based more on potential than proven ability. Though Williams was Alabama’s No. 2 rusher and scored the go-ahead touchdown at USF, the others were more role players than stars. Then again, Jermaine Johnson was a role player at another heavyweight (Georgia) before he got to FSU. He left as the ACC’s defensive player of the year and a first-round NFL draft pick.

“All of us being here, it’s just like a little brotherhood that was already formed,” Benson said. “We bring it here, and we can bring what we know to this team, and it’s going to make the team stronger.”

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