Oklahoma uses transfer portal, new NCAA rule to shape national football title contender

Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY
·6 min read

You can make an argument for every program in the Football Bowl Subdivision benefiting from the transfer portal and the legislation enacted by the NCAA this month allowing all student-athletes one free transfer without sitting out a season.

Combined, the portal's exponential growth in popularity and the new legislation promise to make widespread transfers a staple of every offseason, impacting in one form or another every team in the Group of Five and Power Five conferences.

The lowest rung of teams on the Group of Five ladder will offer second chances to underperforming Power Five transfers gently nudged aside amid unmatched expectations. Better teams in the Group of Five will attract a proportionally higher quality of transfer from the Power Five, drawing in players squeezed out of playing time who would've overlooked Group of Five scholarship offers as recruits.

The bottom half of teams in the Power Five would benefit by using two sorts of transfers as a roster-management tool: one, experienced and accomplished players moving up from the Group of Five as a showcase against a higher level of competition; and two, Power Five transfers who have played enough to warrant a parallel move from one major-conference program to another. Arizona and first-year head coach Jedd Fisch have added 10 transfers since the end of last season, six from the Power Five.

It might even seem like the elite teams in the Power Five would be hurt by college football's new transfer environment — the best of the best would be consistently losing non-starters to the portal, with that wealth eventually trickling across the FBS.

That very likely will not be the case. The programs in annual College Football Playoff contention may in time come to dominate the transfer environment as they've owned the more traditional recruiting landscape, with the top-ranked transfers in any given cycle gravitating toward a specific subset of teams.

"We're going to adapt to it and make it an advantage for us," said Alabama coach Nick Saban.

One team already has. By making transfers a crucial part of this season's roster, Oklahoma has shown how top contenders can lean on the portal to overcome attrition, paper over any depth concerns and find plug-and-play additions to bridge the gap between reaching the playoff and winning the national championship.

That road begins Saturday with the annual spring game (5 p.m. ET).

"These guys, this isn't a deal about facilities and all that, that sometimes high school guys get wrapped up in,” said coach Lincoln Riley. “For these guys, there's a little bit more of a businesslike demeanor to it.”

Oklahoma lost nine players in the week following the end of the 2020 season, which saw the Sooners drop back-to-back Big 12 games in September for the first time since 1999 but close with eight wins in a row, including a 55-20 blowout of Florida in the Cotton Bowl that cast the Sooners as one of the nation's hottest teams heading into 2021.

OU then added 16 players on the two national signing days, including the nation's top quarterback prospect in Caleb Williams, with six of those signees enrolled in time to participate in spring drills. Only seven teams in the Power Five signed fewer traditional prospects during this recent recruiting cycle.

Running back Eric Gray is one of three transfers from Tennessee to join the Sooners in the offseason.
Running back Eric Gray is one of three transfers from Tennessee to join the Sooners in the offseason.

The Sooners have brought in another five on-scholarship transfers from the Power Five with the potential to add at least one more before the start of preseason camp. Three come from Tennessee alone: running back Eric Gray, one of the top rushers in the SEC; offensive tackle Wanya Morris, who started 19 games across the past two seasons; and young defensive back Key Lawrence, the highest-ranked recruit in the Volunteers' 2020 signing class.

Each of the major additions fits into three categories, illustrating how teams such as OU will approach the portal as a way to address specific concerns instead of relying on transfers as a broader way to address roster management. (For example, Kansas State plans on spending 40% of its annual scholarship allotment on transfers, athletics director Gene Taylor said this month.)

Several were high-profile prospects recruited by OU, removing much of the guesswork over how transfers may fit into the culture of the program. There was mutual interest with quarterback transfer Micah Bowen, who eventually signed with Penn State last December before transferring. Lawrence was wooed so heavily by the Sooners that "we know more about Key than so many guys who might be signing somewhere else today," defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said in February. OU was close to signing Morris in 2019 before he opted for Tennessee.

"Those guys are just, it's like they took a one-year hiatus, but almost feels like we recruited them, we know them," Riley said.

Each transfer fits into a very specific role for a team genuinely capable of winning the national championship. While Williams is expected to claim the role of quarterback Spencer Rattler’s primary backup, Bowen expands Riley’s options and helps offset losing quarterbacks Tanner Mordecai and Chandler Morris as transfers to SMU and TCU, respectively.

Former Arizona offensive guard Robert Congel will be given the opportunity to start along the interior of the Sooners' line, maybe as the replacement for All-America center Creed Humphrey. Wanya Morris is an obvious starter for a group in need of help at tackle.

Lawrence fills an enormous need in a retooled secondary given his ability to line up at safety or cornerback. While Gray may not start at running back, he's due to be one of the Sooners' key offensive pieces while sharing time with junior Kennedy Brooks, who ran for 1,011 yards in 2019.

Sooners coach Lincoln Riley watched nine players leave the program the week after the 2020 season ended.
Sooners coach Lincoln Riley watched nine players leave the program the week after the 2020 season ended.

While providing immediate help, relying on transfers to bolster the 2021 team gives OU roster and recruiting flexibility at a moment when teams are juggling the odd circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA granted every player an additional season of eligibility and said returning seniors would not be counted toward the 85-scholarship limit, but that cap returns in 2022.

At best, assigning every available scholarship to a traditional recruit could've created a logjam of freshmen on the Sooners' roster; at worst, doing so could've left OU over the scholarship ceiling as soon as next season.

"It’s going to be challenging moving forward. There’s no doubt," said co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy. "In our minds, we're trying to think of what other things could possibly be happening. We're trying to prepare ourselves for something that happens in six months or a year from now.“

Every coaching staff is facing a similar numbers crunch, leading to a simultaneous dive into the portal. Teams such as Oklahoma are offering the same opportunities as every other FBS program only with the added enticement of playing for one of the brand names in the sport, with all the attention and hoopla that comes with a shot at winning the national championship.

“The big thing is we just don't want surprises," Riley said. "We want to know what we're getting, and we want these guys to completely understand what they're jumping into, and I think if both sides are for it, then it's great.”

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oklahoma football mastered transfer portal to rebuild title contender