Transfer Portal Shows the Latest Revolving Door in College Football
When the curtain went up on Saturday, light snowflakes were coming down on t University of Colorado football team’s spring game.
Rather than put a damper on the event, they only amplified the sense of theater around the intrasquad scrimmage of a heretofore irrelevant Buffaloes program: an announced crowd of 47,277 in Boulder, a national television audience and a head coach doubling as master of ceremonies in Deion Sanders, who was adorned in a white cowboy hat, a gold whistle around his neck and a puffy vest stitched with his sobriquet, “Prime.”
The good vibes from the afternoon lasted as long as the fallen snow.
On Sunday, one of the scrimmage’s stars, receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig, announced he would be looking for another school. He was soon joined by a teammate. And then another. And another. By the end of Monday, 18 players had entered the transfer portal, the continuation of a different sort of Buffalo stampede.
When Sanders arrived, he told his team in a meeting that “I’m bringing my own luggage — and it’s Louis,” meaning Vuitton: In other words, he’d be immediately upgrading the talent from a team that won only one game last season. As of Tuesday, only 17 of the 84 scholarship players who were on last season’s opening-game roster remain, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
None of the 10 receivers remain from last season.
“It was time for me to move on,” Lemonious-Craig said in a phone interview. “I’ve been through three head coaches, four position coaching changes. It’s been pretty rough. I want to get some stability somewhere else.”
Stability is a quaint notion these days in college athletics.
With the N.C.A.A.’s loosening transfer restrictions, allowing players to cash in on endorsements and lax enforcement of pay-for-play inducements, some players are enjoying what had been long sought: similar freedom of movement as coaches, who are rarely required to remain at a school for the term of their contract when a better offer comes along.
So when Bear Alexander, a highly regarded freshman defensive tackle at Georgia, didn’t feel like he’d have as prominent a role next season as he wanted, he transferred to Southern California, where competition for playing time shouldn’t be a hindrance.
It also did not go unnoticed over the weekend that Alabama Coach Nick Saban saw what everyone else in attendance did during his team’s spring game: that the quarterback position, for the first time in forever, might be a problem.
Jalen Milroe, a third-year sophomore, tossed two interceptions and Ty Simpson, a redshirt freshman, completed less than half his passes on Saturday. The other candidates for the position are true freshmen.
Asked an innocuous question about the benefits of having quarterbacks in the system as opposed to shopping in the transfer portal, Saban said the most important assessment is who can play winning football.
“I think that’s the better answer to the question: Who can do that the best?” said Saban, who noted that while Alabama has taken few transfers, it has brought in some high-impact ones. He added: “If we see an opportunity to do that, we’re always looking for a way to make our team better.”
Shopping will soon begin to heat up. The 15-day spring window closes Sunday (except for graduate transfers who can enter the transfer portal at any time), giving players — and coaches — a chance to assess where they stand after spring practices have concluded. But with more than 1,200 players reportedly in the portal, it is a buyer’s market.
At many schools, that means hunting for a position of need or upgrading depth. Perhaps there is a slot cornerback or versatile offensive lineman on the market. At Colorado, there will be wholesale shopping with 21 scholarships available.
Many Colorado players who are leaving appear to have been forced out — including Jordyn Tyson, a promising sophomore who was leading the Buffaloes in receiving when he was injured in November. Lemonious-Craig, who had 23 catches for 359 yards and three touchdowns — including the overtime game-winner against California-Berkeley — said it was his decision not to return.
He said he told his receivers coach, Brett Bartolone, on Sunday that he would be leaving but declined to elaborate on their conversation. He said he had not spoken to Sanders.
Within hours of entering the transfer portal, Lemonious-Craig posted on Twitter that he had received scholarship offers from a growing list of schools, including Penn State, Auburn, Brigham Young, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and West Virginia.
“I see myself as a playmaker and I need to continuously prove that I can be a playmaker,” Lemonious-Craig said. “I made the decision after the spring game. I wanted to finish spring ball with my brothers. I wanted to make sure if this was my last time at Folsom Field that I took care of my business.”
To some degree, he is a throwback.
Lemonious-Craig, who is on track to graduate next month with a degree in communications, grew up near Los Angeles, in Inglewood, Calif., attending his neighborhood public school, Inglewood High, instead of commuting to schools that might have better funded academic or athletic programs.
Inglewood High won one game his sophomore season and none his junior season. After a new coach arrived before his senior season — along with a raft of transfers — Inglewood went unbeaten until losing the section semifinals. He also played basketball and ran track, graduating with the nickname Mr. Inglewood. (His Twitter banner is a photograph of the Forum, the long ago home of the Lakers and Kings in Inglewood.)
“He comes from a city that is growing and changing, but Montana never succumbed to anything around him,” said Mil’Von James, who has coached Inglewood’s football team the last four seasons and grew up not far away. “When I took over, it would have been easy for a kid of his talent to leave. He was the leader of the team, the most committed kid we had.”
James speaks with Lemonious-Craig regularly and said that the decision to leave Colorado is one he gave a great deal of thought.
“Sometimes change is good for everyone,” James said.
Twenty years ago, James went off to college at U.C.L.A., among those in the first recruiting class of a new coach, Karl Dorrell — who was Lemonious-Craig’s previous head coach at Colorado. But frustrated about not getting a chance to play cornerback — James idolized Sanders — he transferred to Nevada-Las Vegas, where he started for two seasons after being required to sit out for a season under the N.C.A.A. rules at the time.
“If I had it to do all over agin, I may not have left U.C.L.A.,” James said. “My time at U.N.L.V. was wonderful, but there’s also times I wonder if I had stuck it out how that would have changed me.”
He added: “Now, it’s a new world. There’s a lot more player empowerment, but the portal is a dangerous place as well. A lot of kids enter and not everyone gets out.”
It’s still business, but not necessarily as usual.