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Grad Transfers: How G5 schools are turning into P5 training grounds

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CFB’s version of free agency has to be the grad transfer. But how is it affecting Group of Five programs?

Valero Alamo Bowl - Iowa State v Washington State Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

College football’s off-season is in full swing and its version of free agency is the increasingly popular graduate transfer.

The grad transfer exception allows players who have completed their degree, to transfer without being ineligible for a year. Teams around the country use it to their advantage to add depth or to find the missing piece to their championship puzzle.

But what happens to G5 programs when players from “smaller schools,” choose to make their way to greener pastures?

In-between confetti raining on Alabama after the Sugar Bowl and opening week of the 2018 season, 165 players switched teams as grad transfers.

Almost one-fourth of those transfers (22 percent) were players going from G5 to P5 teams. Of the 36 players who went G5 to P5, 27 started in at least half of their former team’s games the prior year, and 20 were two-year starters or more.

The highest-profile of these players was 2018 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Gardner Minshew.

Prior to leading the Cougars to an 11-win season, Minshew spent two seasons in the AAC with East Carolina, playing in 17 contests between 2016 and 2017.

“I made some memories that I will always cherish, and I appreciate my time at ECU. I hope my teammates can support me in the future as I will them,” Minshew told The East Carolinian at the time of his transfer.

Virginia Tech v East Carolina
Before leading Washington State to an 11-win season, Gardner Minshew was best known in AAC circles as ECU’s starter for parts of two seasons.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Minshew threw for over 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career as a Pirate and was named the presumptive starter by then ECU Head Coach Scottie Montgomery, before announcing his plans to transfer. While Minshew led Washington State to a top-10 ranking and threw for almost 5,000 yards under offensive guru Mike Leach, East Carolina went 3-9 for the third consecutive season.

In the case of players like Minshew, the opportunity to play a final season in a system that better showcases their talents can be appealing. For others, the chance to prove their worth for the NFL on a bigger stage is one that they can’t turn down.

Jawuan Johnson’s lone FBS scholarship offer coming out of high school was from Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois v Nebraska
Jawuan Johnson recorded 142 tackles and 26 TFL’s in his three seasons at Northern Illinois.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Texas native repaid the Huskies’ investment with a monster season in 2017. Johnson had 98 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, five interceptions and three sacks in helping lead NIU to eight wins.

However, he made the decision to transfer to Big-12 powerhouse TCU in the off-season. For him, it was about pursuing his dream of playing at the next level.

“It hurts me, but it’s a business decision. It’s time for me to do what I do without the MAC (Mid-American Conference),” Johnson said in the DeKalb Daily-Chronicle in March of 2018. Johnson was referencing what he felt was a lack of recognition for his play.

G5 programs were hit especially hard in an area that’s arguably the most crucial to a team’s success — offensive line play.

Conference USA lost two of its top offensive lineman when Rice’s Calvin Anderson and Western Kentucky’s Dennis Edwards chose to pursue grad transfers.

Anderson started 36 straight contests as an Owl and garnered interest from Michigan and Auburn, before signing with Texas prior to the season. Edwards was ranked as one of the top guards nationally by Pro Football Focus during his time as a Hilltopper, before heading four hours north to play in the Big Ten at Purdue.

Like Johnson, Anderson felt that the move to the P5 would help his NFL stock.

“It was a business decision to come here and set myself up to be ready for the 2019 draft,” Johnson told the Houston Chronicle.

In addition to Anderson, Mike Bloomgren’s club lost 59 games worth of experience and a combined 209 career tackles, when defensive back JT Ibe and defensive tackle Preston Gordon transferred to South Carolina and Texas Tech respectively.

There are numerous examples of transfers whose departure may not have affected their former team in the win column, but certainly played a factor in their depth.

Players like Tre Neal, Kano Dillon and Austin Jones, who left top-tier American Athletic Conference to play for P5 programs.

The fact of the matter is the trend isn’t going anywhere.

Six players from G5 schools have already committed to play for P5 programs in the 2019 cycle. Most notably, are former Buffalo receiver K.J. Osborn, who’s heading to Miami, and quarterback Riley Neal, who leaves third on Ball State’s all-time passing yardage list.

Dollar General Bowl - Buffalo v Troy
Joining Tate Martell in South Florida will be former Buffalo wideout K.J. Osborn.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

In 1992, the NCAA revised its scholarship rule for FBS teams. The revision reduced the number of scholarships available from 95 to 85. As a result, it’s inevitable that talented players coming out of high school will end up at G5 programs because there’s not enough room at P5’s.

For every Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, there will be a Tyree Jackson who lands at Buffalo and makes his name among the G5 ranks.

Ironically, Jackson himself flirted with joining Osborn at Miami, before deciding to enter the NFL draft where he’s expected to be a first-round pick.

Players should be able to take advantage of the grad transfer route however they see fit. Whether that’s finding a system that better suits their talents, or transferring to a school that they feel gives them their best chance to fulfill pro aspirations.

However, if you’re a fan of a group of five program, you may want to take note of the trend that’s seeing players head to P5’s at an increasing rate.