Arguably, no two words elicit as visceral of a reaction from the college football landscape than “Transfer Portal.”
Since its introduction in October 2018, over 18,000 student-athletes have entered the portal with more than half of those being Division I football players. Initially, the portal saw mostly FBS players from Power Five programs utilize the portal, looking for new schools for a variety of reasons.
However, over the past three seasons, the portal has seen an ever-increasing number of Group of Five, FCS and even Division II players choose to enter after becoming standouts at their respective levels — seeking to play at more high-profile programs than the one they began their collegiate careers at.
What’s followed has been programs across the country scouring the lower levels for talent and Group of Five schools have been especially hard, losing all-conference or starter caliber players to Power Five programs yearly.
Various G5 coaches haven’t been shy about expressing their dislike of the transfer portal and the difficulties it poses on being able to recruit, develop and keep talent at their programs.
Insert Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton.
His Hilltoppers have seen seven starters land at Power Five programs since 2020 — a number that could be considered backbreaking, especially for a Conference USA team.
However, Helton has taken a different approach and attitude towards the transfer portal. Helton sat down with UDD on two occasions prior to the 2022 season and spoke at length about one of college football’s hottest topics.
“There are so many dimensions of the transfer portal that I love to talk about, I kind of really like the game of recruiting,” said Helton. “I enjoy the fact that we get to have control of the roster and it’s like the NFL.”
Similarly to an NFL general manager, Helton notes the roster dynamics and roster turnover as a way to keep improving — opposed to a detriment.
“In the NFL, you have a 53-man roster that you get to recreate every year, here in college you have an 85-man roster that you get to recreate every year and you don’t really have any excuses to say we don’t have this guy or we lost that guy, because everyone is in the same boat.”
Over the past three years, Group of Five teams been hit especially hard across his offensive and defensive lines.
Western Kentucky is no different, losing two-year starters Cole Spencer and Mason Brooks to Texas Tech and Ole Miss, respectively in 2022 and all-freshman performer Ricky Barber Jr. to UCF in 2021.
“Big men in general are going to be a premium, offensive line and defensive line are always going to be highly competitive in college football and you’re going to see a lot of transfers in those areas,” said Helton. “Every year, you need a loaded room and some teams may bring in a (Group of Five) player who isn’t coming there to start but you know half way through the season, he’s going to provide depth and that’s why you’re seeing so much transition across college football in those areas.”
Helton spoke at length about the aspect of Group of Five teams taking on players who whether its by physical or on-field development, may make them more appealing to Power Five teams in 2-3 years.
“As far as the recruiting piece, I’ve had so many guys who maybe they’re a 6-4, 250-pound tight end or defensive end where they’re a good body but one that’s not quite developed yet,” said Helton. “Maybe the Power Fives don’t have the time to develop that guy but you know in two years, he’s going to be a really good player, I’ve been associated with a ton of guys who fit that mold over my coaching career.”
Like other coaches, he’s cognizant of the fact that he could lose those players, but still focuses on the task of developing talent.
“Of course it’s tough when you develop those bodies and then two years later, those young men have to make decisions,” said Helton. “Am I staying here or am I going to go play at a Power Five, but that’s okay, as long as I’m doing my job and we’re doing our job recruiting,” said Helton.
Despite the losses, Western Kentucky has won 17 games over the past two seasons, including a C-USA East Division title in 2021.
As the Hilltoppers head to the New Orleans bowl — Helton’s fourth bowl appearance in as many years with the program and a chance to have back-to-back nine-win seasons, this offseason will be no different than previous two.
Standout Hilltoppers’ quarterback Austin Reed threw for over 4,200 yards and 36 touchdowns during his one and only season at Western Kentucky, before announcing his intent to enter the portal.
Western Kentucky QB Austin Reed has told the school he intends to enter the transfer portal. Expect the former Division II QB to land in the Power 5.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) December 5, 2022
Gunnar Britton looks to add his name to the pipeline of Western Kentucky offensive linemen who make the leap to the Power Five and tight end Joey Beljan also announced his intent to enter the portal before this week’s deadline.
And like the offseasons prior, Helton will become a de facto general manager — looking to use the wealth of players who have made their entry into the transfer portal as a way to retool his roster and remain competitive — opposed to dwelling on the pieces from his team who may choose to depart.
“You have to keep flipping stones over and looking under every rock and if you do those things, you’re going to win and you’re always going to be a leader in the game,” said Helton.