Kuharsky: Does Building A College Football Team With Transfers Make Chemistry Too Hard?

Growing a team, class by class, has always been part of the appeal of college football.

The program is ready to peak this season because of the back-to-back recruiting classes that are now juniors and seniors, a polished group of experienced producers and leaders capable of taking Good Old U to their best Bowl game in years.

Such building is not dead, but it’s not the sole path anymore.

Some of those kids who didn’t like things as freshman and sophomores dove into the transfer portal and landed in a new college town in what’s basically a college free agency system. Their old coach likely had to make a similar move.

And some schools are doing a lot of shopping.

Lincoln Riley’s got 20 transfers at USC, per 247Sports, which ranks the Trojans with the best transfer class (though these rankings seem to be all about incoming, without factoring in guys who transfer out of the program).

Brian Kelly has 16 at LSU, Brent Venables’ 14 at Oklahoma. Those new coaches certainly have holes to fill and want to get experienced guys they are familiar with onto their rosters.

But it’s not just new coaches filling up. Lane Kiffin’s got 17 at Ole Miss, nine of whom are 4-stars. Kiffin has the second-rated transfer class. He has declared himself the “Portal King.” Nebraska’s got 16 transfers, Arizona State 14, UCLA 13, and Florida State 12.

This mass movement leaves me wondering about building chemistry in short order. A college training camp includes just 25 practices. If all these movers were so good, they wouldn’t be moving. Many of them are going to need more work than that to fit and fix things, as well as to bond with everyone.

Coaches certainly try to get as many transfers as possible to come in as early enrollees. That summer head start gives them two and a half months to work out, familiarize themselves with how things work within the program and to get to know their new teammates before those 25 practices.

Guys will often head to new schools where they already have connections and relationships with coaches or high school teammates, so it’s not as if everyone is starting from zero.

On Monday’s OutKick 360, I asked Ole Miss defensive end Cedric Johnson about this. He’s on a team with a load of transfers, including a defensive front where three other key players are veteran newcomers – defensive end Jared Ivey from Georgia Tech, defensive tackle J.J. Pegues from Auburn and linebacker Troy Brown from Central Michigan.

“I feel like it’s been smooth because they are coming in just ready to win,” Johnson said. “And my coach, coach (Randall) Joyner, he’s a big part of this, making us a brotherhood and making us all brothers. So I invite them in, it’s just more competition honestly. They’re making me better, I’m making them better, so it’s all for the better.”

More broadly, Johnson said Kiffin and his staff work to make sure guys are getting to know each other in a variety of ways – meals together, bowling and other events.

But it’s a fast turn for sure and while that sort of stuff helps, it’s not the same as having practiced and played next to each other for a couple of years.

Programs like Ole Miss gain experience bringing transfers in, and may not have to work quite as hard at developing guys. The tradeoff could come in the work needed blending people, skills and personalities.

Vanderbilt is on the other end of things, more likely to lose quality players to the transfer portal than gain them. And second-year coach Clark Lea is looking to build a program that has lost 21 consecutive SEC games in a more traditional method, recruiting high school players he expects to develop over their Commodore careers.

Lea brought in six transfers.

“I think there is a lot unknown about the new strategies around building teams through the portal and the lag effect of that,” he said on OutKick 360. “We feel like we’re building this program to sustain success and a part of that to us is recruiting and retaining a roster so that we can develop that roster. We want retention to be a strategic advantage. I didn’t anticipate the level of transaction that would come to define the landscape that we sit in.

“But I can’t help but believe that that doesn’t create market differentiation for us,” he continued. “…We’ll use the portal to plug holes in the roster, to make sure we’re being as competitive as we can possibly be. But we’re not going to lead with that as a way to build a roster because we want sustained, incremental growth that, over time in a volatile market, I think will lead to a team that’s can become a force in our conference.”

GREG SANKEY COMFORTABLE WITH CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF SEC, UNDERSTANDS FURTHER ALIGNMENT IS AHEAD

The transfer portal will gain some structure soon so it will have less of a Wild West feel. In early August the Division I Board of Directors is expected to adopt “declaration windows” that could be in place for 2023.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said those will “restore a bit of order.”

Sankey said 18-20 percent of SEC players are transferring, and it’s been incentivized by removing the requirement that a player sit out a year and they also have NIL waiting on the other side.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the restrictive environment that we had before,” Sankey said. “So what I believe will happen is we’ll start down the path of adding some healthy structure.

“We’ll also learn more about this behavior and probably adapt over the coming years — to allow young people to make decisions where they need to transfer but also to support healthy rosters, healthy development, healthy educational outcomes and we should be attentive to whether or not we’ve effected graduation rates, which continue to grow. And that’s ultimately our goal for young people.”

Paul Kuharsky hosts OutKick 360. Read more of him at PaulKuharsky.com.
Follow him at @PaulKuharskyNFL.

Written by Paul Kuharsky

Paul Kuharsky is an award-winning writer who has covered the NFL for over 22 years in California, Texas, and Tennessee, and also is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After ESPN, PK came to join the longest running trio in Nashville Sports Talk in 2012.

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