Once upon a time, Russell Wilson was an all-ACC quarterback at NC State. He also happened to be a fine college baseball player, which his coach, Tom O’Brien, didn’t exactly love. Why? Spring football. If your QB1 is on the diamond, he can’t be in the huddle for important offseason practices.
Eventually, after three often marvelous seasons as O’Brien’s starter, Wilson received an ultimatum from his coach: Either give up baseball for spring football or take a hike. O’Brien was highly confident in this fateful chess move because he was certain he had a superstar waiting in the wings — Wilson’s extra-tall, blue-chip backup, Mike Glennon.
After two seasons as the starter, Glennon had thrown 29 interceptions — don’t look so surprised, Bears fans — and O’Brien was out of a job. But let’s leave those two fellas alone. The point is the Wilson saga was captivating as he transferred to Wisconsin for one final season and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. Today? Relatively speaking, it barely would register a blip on the radar screen.
The nicest little thing about this season’s playoff might be how few stamps the quarterbacks involved have in their college football passports. La Grange Park native J.J. McCarthy went to Michigan as the school’s highest-rated QB recruit since the Lloyd Carr years and is still there. TCU’s Max Duggan is a four-year starter. C.J. Stroud went to Ohio State as a star-in-waiting, backed up Justin Fields for a season and now — like Duggan and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett — is a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Only Bennett’s time at his school was interrupted. A walk-on at Georgia, he left for a junior college after Fields arrived and buried him further down the depth chart. But Bennett returned after a season in the wilderness, Fields having failed to win the starting job with the Bulldogs and boogied to Ohio State. Bennett — a Georgia native whose parents both graduated from Athens — eventually wrapped both arms around his dream job, won a national title and now has a chance to win another. What a storybook ending that would be.
Everywhere else in the college game, the QB movement is absolutely dizzying. Nearly half of all starters across the FBS ranks this season were transfers. There are many marquee names among them — beginning with USC’s Caleb Williams, potentially the Heisman winner — and too many concentric circles to remember. Williams, for example, started out at Oklahoma, where he backed up, then beat out, Spencer Rattler. But Rattler left for South Carolina and Williams for USC, where Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart had split duties in 2021. Slovis and Dart spent 2022 at Pittsburgh and Ole Miss, respectively.
Guess who’s in the transfer portal again? Slovis, who once replaced JT Daniels as starter at USC. Daniels then left for Georgia, where he eventually was beaten out by Bennett. So Daniels played the 2022 campaign at West Virginia. Guess who’s in the portal again, too? Daniels, of course. Got all that?
Heading into 2022, there was speculation McCarthy would leave Michigan if he had to back up Cade McNamara again as he had in 2021. But McCarthy earned the gig. McNamara? He leapt into the portal as soon as he could and moved along to Iowa.
Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders, a four-year starter, entered the portal and won’t face Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Then again, Notre Dame will be without 10-game starter Drew Pyne, who entered the portal with three years of eligibility left. What are the odds he spends all three in the same place?
The Irish have Tyler Buchner back from injury and back in business for now, but you’d better believe coach Marcus Freeman will be in that portal looking for an established guy. Same for Bret Bielema at Illinois, where transfer Tommy DeVito is finishing the lone season he had left after departing Syracuse. The Illini will be in serious need of a new starter, and so might Northwestern be. Pat Fitzgerald has turned to transfers Hunter Johnson, Peyton Ramsey and Ryan Hilinski in recent years, with mixed success. Who’s got next?
Devin Leary, a four-year starter at NC State, is in the portal. DJ Uiagalelei, a former five-star recruit good enough to lead Clemson to the ACC title game two years in a row, was benched in that game for younger five-star QB Cade Klubnik and — you won’t believe it — immediately entered the portal. Graham Mertz, the top QB recruit ever at Wisconsin, is in the portal after Badgers fans treated him like he was Fred or Ethel. Brennan Armstrong, Jeff Sims, Hudson Card — pick a card, any card. There’s a veteran QB solution out there seemingly for everybody.
This didn’t all start with Russell Wilson, who, coincidentally, is having a rough go of it after “transferring” from Seattle to Denver in what has played out, to suffering Broncos fans, as an NFL tragedy. But there has been a steady, dramatic build of QB movement since then.
Look no further than the list of recent Heisman winners. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield won it in 2017, but only after leaving Texas Tech (where he lost his job to Davis Webb) and, once with the Sooners, beating out Trevor Knight (who then transferred to Texas A&M). Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray won it in 2018, but only after leaving Texas A&M (creating a spot for Knight) and backing up Mayfield. LSU’s Joe Burrow won it in 2019, but only after leaving Ohio State (where he never won the No. 1 job but, indirectly, created an opening for Fields).
Finishing runner-up behind Burrow? That was Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, who’d transferred from Alabama, where he’d been one of the very finest QBs in all the land — yet couldn’t keep Tua Tagovailoa from swiping his job.
Good lord, it’s a lot.
A mostly un-warm, un-fuzzy, absolutely dizzying lot.