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New transfer rule means a numbers crunch in ’21 recruiting cycle

For years, college football transfers were required to sit out a season before playing unless they were a graduate student transfer or received a waiver.

For the 2021 college football season, that could be all set to change.

A new rule could be passed as early as January. College football insiders and coaches certainly believe it will be. It would allow a one-time transfer exemption, making it so that athletes transferring for the first time would be able to play immediately.

Coaches may not like it, but they are having to plan for it and use it to their advantage.

Programs are also having to deal with perhaps the strangest college football recruiting cycle in history. Teams are accepting commitments from prospects they’ve never met in person, much less worked out or evaluated due to the NCAA recruiting dead period being extended time and again during the pandemic shutdown. The risk and uncertainty associated with high school recruits this year is far greater than normal.

Because of that, the balance in certainty between recruits and transfers is different than it has ever been. Normally, there is risk that a transfer is a malcontent or that he might not even be immediately eligible. But now, the latter risk will be gone if the rule passes as expected.

“In a weird way, transfers are a more known commodity than high school recruits,” said a recruiting director. “We haven’t seen many of these high school kids.”

Would a school rather have a transfer who could help it right now, but for a smaller number of years, or a high school recruit who it can develop to fit its program?

This is a choice which must be made because transfers count against the cap of 25 new scholarship players which may be added to a roster each year, just like new recruits do.

And they have to make the decision fairly soon, because the Early Signing Period is only two months away (December 16-18). And of the top 20 classes in the 247Sports’ Team Recruiting Rankings for the class of 2021, eight have verbal commitments from 20 players or more. So many are already getting tight on space if they want to take a good number of transfers for the 2021 season. It’s possible that an epic decommitment season could be coming for college football, but it seems less likely than it did over the summer since official visits are still banned.

So what is the magic number? How do schools draw the line between taking a transfer and giving a green light to a high school recruit to sign?

“If it is a borderline recruit for us, we’d rather take a transfer who we know can cut it physically at the college level,” said one staffer.

Many coaches and recruiting personnel have echoed those sentiments. Their thought is this: Why not take a transfer player who can be OK for two years and get that scholarship back after two years to use on a future recruit, as opposed to risking a four-year mistake on a borderline high school prospect you’ve never worked out or seen in person? Coaches think the bust rate in this 2021 high school class might be much higher than normal due to the lack of evaluation and development time.

The amount of doubt a school has about its prospects is less at the very top of the recruiting food chain.

“For us, we don’t have a lot of questions about whether the guys we sign can play,” A coach at an elite recruiting school said. “We may not have seen them in person recently, but they pop off the screen against top competition.”

Staffs I spoke with said they’ll be holding back somewhere between a spot or two, to as many as six or seven.

This is especially true for first-year coaching staffs. I spoke with members of two such staffs who said they are at a distinct disadvantage in the cycle because while nobody was able to get on the road and visit prospects this year or host summer camps, established staffs at least got to have camps and visits last year, giving them eyeballs on and experience with the current crop of seniors when they were underclassmen.

“We are just now getting a feel for our real roster needs since we didn’t have a spring,” a coach said. “We’ll be hitting the transfer market hard and might hold back six or seven spots in the 25.”

Of course, there is a bit of a stigma around transfers. And some staffs believe transfers can upset their culture, especially if they don’t know the true reason for the player leaving his previous school.

“What message does us taking a transfer send to our kids who work hard and do everything right?” one coach asked.

Still, that sentiment does not seem to be as prevalent as it once was. Without having to wait for transfers to be eligible, they’ll be a bigger part of the annual roster flip than ever before. Some schools want to address roster depth via the transfer, and use recruiting more for higher-upside players who need development.

But with schools looking to fill immediate roster holes with transfers, this will mean fewer spots for recruits at some schools.

And that means some schools will benefit from a slightly higher quality of prospect falling to them who in previous years might not be available. If the top 25 or so schools leave an average of two extra spots open for transfers, that’s 50 high school prospects who would otherwise not be available for some lesser programs to sign who are suddenly available.

But even that comes with some uncertainty.

“There will be some schools in the G5 or even the FCS who will see a benefit from this,” a recruiting director said. “But then they have to worry about if they do end up with a guy who turns out to be much better than they can normally get, will he just transfer up to an elite program?”

Recruiting is a game of balancing floor and ceiling and the inherent risk involved in doing so. Transfers are not without risk, they’re just a more attractive option than normal in this strange recruiting cycle due to the information deficit teams are dealing with for high school recruits and the likelihood transfers will be immediately eligible due to the new rule.

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