Transfer News

You can’t make a portal omelet without breaking eggs


It was immediately easy for most to see the potential benefits of the NCAA’s transfer portal.

The early signing period turned one Christmas into two Christmases, and the transfer portal became a third Christmas that in theory could come any time.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing, though: The portal isn’t a one-way street.

That door swings both ways, and there are 129 NCAA Division I FBS programs and 125 NCAA Division I FCS programs not named Tennessee, so more often than not you’ll lose more players than you gain.

Allow the current situation to serve as an example: Three Tennessee players — junior offensive linemen Ryan Johnson and Marcus Tatum, and freshman wide receiver/cornerback Jerrod Means — have entered or will enter the portal, and it looks unlikely that any of them will pull a Kurott Garland and exit the portal in the same place they entered it.

Multiple players left the Tennessee program earlier this season, too. Some of them had no choice in the matter, but they nonetheless joined the Great American Portal Party.

The more Tennessee players enter the portal, the more uneasiness I’ve sensed from at least a small portion of the Tennessee fan base. That’s an understandable feeling. The Vols are known to be operating well below the 85-scholarship maximum at the moment, and losing players like Johnson and Tatum will leave a dent in the offensive line from a quality-depth standpoint. Some of the same Tennessee fans who grew frustrated at Johnson and Tatum as starters and were happy to see them become second-teamers this season are now worried about the possibility of not having those two as fallback options next season, and I don’t blame them for either feeling. As inconsistent as Johnson and Tatum have been at Tennessee, you’d probably feel much better turning to them rather than a true freshman if anything were to happen to one of the starters.

Will other players also join the portal? Maybe. That’s the thing about the portal. You never really know. 

Vols junior O-lineman Marcus Tatum (Photo: Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire, Getty)

It’s easy to get tempted by thoughts of who you can add in the portal. Just take a simple glance at the late-season contenders for College Football Playoff spots. Look how many of their offenses are piloted by portal quarterbacks. LSU’s Joe Burrow, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. And that’s just the quarterbacks. There are key players at other positions, too.

Tennessee has had mixed results via the incoming-transfer route. Junior defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon from Michigan has made a huge impact this season, and wide receiver/defensive back Deangelo Gibbs from Georgia seems likely to be impact player as soon as he’s eligible next season. Center Brandon Kennedy from Alabama has been an impact player, too, and the Vols would love for him to get a sixth season of eligibility and return in 2020. But quarterback Keller Chryst from Stanford and running back Madre London from Michigan State didn’t create anything resembling a seismic shift as one-and-dones last season, and it remains to be seen whether former Maryland starting quarterback Kasim Hill can get himself in the mix at Tennessee next season. He’s sitting out this season in Knoxville while running the scout-team offense every week.

Regardless, now that everyone is starting to see the true impact of the portal system, perhaps it’s time for another roll call on who still supports it.

For what it’s worth, I’m still 100% in favor of it.

Could the portal system do more harm than good for Tennessee? Sure, it could. Essentially anyone who isn’t a starter is a potential portal applicant at this point, and yo could argue that the loss of quality depth hurts programs like Tennessee more than it hurts other programs — though, ironically, it’s certainly possible Alabama wouldn’t be in its current out-of-the-playoff situation if Hurts hadn’t transferred to Oklahoma.

Ohio State lost Burrow to the portal, but the Buckeyes also gained Fields through the portal, so no harm, no foul. Georgia lost Fields and Jacob Eason — two potential first-round NFL Draft pick quarterbacks — to the portal, but the Bulldogs are still won win away from being back in the College Football Playoff. With few exceptions, the portal shouldn’t scare established programs with deep rosters. It could scare ‘tweener-at-the-moment programs like Tennessee, though, because they might lose players that are much tougher to replace. 

Vols junior O-limeman Ryan Johnson (Photo: Bryan Lynn, USA TODAY Sports)

I don’t think there’s a perfect system. I don’t think the portal system is perfect. Even my preferred solution — a one-time free transfer for all college student-athletes followed by a mandatory one-year sit-out for every other transfer aside from a grad-transfer (to continue incentivizing education) — is a flawed one, because it could lead to chaos in some situations. I still prefer that solution, but I recognize that argument has one potentially huge hole right in the middle of it.

But I prefer my solution and the current portal solution to the old ways, when coaches were free to come and go as they pleased without penalties while players were usually forced to sit out when they transferred, unless they were grad-transfers. On no planet was that fair. It’s easy to tell kids to not sign with any school because of its coaching staff, but it’s another to really believe that’s what they should do. That makes no sense, and we all know that.

Most players get four or five years to complete their four seasons of college eligibility, and they have every right to transfer to a place where they can play more. You won’t find a bigger lifelong Tennessee football fan than Ryan Johnson, but the kid wants to play, who he’s going to play his final season somewhere else. Fortunately for Johnson, he’ll be a grad-transfer and can go anywhere he pleases. What if he wasn’t, though? Would it be fair to punish him for that? No. It wouldn’t.

You might be getting uneasy with the portal era, and I don’t blame you for that. But I hope you — and, more importantly, the people who run college sports — still understand the completely legitimate reasons it was brought into existence in the first place.

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