Graduate transfers settling in at Michigan

In June, former Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock arrived in an unfamiliar town surrounded by unfamiliar faces with a thick new playbook to commit to memory. Two months later, Rudock is expected to be a team leader as he competes for the starting quarterback job at Michigan when the Wolverines open camp this Friday.

How did he get from A to B over the span of a summer? Board games.

“We play Monopoly,” senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson said. “Rudock lives right across the street. He’ll come over with (receiver) Bo Dever, (defensive lineman) Chris Wormley and some other guys, and we’ll drink some Kool-Aid and play Monopoly.”

Rudock’s challenge isn’t unique. Dozens of players from around the country decide each year to get a fresh start for their final season of college football. They arrive on foreign campuses with only a few months to earn the trust of their new teammates and shoehorn themselves into a locker room full of guys who have at least a couple years' head start on building relationships. Most of the time, these graduate transfers are there to take someone else’s job, which can only serve to complicate the process.

The ethics of graduate transfer rules remains a topic of debate in college football. But as the practice becomes more common, the logistics of welcoming a new player without upsetting the balance of a locker room is an issue most teams have had to solve. Big Ten players who haven’t had a fifth-year transfer join their roster say they can’t imagine what it would be like to go through the experience. Those who have say the process is just business as usual.

Most agree that the team-bonding should happen away from workouts and the field, where competitive juices are flowing. For Rudock and his Michigan teammates, Monopoly did the trick. Chesson said the new quarterback also earned respect by taking a job along with several other Michigan players as an office grunt at Schembechler Hall, the team’s training facility.

As far as actual football goes, the transitions are usually just a matter of learning the lingo.

“It’s really about your understanding of football and what your football IQ is,” Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden said. “Overall, it’s as hard as you make it. In the summer you get a little bit more time to look at things, so it’ll make it a little easier.”

Michigan picked up three fifth-year transfer students this offseason -- a bit higher than normal but not too unexpected given that coaching changes often bring more significant roster shuffling. Harbaugh said his three new players (Rudock, cornerback Wayne Lyons and punter Blake O'Neill) are integrating without problems.

“It’s been natural,” Harbaugh said. “All three seem like they’ve been there a lot longer than the two or three months that they have been there. I feel like they’ve been acclimated.”

When it comes to fifth-year transfers in general, Harbaugh said he doesn’t see any problem with the rule, which states that a player can switch schools without penalty (ie, without sitting out a year) as long as he is enrolling in a graduate program that his current school doesn’t offer.

“Students that go to an undergraduate school have an ability to do their undergraduate education there and, if they make the criteria, they have the ability to do graduate work at the same school or at another school,” Harbaugh said. “I think athletes should have the same ability to do that.”

Other coaches and administrators around the country are worried that the spirit of the rule has been bent too far and is creating something akin to free agency in college football. Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett agreed it’s a loophole that has the potential to get out of control.

“The long-term question of this becoming a perverse thing is a fair one,” Hackett said. “We don’t want this to feel like the pros, where there is a manipulation of their freedom of movement to stock teams or do anything like that.”