Justin Fields is college football's next catalyst, helping the sport become either more progressive and player-friendly or dragging it toward the perils of free agency, depending on whom you ask.
Fields on Friday became the latest high-profile transfer quarterback to gain immediate eligibility at his new school, Ohio State, after the NCAA approved his waiver request. The top-rated recruit in the 2018 class left Georgia after a frustrating freshman season and now likely will be Ohio State's QB1 as the Ryan Day era begins this fall.
On Nov. 30, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry will feature quarterbacks -- Fields and Michigan's Shea Patterson -- who both benefited from this new transfer reality. Like Fields, Patterson bounced from the SEC (Ole Miss) to the Big Ten without having to sit out a season, which the NCAA requires for undergraduate transfers. Both quarterbacks hired Arkansas-based attorney Thomas Mars to advocate on their behalf with the NCAA. Each case differed in circumstances and rationale, but both ultimately proved persuasive enough.
Is this the new normal for college football transfers? For a certain group it is, but how large and diverse that group becomes is unclear. Players are excited about the NCAA transfer portal and the new freedom it provides. Many coaches are critical, using terms such as "free agency" and "epidemic" and saying the new transfer paradigm creates roster-management problems and empowers third-party influencers. Administrators are quietly monitoring the trends. And Mars' phone doesn't stop ringing.
"It's really messy right now," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The rules are not really hard rules. The positions that these young people get put in are really, really difficult. It's become difficult for coaches to manage their rosters."
The transfer landscape shifted with the NCAA portal, which launched Oct. 15 for football players, with a new policy that no longer requires players to seek permission to transfer. They must only notify the school of their intent. A more significant shift occurred last April, when the NCAA's Division I Council approved a modification for athletes seeking immediate eligibility.
Rather than having to demonstrate egregious behavior by a program or truly extraordinary circumstances, athletes seeking immediate eligibility at another FBS program simply must be academically and athletically eligible, receive no opposition from the school they're leaving and, according to the modified policy, show "the transfer is due to documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete's control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete."
If that sounds fuzzy, it is.
"The rule passed last April is intentionally very vague," Mars said. "Who knows what mitigating factors or circumstances means?"
Travis Leach, an attorney assisting in the waiver campaign for Tate Martell, who is transferring from Ohio State to Miami, thinks that if an athlete feels negatively affected by his original school, "it should really be the burden of someone else to disprove that."
Complicating matters is that the NCAA reveals very little about why immediate-eligibility waivers are approved or denied. But certain players, with the help of experienced advocates, are capitalizing on the loosened parameters.
"I just think going to college you never know what happens," Fields said this week. "So having that option kind of helps players choose what's best for their future and get where they want to be."
Mars calls the rule requiring transfers to sit out a year "arcane," saying it's designed to penalize athletes, not benefit them or their academic outlook.
"It begs the obvious question," Mars said. "Why are the NCAA member institutions still trying to put lipstick on this pig by retaining a rule that exists only so they can continue to treat student-athletes like assets on their balance sheet?"
The NCAA's most recent data paints a positive picture for those who actually go through the waiver-application process. Since the policy changes in 2018, 64 FBS players applied for immediate-eligibility waivers, and 51 (79.7 percent) received approvals.
This rate greatly concerns some coaches and administrators who liken it to free agency in professional sports and say it not only hurts teams that players are leaving, but decreases the chances of graduation for those transferring without sitting out. Several members of the coaching community were surprised last month when NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Dave Schnase, whose office handles waiver requests, told The Associated Press, "We feel like the pendulum has swung back to the right place."
"When I see the guy bragging about how many waivers [are approved], that's not what this is about," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "In how many households are the teenagers making decisions? Why are we sitting here saying they need more leverage? This waiver thing, we've got to help people that truly have a problem, [like] their family is sick. It can't be just because you don't like somebody or somebody said something to you. We all have to live in a world that's like that.
"How do we make a difference with all these guys so they can make them better?"
Coaches view the loosening of transfer restrictions as running counter to values they promote in their programs. Many cite stories of how older players fought through adversity early in their careers, stayed with the program and became stars or major contributors.
"We have seen kids that have entered the transfer portal and haven't been on campus for a semester," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "How do you learn to overcome adversity and fight through battles and learn to compete? I worry about that for our sport; I worry about that for kids and our country. The path of least resistance very rarely is the answer. How do you have discipline and structure and tough conversations in your program if there's always a Plan B, an outlet with no real repercussions?"
Coaches generally like the portal itself and don't oppose graduate transfers making moves without having to sit out a season. Their beef is with the percentage of waivers being granted and the reasoning behind those approvals.
"It's too easy right now," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. "It's too easy to let kids quit."
Added Shaw: "The hopscotch approach to college really hinders their ability to have success in life."
Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, stressed that coaches still support immediate-eligibility waivers for players dealing with extreme circumstances. But the recent changes have broadened the argument to play right away.
"That's what a lot of our student-athletes feel is going to happen now -- that they can claim something and get a waiver," Berry said. "Even if they're claiming something and it's not true, the impact it's going to have on those universities just by making an accusation is significant."
Coaches are already feeling the impact in how they manage their rosters. Most players enter the transfer portal in the late fall or early winter, when recruiting classes are at or near capacity.
Teams are then left with several unfilled scholarships because they're unable to add more than 25 new scholarship players per year.
"There's 1,000 kids in the portal right now," NC State coach Dave Doeren said. "Everyone wants to talk about player safety. What happens when a position group has three less guys left in it? I don't think we can manage our rosters the way we used to be able to."
Penn State had 11 players enter the transfer portal this winter, although most have graduated (a 12th, safety Lamont Wade, entered the portal but then withdrew and will remain with the Nittany Lions). PSU also had five underclassmen enter the NFL draft.
"That's probably the biggest challenge for administration, as well as coaches: How do you ever know who's actually on your roster and who's not?" Franklin said. "A lot of coaches have said as soon as you enter the transfer portal, they're going to take you off scholarship, but that's another problem with this. They've left it kind of gray that each school and each coach can handle it differently.
"You're in a very, very challenging position in terms of managing your roster, how to recruit, all those types of things."
The Division I Football Oversight Committee discussed the waiver approvals last month at the NCAA Convention.
"The membership has realized it's been more of a student-athlete-friendly waiver process," said committee chair Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director. "There were some discussions, saying, 'A waiver is extraordinary circumstances. You really have to prove that. Is 79 percent of the cases really that extraordinary? Are some of the facts a little bit more embellished?'
"They're asking the [NCAA] staff and the committees to take a closer look. It should be flipped. It should be 79 percent of the cases denied."
Players who have entered the transfer portal take a very different view of immediate-eligibility waivers.
"A lot of the time, people transfer because they can't play at the school that they're at," Johnson said. "I feel like people should be playing because you only have so many years to show what you got before trying to fulfill your dream in the NFL. I feel like guys should play regardless. Sitting out a year is tough on anybody."
Johnson is a graduate transfer, so he will be eligible immediately next season, but Martin is petitioning for a waiver from the NCAA. Both see coaches taking new jobs for business reasons and think players should be allowed to make similar moves.
The players recognize that complete free agency with transfers creates roster management challenges for coaches. But they also have monitored recent recruiting trends, which include more prospects playing early in their careers and coaches adding multiple quarterbacks in a single class. Not all who enter the portal will emerge on the other side in better situations. Blue-chip recruits like Fields and Martell always were going to be in demand.
Lyons and others have asked the NCAA for portal data, specifically the breakdown of scholarship players versus walk-ons. The NCAA told ESPN that 1,454 Division I players (FBS and FCS) had entered the portal as of Tuesday afternoon, but it didn't have a breakdown of how many are on scholarship or are walk-ons and how many play for FCS schools.
Those further down the depth chart have fewer guarantees. As soon as a player goes in, his school can revoke his scholarship for the ensuing academic term.
Mars advises clients to enter the portal after classes begin, so they can at least preserve their scholarships while seeking new playing destinations.
"That issue was vetted exceptionally well on the front side," said Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who serves on the football oversight committee. "Schools are doing a very good job of educating. Many of [the athletes] sign documents that acknowledge all the potential ramifications of going into the transfer portal."
Martin, Johnson and Texas quarterback Cameron Rising, who is transferring from the Longhorns' program, all said it was easy to enter the portal. All three received good information from the compliance departments at their original schools before starting the process.
"I think the transfer portal is probably one of the best things the players have," Rising said. "I just personally think for me it helped me a lot just being so easy to do. The fact that all I had to do was go down to compliance, they explained the whole entire process and what could happen.
But if the process and the potential ramifications are explained, it doesn't prevent some athletes from entering the portal without a real plan.
Johnson thinks that if several prominent names in the 2019 transfer class succeed with their new teams, it will only increase the number of transfers in the future. But an excess number of players looking to transfer with no change in the number of scholarships available could result in even more athletes without landing spots.
Coaches think the portal's popularity could limit opportunities for high school recruits or junior college players because teams will be more interested in adding established FBS talent. Penn State's Franklin said some high school coaches are becoming concerned about their top players competing with transfers for scholarship spots.
"The portal will get worse -- transfers, waivers -- if we don't do something about it," Patterson said. "And, eventually, we're going to hurt the high school senior."
Before reforming the transfer program, the NCAA considered allowing one-time, immediate-eligibility transfers in all sports, including football, one of five that currently prohibits such moves without a waiver. Although the option "really never had sufficient support," Steinbrecher said, some coaches think the current model is headed in that direction.
The result would be college football free agency, which coaches say would severely damage the sport. Third-party influencers, already prevalent in high school recruiting, would gain even more power in moving players from program to program without any repercussion.
Not surprisingly, some players view the newfound freedom in a more positive light.
"As a coach you have free agency, so what's the difference with players?" Martin said. "A coach could be at one school this year and go somewhere else next year. Why can't a player? It's free agency, but what's wrong with free agency? Everybody should be able to do what's best for them."
Martin thinks "real free agency" is the best solution for the sport, saying, "Coaches would be able to get players to play right away and replace the other guys leaving. They could go out and get other transfers and come play right away."
Martin and Johnson think a free-agency model is likely in the future. They argue it should be embraced.
"I kind of like that players are able to leave because they get the chance to pursue what they want to do, whether that's a better education or a better opportunity," Johnson said. "Coaches leave, they come and go all the time, that's why recruits shouldn't be going to a school for a coach. Having that leverage that we can leave and go to another school is a good deal for us."
Rising disagrees, saying that a sport with no restrictions on transfers would result in several elite programs loading up on top transfers each year.
"That is probably a part where I side with coaches a little bit," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to go play at Alabama for a year, then Oklahoma, play at USC, Hawaii for your fourth year? I think that would be bad for college football."
A proposal by Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald gaining traction with the AFCA and even some administrators would require all FBS transfers to sit out a year but, upon graduation, reclaim the season of eligibility. Supporters say it would encourage academic goals, as transferring both decreases the chances of graduation and extends the time needed to graduate.
"As coaches, we're fighting for that scholastic model, which says, 'Graduate from college,'" Berry said. "That's kind of the intent. This idea of having a free-agent market out there is not going to encourage that. It's going to dissuade that."
Some coaches think rules about the 25-scholarship limit should be adjusted to account for more transfers.
Doeren proposes that if a player voluntarily enters the transfer portal -- not kicked off the team or forced out by the coach -- and lands elsewhere, his original team should be able to replace the scholarship without it counting against the annual limit. It would be similar to players receiving medical-hardship waivers, who remain on scholarship but don't count against their team's total.
"You add a drop-down menu: Were you thrown off the team or do you want to leave?" Doeren said. "If it happened in December, I could sign a 26th kid. If it happens in May, let me sign another kid in the transfer portal. There ought to be a number on top of the 25. And if the kid says, 'The coach threw me off the team,' you don't get that number back."
Policy changes that restore restrictions on player movement likely will be tough to implement. Players simply have more leverage in this environment, especially as the NCAA fights lawsuits about compensation.
"The era that we're in right now is an anti-establishment era to where too many people blame the NCAA for all the problems and we don't look at the positives of major establishments anymore," Shaw said. "We're looking for the negatives because they sound better, and we're trying to create sympathy for people who really aren't damaged. A lot of these arguments are not valid arguments, but they sound good. The NCAA is just the villain."
Franklin and Berry both brought up the threats to the amateur model and said a push for a non-scholarship model across college athletics could gain serious traction. Building consensus around the transfer process has never been easy, especially now.
"I don't think there will ever be a real time where you can get coaches and players in the same position to be OK with all the transfers," Rising said.
Others are pushing patience with the transfer model, which is still only months old. Steinbrecher said the NCAA historically has reacted to major shifts with even more changes, further muddying things.
Lyons wants to review data about the portal and get more feedback at the oversight committee's next meeting in late April.
"I'm not going to play Chicken Little and the first year say, 'The sky is falling' just because a lot of kids entered the portal," Lyons said. "We have to let things run its course a little bit before we start a knee-jerk reaction, 'This is not a good thing.' We're going to make mistakes legislatively. We're going to adopt rules that may not work and rules that work. Is this potentially good for student-athletes? Yes. Is it something we need to keep looking at to make sure that it's working? That's our goal."
Coaches who want players to consider the downside will also have a year of information to use to reinforce their points.
"So many of these young people have gone in, whether through bad information, ego, pride, misunderstanding what the portal is for," Shaw said. "The grass is not always greener. Sometimes it's paint.
"A lot of these young people are not going to find a seat when the music stops. At least not a seat they thought."