How college football's transfer portal is changing spring practice

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney opened his 14th spring practice as Clemson's head coach last month by doing something he'd never done before. While addressing his team's depth on the offensive line -- a position group heavily criticized throughout last year's 10-3 campaign -- he revealed that he was actively looking to add a transfer.

Among college coaches, there's a wide spectrum of willingness to engage in the transfer market, with some wholeheartedly embracing the opportunity to add to their roster and others only dabbling in the portal. Swinney, however, might be the least eager coach in the country when it comes to the portal, recently telling ESPN he planned to use it only as a last resort.

And yet, here he was, hanging the proverbial "help wanted" sign on the door to Clemson's locker room. In this new era of open transfers, the portal spares no coach.

"The rules have changed, and you don't have any choice," Swinney said. "There are no high school kids to get in May, and if you have a gap in your roster, where are you going to go?"

The margin between Clemson's 2021 season, in which Swinney was criticized for ignoring the portal entirely, and a championship season for a team like Georgia, which started Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick at corner, can be attributed to which holes can be filled after spring practice ends.

The transfer market built slowly over the past few years, but when the NCAA changed its rules last summer to allow players to move (once) without sitting out a season, the door to the portal was kicked wide open, making spring practice something of a delicate dance between coaches pushing players to improve without pushing them out the door and into the portal. Got a hole to fill? Coaches can dip into the transfer market to find a replacement. Don't like your spot on the depth chart? Players can hit the road to find a new home before fall camp begins.

"There are going to be a group of guys that leave after the season, and a group of guys that leave in winter conditioning," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "There's going to be another group of guys that leave at the end of spring. They're going to see the numbers and see where they are, and maybe even see the incoming freshmen as say, 'You know what, I may have a good chance someplace [else].'"

Last year -- even before the free one-time transfer rule was made official -- more than 1,000 players entered the portal in April, and nearly 800 more followed in May. This year, there are already more than 3,600 FBS players in the portal, and the biggest question on many coaches' minds as spring practices wrap up is how many more might soon join them.

SWINNEY'S FIRST SERIOUS foray into the transfer market wasn't in search of a spare part. He said he was searching for a big prize -- a multiyear starter, an all-conference type of player.

Those guys don't grow on trees, of course, and if Swinney manages to lure one to Clemson, that inevitably means someone has to find the exit door elsewhere. And as coaches monitor their own rosters during the spring, there's a constant concern that the grass will look greener on another program's field.

"I don't want to lose starters, I'll put it that way," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "You can't lose those guys. The good thing is if you lose them now you can go out and get someone else, but they're not easy to go get. You don't want to lose those guys and you can't afford to if you want to continue to have a chance to win."

Among the college football blue bloods, however, few coaches are betting on transfers who weren't already stars elsewhere. Like Swinney, they want proven commodities. That's what happened in the SEC this spring, as Alabama added offensive tackle Tyler Steen, who'd been a three-year starter at Vanderbilt, including preseason All-SEC accolades last year, before he entered the portal in January.

The addition came on the heels of stern comments from Saban about the current transfer marketplace, which when aided by lax restrictions on name, image and likeness, has created a de facto free agency that Saban deemed "unsustainable."

Saban suggested schools are offering serious money under the auspices of NIL, which can be an attractive lure for players in the portal, even if it doesn't necessarily correlate to finding the best home on the field.

And yet, coaches see little serious movement toward an alternative system in the near term.

The result is that the winter is as much about recruiting your own roster as it is recruiting high school talent, coaches say, and the spring is a constant guessing game as to who'll endure a spot down the depth chart and who'll walk away. Swinney noted that each new transfer a school brings in likely means a current player will feel there's no longer a role for him.

"I've always tried to instill the value of staying the course," Swinney said, noting his team's history of prospects who blossomed late in their careers, including Cornell Powell and Kevin Dodd. "We've had a lot of those guys, but it gets harder in today's world for a guy to stay and be patient and take advantage of an opportunity when it comes. But that's just the world we have to adjust to."

FOR KEDON SLOVIS, the writing was on the wall at USC. He'd blossomed into a star as a freshman, and he was solid once again during a COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. But last year was rocky, with injuries and a coaching change upending the depth chart, and it was clear he'd need to find a new home for 2022.

What was also clear, Slovis said, was that time wasn't on his side.

The past few years have seen a huge spike in the amount of early enrollees at the high school level -- would-be seniors who graduated early to get a jump start on college football and participate in spring practice. It's not uncommon for more than half a team's signing class to be enrolled in January, and that means the pressure is on for transfers to do the same.

"For someone in my position, who's going to graduate this semester, that was a pressing issue for me," said Slovis, who entered the portal on Dec. 13 and committed to Pitt a week later.

The end result is an increasingly prominent exodus of transfers before the regular season even ends, with players quitting their current team to ensure they're positioned to join a new team in time for winter conditioning and spring ball. In 2021, more than 2,000 players entered the transfer portal between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 -- more than half coming in November, with an eye toward finding a new home in time for the semester beginning in January.

"We don't have a spring practice problem," Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "We have a major regular-season problem when people are transferring. And why are they doing that? To be enrolled in the January semester."

The solution, according to many coaches, is for the NCAA to enact "transfer windows" -- specific timelines in which players can enter the portal, limiting movement during the regular season and spring practice.

"I think it's a bad look for guys to be going into the portal during the season and taking trips and visiting places as a quote-unquote recruit," Shaw said. "I think that's a distraction to the coaches and a distraction to the players. I think it's a bad enticement for those individuals."

Shaw suggested a window from January through June for player movement, then closing the portal in July to allow coaches some sense of roster clarity during fall camp and the regular season.

The NCAA, however, is reluctant to regulate what already appears to be a free market. As one Power 5 coach told ESPN, there's little belief the NCAA can unring the bell and, in the wake of last summer's Supreme Court ruling in the Alston case, in which Justice Brett Kavanaugh effectively warned that the NCAA's amateurism model violated basic antitrust tenets, there's a near-constant fear that putting any limitations on players' ability to earn revenue or change teams will result in more litigation.

But if the NCAA can't restrict movement, Diaz wonders if there's a way to simply disincentivize players leaving in season by reducing the need to participate in spring ball.

Diaz suggested following more of an NFL model, and instead of holding one long spring contact period, hold intermittent minicamps, where coaches can work directly with their players for several practices over a shorter period of time -- including camps during the early summer. By reducing the importance of spring practice and increasing interaction between players and the coaching staff in the summer, Diaz said he assumes fewer players will feel the need to jump into the portal in November with an eye toward practicing in April.

Diaz was quick to note this could disrupt the tradition of spring games and raise objections from coaches worried about injuries -- spring offers a longer window to rehab for the season than, say, a June minicamp would -- but he said the benefits likely outweigh the drawbacks.

"The problem is [the current system] just doesn't jibe with our season, with the bowls, and with whatever the playoff ends up being," Diaz said.

THE ONCE-SLOW pace of spring ball has been largely replaced by an often unpredictable landscape.

Swinney's Clemson team is a perfect example of how that's already happening. No, he hasn't landed his all-conference offensive lineman yet. But Swinney endured a spring in which a handful of veterans had already departed for new locations, and a host of others were relegated to exercise bikes and light jogging routines while rehabbing injuries. The roster -- particularly on offense -- was exceptionally thin.

The good news is plenty of younger players and reserves got ample reps. That's one way to keep a roster happy and limit the number of guys running for the exits.

"We're giving a lot of work to guys who need it, and it's a great opportunity," Swinney said.

The bad news is there are so many moving pieces that spring ball can feel more like a whirlwind of transactions than a chance to settle position battles.

Look no further than the cascade of QB movement that started with Slovis' departure at USC.

The former Trojan is now at Pitt, where he endured an up-and-down spring game, but remains the favorite to earn the Panthers' starting job. Slovis said the spring was invaluable for him, allowing him to get a handle on the playbook while building bonds with his new teammates.

Slovis' replacement at USC -- Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams -- won't have to spend nearly as much time on the playbook as he rejoins former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley at USC.

Then there's the QB replacing Williams at Oklahoma. Dillon Gabriel left UCF and was set to enroll at UCLA in January. Just hours before he had to begin classes, the opportunity to join the Sooners came about, and he jumped at it. Now he's the veteran passer of Oklahoma's offense.

And if that merry-go-round seems like anything but a quaint throwback to college football's roots, the spring isn't likely to get any more settled as teams wrap their spring games in the coming weeks. A new round of roster movement is coming -- maybe even at a place that has worked to avoid the chaos so far.