Tales from college football's transfer portal: Players talk about trying to find the right fit

The transfer portal has turned college football rosters inside out, with more than 3,600 FBS players entering the portal in the last year, allowing them a second (or third) chance to find the best fit for their playing and academic careers.

The reasons for switching schools and reentering the recruiting process are as varied as the players in the portal -- from coaching changes or disappointment with playing time to looking for a greater challenge or simply wanting to be closer to home, with any number of things in between. Potential NIL deals and the impact of the pandemic have added to the changing nature of college life.

We spoke with several players who entered the portal and received fresh starts with the hope that new situations will help them make the most of their college experience, whether that means preparing for the NFL or moving up to the FBS level.

Here are their stories:

The big-name QB making a move

IN MID-DECEMBER, former USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was working out at Mountainside Fitness in his hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, when his dad texted him a reminder to ask USC to officially put his name in the transfer portal.

Slovis had already moved off campus because the 4-8 Trojans were ineligible for a bowl game, so he texted the USC compliance officer, put his cellphone back under his bench and picked up his dumbbells again.

"By the next set, my phone is blowing up, and people are texting me," Slovis said, guessing he spoke to Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi "more than probably any other coach" throughout the process.

Slovis had no idea how quickly it would all unfold, and just five days after entering the portal, he had committed to ACC champion Pitt and was enrolled in classes for January with two years of immediate eligibility remaining. His cross-country move was prompted by a season he described as "very frustrating," as he struggled through an injury and his performance suffered, and USC was at the center of one of the nation's most high-profile staff changes.

Clay Helton was fired two games into the 2021 season and ultimately replaced by Lincoln Riley, leaving Slovis looking for a better fit -- and of course, playing time, with his ultimate goal to reach the NFL. Pitt, meanwhile, was looking for an experienced, pro-style quarterback to replace NFL-bound Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett. Through a recruiting process that took place entirely over the phone and FaceTime, it was a win for both.

"Having the opportunity and the freedom to look at my options, after a staff change, to find the best place for me as a football player and a student was huge," Slovis said. "College football has changed a lot since I was a freshman and getting recruited out of high school, so being afforded the opportunity, I've been very, very lucky to have it."

As a true freshman in 2019, Slovis elevated his profile quickly at USC after JT Daniels suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season. Slovis threw for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions, which contributed to Daniels' decision to transfer to Georgia. (Daniels has since moved on to West Virginia.)

That breakout season, though, was Slovis' highlight -- so far. In nine games in 2021, Slovis threw for 2,152 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. A combination of a lower leg injury and pedestrian performances opened the door for highly touted true freshman Jaxson Dart to steal the spotlight. Now, Slovis is again in a quarterback competition, this time with redshirt senior Nick Patti.

While Narduzzi has yet to officially name his starting quarterback, it's no secret Slovis is the front-runner. Pitt will have Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison returning as a top target, along with seven other starters on offense. Before he decided to join the Panthers, though, Slovis called Pickett to get his take on the program.

"He gave me a lot of insight about the personnel at Pitt, spoke very highly of the receivers and the O-line and talked about how everyone is coming back," Slovis said. "It helps a lot hearing it from the player. Obviously you're going to hear it from the recruiters and the staff, but to hear it from a player, especially someone who's had so much success, that was huge."

The question now is if Slovis can continue that success. He said arriving in time for spring practices has helped him acclimate, and he's already learned some things "that prepare you for the next level." Narduzzi said it was clear when he recruited Slovis those were his priorities.

"I think he had some opportunities for some name, image and likeness to go to some other places, which is even the most refreshing thing," Narduzzi said. "They didn't ask for a penny, not a penny. It's about playing football and being prepared for the next level. It's about the team, as opposed to just about him and where can I go make some money, which just tells you about his character.

"We're obviously looking for a different guy here," Narduzzi said. "It's about people and relationships, and who's going to fit in, and what he wanted and what he needed." -- Heather Dinich

The recruit who went back home

THE FIRST TIME Kam Allen set foot on Michigan State's campus, it was move-in day.

It was mid-January 2021 and, because we're talking about East Lansing, of course it was freezing and snowing.

For a kid from just outside of Dallas, it was startling. He'd never seen so much as ice growing up.

"I knew it was going to be cold. It's Michigan," Allen said. "But it's different. Going to sleep and there's normal weather, and then going to sleep and waking up to inches of snow on the ground, it's crazy."

The whole thing was surreal. Because Allen was part of the Class of 2021 that had to go without official or unofficial visits due to COVID-19, he'd never gotten the opportunity to see what living in Michigan would be like before signing his letter of intent. Michigan State coaches tried to give him a sense of the program and the city during phone conversations and Zoom calls, but they couldn't paint a full picture.

Allen understood he was taking a risk by picking a college sight unseen, but what was he supposed to do? Some players had the time and the means to take trips on their own. But a drive to East Lansing would have covered more than 1,100 miles and lasted at least four days roundtrip.

So he rolled the dice and made the best of it. The weather improved in the spring, and spring practice was promising. He thought he was doing well as one of the top tight ends getting early reps as a true freshman.

But at some point things started to turn. Allen mentioned coaches bringing in players via the transfer portal and a growing sense that playing time might not be easy to come by once the season got going. There was also chatter that the winter might be one of the worst in recent memory.

By the time preseason camp started, he had a feeling it wasn't going to work out for him at Michigan State. Still, he kept his mouth shut as the Spartans went 10-2 during the regular season.

On the one hand, he was doing everything he could to get on the field. There were countless workouts, practices and study halls to keep up with. But, on the other hand, he was wondering the whole time whether he was even wanted by the coaching staff.

"I didn't really talk to anyone about it, honestly," Allen said. "I was still debating on what I wanted to do. But I had to make a decision."

Allen believes this is a misperception by some about players who decide to transfer.

"It was a difficult time," he said. "I don't think anybody that hops in the portal is just having an instant thought. They've put some thought into it and have made a decision on whether or not they believe that they should leave. Because at the end of the day, it is a business decision."

Allen waited as long as he could. Then, a few days into bowl practice, he informed the coaching staff that he planned to enter the portal. He said the coaches understood.

There wasn't bad blood. He wasn't leaving because he didn't like the program or the culture. And he wasn't leaving strictly because of a lack of playing time.

He just didn't feel like he fit and he wanted to be closer to home.

That showed in the decision he made next: On Jan. 15, a month after posting his goodbye to Michigan State, Allen announced that he'd committed to SMU.

On a good day, it takes him only 45 minutes to get in a car and visit his mother.

"Being home it's just a different vibe," he said. "I'm around people that I know, people that I trust. And I feel like it puts me in a better position football wise, too, because I get to work out with my same trainers that I've been working out with since high school. I get to do all the same stuff I was doing, but just doing it in college. So I feel like that's really going to help me."

Allen's familiarity with his surroundings is a big plus, too. He has been around SMU's campus since he was in the seventh grade for football camps.

The weather's great and he knows exactly where to go for a quick bite to eat.

"It just feels comfortable being back," he said. -- Alex Scarborough

From nine-man football to the Pac-12

EMMIT BOHLE'S PATH to being the projected starting left tackle at Arizona State isn't the path less traveled. It has never been traveled.

Five years ago, he had just finished his senior year of high school in South Dakota, where he was a 235-pound tight end. Even if he had wanted to play tackle in high school he couldn't have, at least not in the traditional sense. His school, combined with another 25 miles away, played in a nine-man league. Meaning the offensive line consisted of three players ineligible to catch passes.

Selby, South Dakota, isn't exactly a place where major college football programs come to recruit, but he had enough of a high school career to earn an opportunity at nearby Northern State, a Division II program.

"You're obviously not getting the exposure that some other kids are when you're playing football in the middle of South Dakota," Bohle said. "And there is the translation of the game. Being in a different system than 11-man is different for recruiting."

Moving to 11-man football at the college level can be a steep learning curve, and Bohle redshirted his freshman year. Initially, he wanted to play tight end, but the coaching staff started to see him more as a tackle and by his redshirt freshman season, he had transformed his body to play tackle. After starting all 11 games at right tackle in 2019 and seeing the cancellation of the entire 2020 season due to COVID, Bohle didn't get his first opportunity at left tackle until this past season.

During the year, as it became apparent Bohle could dominate at the Division II level, he decided he wanted to transfer, and in late November he entered the transfer portal. Initial interest came from the FCS level with some spot interest from FBS programs. Again, teams in closer proximity to South Dakota showed the most interest.

Then Arizona State jumped into the mix, starting with a direct message on Twitter.

A support staffer, JJ Kilgore, was the first to reach out, then Bohle heard from Sun Devils offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh. Things moved fast. Bohle planned to graduate from Northern State in the spring, but instead opted to transfer immediately to ASU in order to compete during spring practice.

"I always wanted to play Division I, and that was always the goal," Bohle said. "Then when that didn't happen out of high school, me and my dad talked and there was always a belief that, 'If you can play, they'll find you.'"

Bohle carries 300 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame and -- with his relative lack of experience -- is a player ASU coaches believe not only can contribute right away but improve significantly over the next two seasons. -- Kyle Bonagura

The prolific QB taking a step up

WHEN QUARTERBACK CAM WARD went about finding a place to play college football, the external interest was just about nonexistent. Playing in a wing-T offense in high school, it was unusual for Ward to reach double digits in passing attempts in a game. When he did throw, it usually came outside the pocket on bootlegs or in situations that don't necessarily translate to what college evaluators want to see.

His dad tried to help, sending out emails to some Division II schools, but they didn't hear back.

"There was nothing I could do about it," Ward said. "I just had to run with it."

Run with it meant considering junior college ball until FCS Incarnate Word -- a place Ward had attended camp -- jumped in at the last minute with his only scholarship offer. Moving from the wing-T to the Air Raid offense might as well have been picking up a new sport. Still, despite the hurdles that shift required and the growing pains that came with it, Ward's ascension during the 2021 calendar year was, perhaps, unrivaled around college football.

The 2020 season was delayed until the spring due to COVID, a development that worked in Ward's favor, giving him more time to adjust. He not only won the starting job, but won the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top FCS freshman player. He followed that up in the fall by becoming a finalist for the Walter Payton Award -- given to the top FCS player -- after throwing for 4,648 yards with 47 touchdowns.

By that point it was clear he was an overlooked high school talent and top programs around the country showed interest in him. It wasn't until Incarnate Word's head coach, Eric Morris, left to become the offensive coordinator at Washington State, however, that Ward started to seriously consider moving to an FBS program, he said.

"I took a couple weeks off, really thinking about what I wanted to do, and I just felt it was time for me to take that next step in my career," Ward said. "I wanted to prove that I could play at the highest level of college football."

Ole Miss, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Houston all were seriously considered, but the option to continue playing for Morris and in an offense that had already made him so successful, was a strong pull. NIL opportunities connected to playing at Washington State -- the use of a truck, an apartment and marketing deals worth roughly $50,000 -- also factored into the decision. (NIL opportunities existed elsewhere too, but it's unclear what they looked like.)

Ward's transfer to WSU is unique in that even as a newcomer, he's the guy on the team who is most familiar with the offense. The same dynamic exists at USC, where Caleb Williams followed Lincoln Riley, and is perhaps the start of a new trend with the changing world of the transfer portal. -- Bonagura