College football coaches pick the transfer portal winners

College football coaches pick the transfer portal winners

College football’s first — and most significant — transfer portal window closed last week.

Although the quarterback transfer market wasn’t as exciting as last year’s, the numbers — 2,729 players entered the portal in December this year compared to 1,617 last December — and the names — cornerback Travis Hunter (Jackson State to Colorado), wide receiver Dominic Lovett (Missouri to Georgia), edge Dasan McCullough (Indiana to Oklahoma), running back Carson Steele (Ball State to UCLA) and quarterback Sam Hartman (Wake Forest to Notre Dame) among them — were significant.

The portal is now closed until May 1, so it’s time to evaluate which teams did the best. I spoke to coaches and personnel directors, including at the American Football Coaches Association Convention earlier this month, to assess the biggest portal winners from the early cycle.

Here are eight teams they selected.

No program has generated more buzz for its portal prowess than Florida State, even among coaches outside of the ACC. The portal has become a focal point for the Seminoles, who leaned on several transfers from last winter — defensive end Jared Verse (Albany), wide receiver Johnny Wilson (Arizona State), running back Trey Benson (Oregon) — to record their first 10-win season since 2016.

FSU once again has been active, drawing potential difference-makers from both Group of 5 and Power 5 programs, including some from within the ACC.

The Seminoles bolstered their offensive line with UTEP’s Jeremiah Byers and Auburn’s Keiondre Jones. They found Verse some help on the defensive front with Western Michigan’s Braden Fiske, who had six sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season, and South Carolina’s Gilber Edmond. FSU added tight end Jaheim Bell, who had 55 receptions and seven touchdowns the past two seasons at South Carolina.

An ACC coordinator said that while Clemson remains the league’s most talented team overall, FSU is closing the gap.

“Florida State did a tremendous job being the next most talented team,” the coach said. “FSU did theirs through the transfer portal.”

After back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, Michigan has emerged as a team to watch in the portal. Michigan’s high school recruiting has been solid, not spectacular, but the team has turned heads with its transfer additions. This year’s group includes offensive tackles LaDarius Henderson (Arizona State) and Myles Hinton (Stanford), who join a group that has won back-to-back Joe Moore Awards as the nation’s top line. Tight end AJ Barner, a captain at Indiana, adds some depth after the NFL loss of Luke Schoonmaker.

“Michigan did a great job with offensive line help,” a Power 5 personnel director said. “You know what you’re going to get with LaDarius Henderson and the Hinton kid. They may be better than the guys they have now.”

The Wolverines also addressed their defense, adding pass-rusher Josaiah Stewart from Coastal Carolina and linebacker Ernest Hausmann, who started games as a true freshman at Nebraska. A Big Ten assistant said Hausmann was one of the best available linebackers in the portal.

“They’ve done a pretty good job with some key guys,” a Big Ten personal director said. “They’ve gone pretty heavy. It will be interesting — the dynamics of the locker room with the current guys, that’s always a concern. But they’ve gotten some good pickups.”

Few coaches are surprised the Sooners hit the portal hard after their first losing season since 1998. Oklahoma addressed both sides of the ball but particularly a defense that needed talent after finishing 89th nationally in points allowed and 82nd in yards per play allowed.

“They struggled so badly last year,” a Big 12 assistant said. “The portal, if you do it the right way, it can change things. They’ve taken a good hold in the portal.”

Coaches expect edge rusher Dasan McCullough, a transfer from Indiana, to immediately impact the unit. Oklahoma emphasized its defensive line in the portal, adding Oklahoma State end Trace Ford, Wake Forest end Rondell Bothroyd and Notre Dame tackle Jacob Lacey. Former Sooners tight end Austin Stogner will return after a season at South Carolina, where he had 20 receptions. Wide receiver is an area Oklahoma likely will continue to pursue in the portal when it reopens.

The Bruins likely will never win signing day under coach Chip Kelly, although high school additions such as 2023 quarterback Dante Moore are notable. UCLA has a much stronger foothold in the portal. Transfers such as wide receiver Jake Bobo (Duke), edge Laiatu Latu (Washington) and cornerback Jaylin Davies played key roles in the team’s 9-4 record last season.

UCLA has continued to thrive in the portal this winter. The team went to the MAC for star running back Carson Steele (Ball State) and quarterback Collin Schlee (Kent State). Steele had 1,556 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season. UCLA stayed within the Pac-12 for a significant addition at receiver with J. Michael Sturdivant, who had 65 receptions for 755 yards and seven touchdowns at Cal, and also added wideout Kyle Ford from crosstown rival USC (20 receptions, 365 yards in 2022 ). Another intriguing addition is Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao, an ESPN 300 recruit in 2021.

“They did a good job with that guy,” a Pac-12 personnel director said.

UCLA added some running back depth alongside Steele with Army’s Anthony Adkins and bolstered his defense with Cal’s Oluwafemi Oladejo and safety Jordan Anderson, a multiyear starter at Bowling Green.

“They’ve met some needs,” a Power 5 personal director said. “I’ve heard about them a lot on the West Coast.”

LSU always will be one of the best-positioned programs for top high school players, especially from within the state. But the team had roster issues during its recent coaching transition, and it hit the portal for quarterback Jayden Daniels (Arizona State), defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo (Missouri), cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State) and others. The roster is in better shape now, and LSU signed ESPN’s No. 7 recruiting class but also kept mining the portal.

Top additions include linebacker Omar Speights, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors at Oregon State in 2022, as well as defensive backs Duce Chestnut (Syracuse), Denver Harris (Texas A&M) and JK Johnson (Ohio State). LSU also bolstered its defensive front with Ovie Oghoufo (Texas), Jordan Jefferson (West Virginia) and Jalen Lee (Florida).

“That might not be what Brian Kelly wants to do, but last year, they were depleted and they took a bunch of kids out of the portal,” an SEC coordinator said. “This year, they’re taking a ton of kids out of the portal. It’s kind of one of those never-ending cycles, where once you do, you’ve got to keep doing it to replenish. LSU might be a little bit different, where you can get some blue chips that can help you right away, but it’s hard.”

Many things are changing at Wisconsin under new coach Luke Fickell, including the team’s aggressiveness in the transfer portal. The Badgers have stood out with their volume of transfers, the notable players they’ve brought in and the positions they’ve targeted, particularly quarterback and wide receiver.

Wisconsin has added three quarterback transfers — Tanner Mordecai (SMU), Nick Evers (Oklahoma) and Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State) — as part of an offensive makeover under coordinator Phil Longo. Other key offensive additions include wide receivers Bryson Green, who had 584 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season, and CJ Williams, an ESPN top 150 recruit in 2022 at USC.

“That’s a big get for them, as they’re trying to change the mindset of being an old Big Ten, run the football, to spreading it out with coach Longo,” a Power 5 personnel director said. “That will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Like other new coaches, Fickell turned to his previous team for important additions, such as center Jake Renfro and wide receiver Will Pauling. But Wisconsin also has looked elsewhere for potential impact players, including Temple pass-rusher Darian Varner (7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) and Michigan State defensive end Jeff Pietrowski (5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles in 2021).

“They’re not all high-caliber players, but they’re good players,” a Big Ten coordinator said.

Deion Sanders told Colorado players during his first team meeting as coach that he would be bringing luggage with him, and he has delivered on his promise. Colorado has reshaped much of its roster through the portal, starting with those who followed Sanders from Jackson State. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders and two-way player Travis Hunter, ESPN’s No. 2 overall recruit in 2022, headline the group along with safety Shilo Sanders (Deion’s son and Shedeur’s brother) and others.

Colorado also has looked to the FBS for transfers such as offensive tackle Savion Washington (Kent State), defensive end Taijh Alston (West Virginia), linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo (West Virginia), safety Myles Slusher (Arkansas), edge Taylor Upshaw ( Michigan), cornerback Kyndrich Breedlove (Ole Miss) and defensive tackle Leonard Payne Jr. (Fresno State).

“That kid [Payne] is going to be a really good player for them,” a Pac-12 personnel director said. “Deion’s going to be a problem. If he wins games, he’s going to be a real problem.”

Added another Pac-12 personnel director: “They reached on a couple [transfers] but got some good ones in there.”

The team that won the portal and transformed its roster last winter is at it again. USC hasn’t landed any transfers as splashy as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams or Biletnikoff-winning receiver Jordan Addison, but several productive players are headed to play for coach Lincoln Riley in 2023. This year’s offensive additions include South Carolina running back MarShawn Lloyd, Washington State tackle Jarrett Kingston, Florida offensive tackle Michael Tarquin and Arizona wide receiver Dorian Singer, who led the Pac-12 with 1,105 receiving yards last season.

“USC’s got some kids,” a Pac-12 staff director said. “The tackle from Florida is good, Dorian Singer is really good. The fact that they got a 1,000-yard receiver who’s already proven in the conference, that’s a no-brainer. The portal is about production. It’s about taking guys who have already proven they can be productive at this level.”

The Trojans’ defense is the bigger area of ​​concern after a poor end to Riley’s first season. USC added Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb, who had 96 tackles and 13 for loss last season. Other portal pickups on defense included Arizona cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, Purdue defensive end Jack Sullivan, Georgia State linebacker Jamil Muhammad and Texas A&M defensive lineman Anthony Lucas, ESPN’s No. 117 overall recruit in the 2022 class.

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