Game-day programs at Ohio State often serve a more sentimental than practical purpose — current players are known commodities as recruits before even arriving on campus, meaning most fans are familiar with the state of the Buckeyes' depth chart entering any given year.
Unless we're talking quarterbacks, and specifically Ohio State's quarterback room heading as head coach Ryan Day prepares for his debut season. Last spring, the Buckeyes touted four quarterbacks recruited and developed in-house: Matthew Baldwin, Joe Burrow, Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell. All have since left the program.
Haskins put in a one-and-done year as the starter, parlaying his breakout campaign into a first-round slot in the recent NFL draft. Burrow transferred to LSU last May, quickly becoming the Tigers' starter. Martell left this offseason for Miami (Fla.) and entered the fray for the Hurricanes' starting job. This month, Baldwin announced he would be transferring to TCU.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields throws on the sideline during the team's spring game in April (Photo: Joseph Maiorana, USA TODAY Sports)
"You think he has three years left and he comes for one, throws 50 touchdown passes and is a first-round draft pick," Day said of Haskins, "he left things uneasy and almost a mess. So we had to kind of figure all that out in short order."
As the Buckeyes prepare for summer conditioning and fall camp, the team's list of on-scholarship quarterbacks now looks like this: Justin Fields, an impressive transfer from Georgia granted immediate eligibility; Gunnar Hoak, a little-used graduate transfer from Kentucky who arrived in April with two more years of eligibility; and Chris Chugunov, who transferred in from West Virginia last August.
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Landing Fields, a former five-star recruit who played significant snaps for the Bulldogs as a true freshman, "was a home run," Day said. But the issue is depth, and in that the Buckeyes aren't alone.
Ohio State has become the case study for a dilemma across the Bowl Subdivision, on the Power Five and Group of Five levels alike. The rise in quarterback transfers has upended the normal flow of development at the position — where in a perfect world one quarterback replaces another, conveyor-belt like, in a steady progression — to the point where even college football's elite are left wondering: What happened to the backup quarterback?
"You never know, you feel really good about your quarterback position and then you look up one day and everybody’s gone," said SMU coach Sonny Dykes. "It’s almost like you recruit a good quarterback every year and you expect somebody to leave every other year."
Quarterbacks transfer because of coaching changes or a change in offensive scheme. They transfer because of the writing on the wall: Clemson lost three quarterbacks to transfer in the wake of Kelly Bryant's promotion to the starting job in 2017 and Trevor Lawrence's arrival a year later — and Lawrence's rapid ascension then sent Bryant off to Missouri. Hunter Johnson, a five-star recruit by the Tigers, is expected to start at Northwestern this year. In the wide majority of cases, quarterbacks transfers due to playing time, or the lack thereof, driven by the hope that the next stop will feature a friendlier depth chart.
Quarterbacks are simply transferring, period, and at a higher rate than ever before.
"It’s just what guys do nowadays, especially at that position," Dykes said. "You’d hope that guys will be invested enough in the program where they’d at the very least go through a quarterback battle before they stuck their tails between their legs and left. But you know how it is."
One recent example was Tommy Stevens, who spent four years waiting to be the starter at Penn State before deciding to transfer this month to Mississippi State after not be guaranteed the job.
Almost no program is immune. All but eight of the teams ranked in the final USA TODAY Coaches Poll to end last season have lost an on-scholarship backup quarterback to transfer since last August; of those eight, three — Central Florida, Northwestern and West Virginia — now have a former Power Five transfer in competition for the starting job.
The still-percolating bubble of transfers has created a strange dynamic among four schools at or near the top of every offseason poll: Fields will go from the backup at Georgia to Ohio State's starter while Oklahoma will start a former Alabama transfer in Jalen Hurts. Both the Buckeyes and Sooners lost at least one would-be backup in the wake of each addition. Hurts will be the third consecutive transfer starter in Norman over the last five seasons, following the success of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
The impact is felt most on the lower tiers of an individual program's depth chart, where a constant state of upheaval has left teams scrambling to find a competent secondary option. Across the entire 65 schools in the Power Five in 2018, for example, just two teams featured a senior quarterback on scholarship who had remained with the program across four years of eligibility without grabbing the starting role.
If developing a starter is hard enough, keeping an on-scholarship backup across multiple seasons has become nearly impossible — even for programs such as Ohio State, which routinely recruits the top-ranked quarterbacks in a given class.
"First off, it’s hard to recruit a highly recruited guy, then recruit guys behind them," Day said. "That’s the constant struggle of right now with college football and the quarterback situation. It’s very sensitive."
Seventeen of the top 25 quarterbacks in the 2016 recruiting class have transferred, each due to an inability to grab or maintain the starting job. Meanwhile, the number of FBS graduate transfers at all positions has likewise increased, from 70 in 2014 to 168 in 2017, according to the most recent NCAA data. Three teams in the Big 12 alone may end up starting a former graduate transfer, with Oklahoma State joining Oklahoma and West Virginia.
"The hope is, well, maybe one of those guys won’t leave," said Dykes. "The thought is, you bring in a graduate transfer and these guys might bail. So it’s scary, you know?"
Spurred on by changes in NCAA rules, which no longer require student-athletes to request permission to transfer while creating a national database available to all college coaches, more than 60 quarterbacks across the FBS have transferred or announced an intent to transfer since last August. The position comprises a disproportionate percentage of the total number of student-athletes currently listed in the portal, according to unofficial tracking of transfers.
"I’d rather take an extra quarterback and be wrong there than not have enough," said North Texas coach Seth Littrell. "To me, you can never have too many quarterbacks. I know they’re all competing and you’re going to lose some. But I’m never going to turn down a great player, a great quarterback or a great walk-on."
In some cases, as with Florida State's acquisition of former Wisconsin starter Alex Hornibrook, a graduate transfer can serve as an insurance policy in a backup role. In others, coaching staffs will purposefully evaluate and pursue prospects who might lack polish and five-star upside but could serve as a competent backup to an established starter — such was the case when Dykes was the head coach at California and the program was returning Jared Goff after his freshman season.
"The best thing you can always do is be real honest guys and be as transparent as you can be," Dykes said. "There’s so much cloak-and-dagger B.S. when it comes to recruiting quarterbacks that I think they appreciate the honesty."
More and more, however, coaching staffs are leaning on walk-on recruits, those without scholarships, to beef up their quarterback depth. In a best-case scenario, walk-on quarterbacks represent the ideal: a capable backup unlikely to transfer.
"I think that’s really important," said North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren. "They add a lot of value even if they’re not playing."
While there are walk-on success stories — Mayfield is one notable example — relying on non-scholarship quarterbacks or graduate transfers for depth is a temporary bandage on a larger issue. Across the FBS, programs and coaches are dealing with a new reality: In terms of depth and development, no position in college football is more unstable than quarterback. As if finding a capable starter wasn't hard enough.
"I know it’s a reality that at some point and time you’re not going have three guys that are really good and are OK not playing," Doeren said. "Everybody wants to be out there."
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