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Should we be worried about the number of West Virginia Mountaineers entering the transfer portal?

West Virginia has lost a ton of players to the transfer portal, but has it reached a level where we have to start worrying about it?

Artist rendering of the NCAA transfer portal

On Monday, wide receiver Isaiah Esdale became the 26th player to enter his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal since the start of 2021. According to Chris Anderson and Mike Cassazza on their 247 Podcast, 24 of those players were on scholarship. This led me to ask the general question “What in the [world] is going on at West Virginia?”.

What Is The Portal?

Let’s start with the general - what exactly is the NCAA Transfer Portal. The “Portal” is nothing more than a database. The idea was that previously, coaches controlled the actions of students and students didn’t have as much power as they should. The process sought to give some of that power back to the student-athlete.

The portal is a database of college athletes who are interested in transferring schools. All a student must do is go to their compliance department and tell them they would like their name to be put in the transfer portal. Once this request is made the compliance department must do so within 48 hours.

Once a student’s name is in the portal, schools will have the ability to begin contacting them, provided the student didn’t put “do not contact” in their entry.

If a student puts their name in the portal, it is not in there permanently. Student athletes can remove their names if they want to.

The portal gives coaches the ability to sort entries by sport, name, conference, division, and school. it also gives them the ability to save entries to a “transfer watchlist”.

The possibility exists that a player can enter the portal and return the school. Mike O’Laughlin is an example of this and there are many other players who were potentially upset by a coaching change, re-assignment of position or a number of other issues that plague college players that led the player to choose the portal. If the team wants to keep the player and the player opts to return, they certainly can. The school also has the ability to pull the players scholarship by the end of the semester, which is why the date that a player puts their name in the portal is very crucial. Putting your name in the portal now almost guarantees that you will be leaving while putting your name in the portal in September gives the team and the player time to re-assess the situation and potentially rectify any situation that may have turned south.

Complicated by all of this is the last 18 months. The COVID-19 pandemic granted everyone on the roster a free year where games played in 2020 did not count towards eligibility. A player like Isaiah Esdale would have graduated this year as a redshirt senior but with the extra year of eligibility, Esdale is allowed one more year to play football in college, if that is what he wants to do.

Additionally, in April of this year, the NCAA granted immediate eligibility for all transfers, negating a decades-old rule that required players to sit out one year when they transferred. The one-year delay imposed previously helped to deter many players since you either needed to burn your redshirt year, losing time between playing or worse, lose a full year of eligibility, going from a sophomore to a senior with no junior stats. This did not stop teams from finding work arounds, from graduate transfers, players who graduated with their undergrad degree and sought another school with a graduate program “not offered at their current school”, though this seemed to be extremely lax. Tate Martell, for example, was allowed to transfer while other quarterbacks had to wait.

Starting in April of this year, the NCAA decided to allow all players a free transfer once in their college career and like all things in life, the first time around is a free-for-all with a large number of players exercising their right to transfer. West Virginia has been hit extensively with 27 players as of Thursday morning (December 9) entering their name into the portal.

The argument, or question, is “Is this normal”. Plenty of people will tell you that this is happening around college football and if the statement “every school has players transferring” then yes, that is true, but I don’t think many fans are worried that West Virginia is the only school with players leaving, more than we have a quantity issue. 26 players feels like a lot. 26 players is a recruiting class. 26 players is a starting football team. Is 26 players in one year a lot? One way to compare the numbers would be to look at the rest of the Big 12 conference. If every school were near that 26 number, then panic should subside.

Transfers Per Big 12 School

Team Total Transfers
Team Total Transfers
Baylor 4
Iowa State 11
Kansas 13
Kansas State 11
Oklahoma 20
Oklahoma State 4
TCU 17
Texas 17
Texas Tech 8
West Virginia 27

These numbers are my very rough count starting as of January 1, 2021, because that is a clear break in the calendar. It nearly accounts for right after the bowl game and through the next bowl game fairly neatly.

Looking at these numbers provides both context and worry if you evaluate everything. West Virginia is tops in the conference. A tops by a considerable margin. Oklahoma is second in the conference and they are dealing with a major coaching change that was unexpected. No one thought Lincoln Riley would just up and leave. The next closest teams, TCU and Texas, are 10 fewer players than West Virginia. TCU has a coaching change and Texas is dealing with a first year coach. Neither of those is true for West Virginia.

Next on the list is Kansas and again, first year head coach. There is more turnover to be expected when a coaching change is occuring and during the first year of a coaching change as the staff identifies players it doesn’t believe fit its mold and players identify whether or not they can work with the new coach that didn’t recruit them.

After Kansas, you have the teams with stable coaching platforms (but Texas Tech!) that are seeing fewer than 10 players leave. You could point out that the two teams with the fewest transfers, Baylor and Oklahoma State, also just played in the conference championship game. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Winning tends to solve a lot of players problems, but speaking of problems with the Mountaineers....

If you want to look through the Transfer Portal, you can. 247Sports has done a fantastic job of compiling players who have entered their name and if they have chosen a new destination. You can review that many players have left West Virginia but have not found much success in their new homes. That brings to the question of exactly why? Were the players not good in the first place? I would point out to former wide receiver David Sills.

Sills joined the team under Dana Holgorsen and did not do much, catching a few passes as a rookie. He transferred down to junior college because he still wanted to play quarterback. He threw for 1600 yards and 15 touchdowns. If he had completed his dream and played quarterback, you would probably say something along the lines “the guy can’t even light up junior college, not a big loss”. Yet, Sills transferred back into the program in 2017, where he proceeded to catch 125 passes for almost 2,000 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Coach Brown and his staff are in a tough place with the transfers and I wouldn’t be doing a good job if I didn’t at least mention how much COVID may be playing into this. Brown took over in January 2019 which led to a standard coaching change roster turnover. In the spring of 2020, COVID hit and many players chose to not transfer as the entire year was different than it had ever been. The numbers you are seeing this year could entirely be because of the pandemic and a restructuring of the process. If those numbers are still high next year, you likely need to look at this on a different level, stop blaming COVID and see what other factors are causing this.