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Column: How Ohio State has struck the right balance with the NCAA transfer portal

Much of the rest of the Big Ten, meanwhile, has not. 

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of incoming transfers. This year, the Buckeyes ended up with a transfer quarterback, Justin Fields, and running back, Trey Sermon, leading the program to the College Football Playoff championship game. While Sermon was a graduate transfer, Fields was among the first high-profile use cases of the NCAA transfer portal, which officially opened in Oct. 2018, having entered the portal in December of that same year.

But while Ohio State has been a destination for these elite players, there is less in the way of players leaving Columbus for greener pastures elsewhere. In data compiled by the Lincoln Journal Star, we see the Buckeyes are tied with Wisconsin for the second-fewest entries in the transfer portal since Dec. 2018 among Big Ten programs, with just a dozen players having entered the portal. Only Northwestern, ever the tale of stability, commitment and no drama under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, has had fewer transfers than the Buckeyes (11), though eight of those transfers came in the last two months alone.

Realistically, the portal is a net positive, especially for players. It allows for individuals to optimize their environment to their needs, whether that’s heading to a program that can offer more playing time, a closer commute to family or a more supportive academic environment. It also serves a purpose of holding coaches accountable for how they treat players after they’re committed, since those players can opt to move to a new school.

Additionally, the portal, if used effectively, can also serve as a stop-gap for talent for a limited time period. From an inbound perspective, the transfer portal acts almost like free agency in the NFL. All of a sudden, programs have a chance to recruit for already-developed players with experience playing at the collegiate level, enabling them to fill unforeseen voids on their rosters stemming from injury, early departures for the NFL or a lack of development from an intended starter. Many programs have begun developing portal strategies to support the literal thousand-plus transfers, identifying the right talent for their needs at the time. It’s certainly a shift, since just a few seasons ago transfers were few and far between.

But what happens when the portal becomes overused or, worse, a replacement for good recruiting practices? Programs face the challenge of not developing players anymore, which distinctly limits their value propositions to prospective recruits and transfers. Why would a high school senior opt to go to a school that everyone seems to be leaving, or even one where more senior players are transferring in and taking the starting roles? Programs risk a loss of culture, because a significant portion of players are no longer coming up through the program.

Then, of course, come the on-field challenges. Programs have previously been able to count on having players stick around for at least three seasons, accounting for time to develop as backups as underclassmen while attending multiple spring and fall camps. There is attrition every season as upperclassmen move on and new recruits come in, but new players can fill the gaps. When you introduce transfers to the situation and increase attrition, the on-field effects can be challenging.

All that being said, obviously, leakage of talent is a challenge that programs now must account for, and programs should be seeking to have a net neutral or positive when it comes to the portal (i.e., more players coming in than leaving). While there will always be a small set of players who opt to transfer for personal reasons (getting closer to home, getting beat out for a starting job), transfers at high volume can be an indicator of systemic challenges within a program. Of course, players are more likely to transfer en masse if there are changes in the coaching staff.

The Big Ten programs with the most transfers shouldn’t be hugely surprising: Nebraska (37), Maryland (35), Penn State (30), Michigan (29) and Rutgers (28). Sure, Maryland and Rutgers had the aforementioned coaching changes which might lead to large volumes of transfers, and Scott Frost was in the middle of his first season as head coach for the Huskers when the portal opened, though Nebraska has continued to see scholarship players leaving in droves.

But then there’s the cases of Penn State and Michigan — historic programs with stability at the head coaching position. Let’s focus here on Michigan (obviously). Along with the dearth of any sort of championships in Ann Arbor in recent memory, the mass exodus of players, including some once highly-touted recruits, should be a glaring indicator of the rot within the program. Most recently, running back Zach Charbonnet landed at UCLA, while quarterback Dylan McCaffrey has yet to find his final destination (coincidentally, Dylan’s brother, Luke, also entered the portal from Nebraska). The departure of players is both a symptom of program challenges, as well as a causative agent of additional, new problems within the program.

Why has Ohio State been largely immune from these challenges? The answers are highly intuitive: The Buckeyes are good. They have won all manner of championships in recent memory. The program remained remarkably stable even through a coaching transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day (it probably helped that Day had been interim head coach for three games in 2018). From a cultural perspective, players are coming to Ohio State to win championships. There aren’t a lot of other options elsewhere in the Big Ten to achieve that end. Where would be a better landing spot?

But why, for a program where even four-star recruits might never see the field because of the depth of talent ahead of them, does talent tend to stick around in Columbus? Perhaps it’s because nearly half of Ohio State’s roster is from Ohio and is living out the dream of playing for the state’s flagship university. But even Alabama is net negative when it comes to the portal. Credit has to go to Day and the coaching staff for building a culture where players want to stick around.

Ohio State is in the rare position to leverage the transfer portal to get to another level, getting even more out of reach of other Big Ten programs. Rather than hemorrhaging players to other schools, the Buckeyes can have their pick of players who would be the best fits for their immediate needs in the upcoming season.

But the returns — even for the Buckeyes — are diminishing. Getting a solid player in the door to fill a gap is one thing. Building a team of transfers is a different story.