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Most impactful transfers for Ohio State football in the Transfer Portal era

The transfer portal is a mainstay in college football at this point and you can’t tell Ohio State’s story under Ryan Day without it.

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

College football has changed immensely since the transfer portal was instituted back in 2018. New legislation in 2021 created the opportunity for players to transfer one time without sitting out a year creating a new element in both recruiting and the offseason to follow.

Ohio State has not been reliant on the transfer portal, and many fans believe the Buckeyes should be doing more to fill in perceived weak links on the roster. The Buckeyes have stayed strong in the mindset of only bringing in a transfer that is a culture fit and a significantly better option than what is already on the roster.

Looking back at the past few seasons since the transfer portal opened there were some significant transfers in – and out– of the program. This year the crop of talent coming in from the portal includes Freshman All-SEC corner Davison Igbinosun; All-ACC safety Ja’Had Carter; and versatile offensive lineman in Victor Cutler. On paper, they fit the profile of what Ohio State looks for in transfers, and the importance comes because Ohio State is losing a significant amount of players to the portal as well.

The plan has netted success for the Buckeyes, and for Ohio State keeping up starts with strengthening the roster by any means necessary. Sticking to the plan has worked out and the list of impactful transfers is long. Time will tell with the group that came in, but looking back the portal has been a focal point of Ohio State’s story over recent years.

Tanner McCalister

When Jim Knowles was brought in, the immediate question for fans was, who is Knowles bringing over from Oklahoma State? That answer came in the form of Tanner McCalister who brought experience in Knowles’ system. Coming in, there wasn’t a lot of expectations on what he was bringing outside of knowledge, but McCalister did end up becoming a reliable starter in the Big Ten.

His impact was felt early in the season, with his comfortability in the scheme he brought a steady hand to the secondary. In this past season, McCalister had three interceptions and 24 tackles. The steadiness kept him in the rotation, but the impact he provided early was not there at the end of the year as the secondary as a whole collapsed down the stretch. This was not the most impactful transfer, but the Buckeyes would have been in a significantly worse place to start the season without McCalister in the fold.

Jameson Williams

One of the two most significant transfers to leave the program, James Williams went on to star at Alabama winning the Biletnikoff. At Ohio State, Williams was a third receiver in the shortened six-game season making his impact for the Buckeyes feel small. His touchdown against Clemson was a sign that there was more to come, but that wasn’t at Ohio State.

Williams transferring ended up not hurting the Buckeyes too much when Chris Olave announced he was returning for his senior season at Ohio State, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba breaking out the next season. But the Williams transfer ended with a story the Buckeyes are all too familiar with. A player has significant success after leaving the program, Williams was a first-round selection getting selected right behind Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Williams' impact adds to Hartline as an ultra-developer at the position, but it also gives opposing fans a place to take credit where Ohio State couldn’t – which to me is the worst type of impact.

Jonah Jackson

An underrated transfer was Jonah Jackson leaving Rutgers for Ohio State. Entering the graduate transfer portal, Jackson was one of the earliest additions the Buckeyes made from the portal. Jackson came to Ohio State with 36 starts under his belt and accolades including making an All-Big Ten team. He provided stability to a unit that has multiple first-time starters including Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, and Branden Bowen.

Having success at Rutgers did not get people excited, but the level of play that Jackson brought to Ohio State was exactly what the Buckeyes needed. Jackson was part of the playoff team that lost to Clemson but was a key figure in the first year under head coach Ryan Day. Jackson was a first All-Big Ten performer and provided a bridge that was needed on the offensive line for the Buckeyes.

Joe Burrow

The most significant transfer out of the program is obvious, Joe Burrow leaving for LSU. Burrow narrowly lost the starting job to Dwayne Haskins Jr. after breaking his hand in Spring Practice. That history is well known because as we all know Burrow went on to dominate college football, win the Heisman Trophy, and win a national championship.

Ohio State ended up with Dwayne Haskins who owns most of the single-season passing records for the Buckeyes and Justin Fields who led Ohio State to back-to-back playoff appearances. Without knowing what Joe Burrow would become, the Buckeyes ended up with an incredible three-year stretch. The impact was culturally the most significant, Joe Burrow is a Buckeye, and many fans across the country will never accept it. Now every Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals play, there is always a pocket on the internet arguing about who can claim Burrow.

Trey Sermon

Now on the field, Trey Sermon had the greatest two-game stretch in Ohio State history from the running back position. In eight games, Sermon had 870 yards and four touchdowns for the Buckeyes. To start the year Sermon was sold, but just wasn’t having the explosive that was billed when he arrived. Out of nowhere, the former Oklahoma Sooner entered his name into the Ohio State record books.

Sermon ran for 331 yards in the Big Ten Championship game breaking Eddie George’s record in the process. He followed that up with 193 yards and a touchdown against Clemson leading the Buckeyes to revenge in the 2020 playoffs. Despite coming in during the shortened COVID season, Sermon’s impact led the Buckeyes to the highest the program had been since winning the national title, and even though the time was short, Sermon’s place in Buckeye lore stands tall making him one of the most significant transfers Ohio State has brought in.

Justin Fields

The transfer of Justin Fields was by far the most significant in the portal era. Ohio State was going through the tumultuous end to the Urban Meyer era and was in an odd place at the quarterback position when Ryan Day took over. When stories in the South began to arise that Fields was looking to enter the portal and seek immediate eligibility, the math was perfect with Ohio State needing a quarterback.

When Fields arrived the expectations were high, the former No. 2 overall recruit in the 247sports composite – behind only Trevor Lawrence who won a national title with Clemson – was now at Ohio State. Fields had an incredible first season leading the Buckeyes to the playoff, a Big Ten title, and a win over Michigan. In his second season, he saved the Big Ten football season and was triumphant in leading the Buckeyes in a revenge win over Clemson. Fields was a legend for the Buckeyes and the most vital player brought into the program in the Ryan Day era. Without Fields, the program might be in a different place, and that is why the significance of his transfer raises the expectation of every player Ohio State brings in.

The transfer portal has become an entire segment of college football, and the Buckeyes have had to get involved with it. Since the transfer portal was created in 2018, Ohio State has brought in its share of players. Some players have been role players, but the Buckeyes have found and lost stars to the portal.

In hindsight, the Buckeyes have done a great job of bringing in impact transfers. This is why the expectations are high whenever the portal opens because the Buckeyes have found a ton of success in evaluating players to fit the program. Roster management has completely changed over the last four seasons and the Buckeyes have done their best to navigate this area of the sport.

With the addition of NIL to the landscape, there is another variable in the importance of the transfer portal. Making every player brought in and lost that much more significant.