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Evaluating the impact of the NCAA transfer portal on coaches and players

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For coaches, the portal means constantly checking for new names. For players, it means heavy competition for limited spots and sometimes even lost scholarships.

NCAA Football: Texas Orange-White Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

When Drew Mehringer saw the number on his phone’s caller ID, his first thought was about avoiding any potential NCAA violations.

“Hey man, I don’t know why you’re calling me, but I can’t talk to you until you’re in the portal,” the Texas Longhorns wide receivers coach told Bru McCoy, according to 247Sports.

The former five-star prospect, with whom Mehringer had built a strong relationship during the recruiting process, let him know that he was in the NCAA transfer portal, the new database of names that tracks all the players eligible for contact.

Days later, McCoy arrived in Austin.

In the seven months since the transfer portal went live, the Longhorns have seen all three sides of it — the big-time addition of an elite recruit, the loss of multiple players, including two quarterbacks, and the return of another quarterback, redshirt freshman Casey Thompson, who explored his options and decided that Texas still provided his best path towards playing time.

As the first offseason with the transfer portal now approaches the start of summer sessions in several weeks, coaches and players are still trying to understand all the impacts of what some are calling college football free agency.

For Memphis Director of Player Personnel Justin Crouse, that means checking the transfer portal first thing in the morning, at lunch, and typically again before leaving the football offices — by his estimation, as conveyed to the Associated Press, he now spends 40 percent of his time evaluating and researching players in the transfer portal.

“We get an alert every day that somebody gets added into the portal, but then we get a weekly breakdown of position, hometown,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “And then trying to collect all the information, the video, to get a sense of who these kids have developed to be.”

Crouse focuses on players with connections to the Memphis area and positions of need, then passes along the information he gathers to Norvell and the other assistants. At Oregon, head coach Mario Cristobal has his staff keep files of players recruited by the Ducks who ended up elsewhere just in case they end up in the portal. Georgia has its own scouting department for those players.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for the coaches is that they can cut out the middlemen who often brokered contact between players considering transferring and the coaching staffs of their target schools.

Now coaches and players are free to communicate directly once the names hit the database, as McCoy and Mehringer did, with programs no longer able to restrict the eventual destinations of those players. Still, there are, unsurprisingly, coaches who don’t like the new reality around college football, like Georgia’s Kirby Smart.

“My biggest problem with the portal is that it gives kids an easy way out,” Smart told CBSSports.com. “I know the devil’s advocate of players’ rights and they should be able to go wherever they want to go. But I’m telling you, no normal parent would say, ‘At the first sign of trouble, I want my son to run.’”

More importantly, it’s not clear whether all of those players fully understand the math involved — many schools still prefer to build through high school or junior college recruiting and have limited spots available with the hard cap of 25 initial counters allowed for each recruiting class that the NCAA instituted in 2017 to alleviate issues with oversigning.

Nearly 1,400 FBS players have entered the transfer portal, according to 247Sports, including 770 from Power Five programs, with only 20 percent of those Power Five players landing at other Power Five programs, according to the count by The Athletic, though the actual count may be lower given the discrepancies between the numbers. There are still 250 players from Power Five programs who remain uncommitted, as finding landing spots at Group of Five schools is difficult enough that only around 65 players have made that transition.

Even a talented player like Toneil Carter, once ranked as the No. 10 running back in the 2017 recruiting class, landed at FCS Sam Houston State after leaving Texas.

Due to those signing limitations, programs that lost a heavy number of players to transfers will find it difficult to rebuild back to a full roster. The issues extend to the players, too — many coaches simply don’t want them.

“I look at some of these guys that other teams pick up and then I go back and I look at their résumé,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards told The Athletic. “I go, ‘Why would you want a guy with that type of production, with not a lot of production? You might as well go get a freshman guy and build your program.’”

At Texas, head coach Tom Herman and his staff decided to go through a second recruiting process with players like Thompson and fellow redshirt freshman quarterback Cameron Rising, who quickly landed at Utah after entering the transfer portal.

However, some coaches, like Edwards and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, immediately pull scholarships from players who enter the portal, eliminating the ability to return to those schools. Smart is less absolute, but lets his players know they can be cut if they enter it.

As coaches gain a deeper understanding of how the portal is working in practice, some like Edwards intend to educate their players about how few opportunities are out there in order to avoid losing more players to the portal — he’s already had more than a dozen leave.

As a result, there’s growing support from some coaches to receive extra counters for every player who leaves through the portal. Right now, however, it’s many of the players in the portal who are facing the greatest obstacles and experiencing the full extent of the risks involved.

“It’s caught a lot of kids by surprise in the fact that a lot of guys don’t have scholarships,” Edwards told CBSSports.com. “There’s a little bit now, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ I think they assumed their name is in the portal, ‘I’ll get a scholarship somewhere else.’ The unintended consequence has hit them in the face.”