Mountain West Football: Have Transfer QBs Really Made An Impact?
What does Mountain West history say about imports at college football’s most important position?
How often does it pay off?
Spring football is already underway in some corners of the Mountain West and fans can expect to see a lot of new faces thanks to the transfer portal, which has exploded in popularity among college football athletes over the last several years.
Unsurprisingly, the position that receives the most attention on this front is quarterback. Whether it’s Collin Hill leaving Colorado State for South Carolina or Nick Starkel jumping from Arkansas to San Jose State, the men under center receive a lot of scrutiny as the most important piece of any program’s puzzle. Year after year, the deck reshuffles across the country, but it always leaves a very important question: Has it been worth it?
To better answer that question, we looked back at the last eight years of Mountain West football to see how the litany of transfer quarterbacks have performed.
How do you define “transfer quarterback”?
For our purposes here, a transfer quarterback will have spent time on an FBS or FCS roster before seeing time with a Mountain West program. We’re not as concerned with past QBs like Jorge Reyna and Josh Allen, who spent time exclusively at junior colleges before playing at Fresno State and Wyoming, respectively.
How many transfer quarterbacks have there been?
By my count, 25 transfers have thrown at least 25 passes in a season for a Mountain West team since 2012. Six have done so twice. The only teams without a player that reached this threshold are Air Force, which typically doesn’t deal with many incoming transfers at all; San Jose State, for whom Starkel could be their first entrant; and Utah State, though Damion Hobbs did throw 24 times across 2015 and 2016.
What has the average transfer quarterback done?
With some rounding, the average transfer quarterback has had the following season line since 2012: 9.2 games played, 159 pass attempts, 91 completions, 57.3% completion rate, 1124 passing yards, 7.08 yards per attempt, 8.2 touchdowns, 5.3 interceptions, 126.30 passer rating.
For the sake of comparison, the closest single-season approximations to this by a Mountain West quarterback are Garrett Grayson’s injury-marred 2012 at Colorado State and Ty Gangi’s 2016 season at Nevada.
Here’s something to get out of the way right now: While a few players have come close, no transfer quarterback has ever come in, claimed a starting job and then played an entire season as QB1. Just eight had at least 200 pass attempts in a season. In some of the rosier cases, injuries impeded but, in many others, ineffective deployment or play is the primary culprit.
Who is the Mountain West’s best “transfer QB success” story?
The first thing to note is that, since 2012, five different quarterbacks have helped lead their team to a conference title: Ryan Katz (2012) and Maxwell Smith (2015) at San Diego State, Marcus McMaryion (2018) at Fresno State, and Montell Cozart (2017) and Jaylon Henderson (2019) at Boise State. By that measure, it would appear that transfer quarterbacks are a worthwhile investment.
If you recall the individual seasons, however, it’s not quite that simple. Katz missed the last five games of 2012 with a broken ankle, while Smith had a disastrous September before being asked to do about as little as possible and then tearing his ACL in the Aztecs’ regular season finale. Cozart was very clearly a second fiddle to Brett Rypien and while Henderson played well once he became QB1, but it took a Hank Bachmeier injury for him to get there.
McMaryion may be the answer here, then, but even he was subject to conservative game plans in 2017, where avoiding mistakes was more important than creating big plays, and his strong performances were bolstered by a pair of the last decade’s best defenses in the Mountain West.
If you want to broaden your definition of “success”, you could create a bigger tent. Cameron Coffman’s lone season at Wyoming, 2015, was decent enough but lost in a defense that couldn’t really stop anyone yet. Same goes for Sean Schroeder at Hawaii in 2013, whose second season was markedly better than his first. And while K.J. Carta-Samuels and Patrick O’Brien weren’t exactly all-conference passers, they had solid enough campaigns in 2018 and 2019 that are remarkably similar in a lot of respects.
Beyond that, though?
If you’re keeping track, we’ve mentioned nine transfer quarterbacks by name to this point. It gets incredibly dicey after that. Generally speaking, you can fit the Mountain West programs into several different umbrellas: Worked Out Fine, Mixed Results, Ballyhooed Fizzlers, and Outright Disasters.
Worked Out Fine
San Diego State and Boise State provide the majority of evidence that transfers can work if you know who you are and you know what you’re doing. Wyoming probably belongs here, too, since Coffman acquitted himself pretty well as the Cowboys’ lone exemplar.
Take Colorado State, for instance. O’Brien and Carta-Samuels were more than adequate as individuals, but the Rams still had losing seasons in each of the last two years. The ill-fated Faton Bauta experiment was a disaster and M.J. McPeek only saw action under center when Grayson got hurt in 2012; CSU lost all four games in which he played.
Similarly, McMaryion may have been a success for the Bulldogs but, well, he’s the only one. Brandon Connette, like Bauta, made no impact as a change-of-pace running quarterback while like Ford Childress and Zack Kline were just bad in their limited starting time.
Hawaii, too, best fits here, since Schroder’s 2013 is an outlier next to Max Wittek and Taylor Graham.
The best example of this is probably Nevada. Malik Henry arrived last summer with a ton of hype from his time on “Last Chance U” and showed a spark in his very brief time as a starter. Ultimately, though, he could never wrestle the job away from Carson Strong for good and he’s no longer a part of the Wolf Pack. At least he showed out better than David Cornwell, who bombed out badly back in 2017.
With apologies to UNLV and New Mexico, the transfer portal hasn’t worked out well for either program at all. Max Gilliam looked alright by the end of his stint replacing Armani Rogers in 2018, but it took him about a month to get there and injuries kept him from contributing on the field last fall. Sheriron Jones had his moments in 2018, too, but he took a few steps backwards with his own chance to claim the starting job in 2019 and then off-field issues cost him his roster spot with the Lobos.
Other than that? Woof. Kurt Palandech gave us an epic triple-overtime duel with Josh Allen and that’s about it. Austin Apodaca didn’t really light it up as Bob Davie’s passing quarterback of choice. Coltin Gerhart was alternately hurt or ineffective, while Johnny Stanton underwhelmed outside of a shocking upset of Fresno State in 2017.
Some notes about transfer quarterback performance
- Ten different transfers have had a single-season completion rate above 60 percent. Seven had a completion rate under 50 percent.
- 13 transfers have thrown for at least 10 touchdowns in a single season but just four — Carta-Samuels, Coffman, McMaryion, and Schroeder — have topped 14 TD passes. 11 have had more interceptions than touchdowns in a year of action.
- Just four transfers — Coffman, Katz, McMaryion, and O’Brien — averaged at least eight yards per attempt in a single season. Five averaged under five yards per attempt.
- Of the 17 transfer seasons with at least 100 attempts, six quarterbacks had an interception rate under three percent. Five had an interception rate above five percent.
What should fans take away from this?
Don’t expect a savior. Perhaps it goes without saying, but players typically don’t transfer if things are going well in their previous destination and there may be reasons, which aren’t immediately apparent, why they couldn’t win (or hold onto) the job. Jake Haener, after all, lost out to Jacob Eason at Washington before departing for Fresno State and could’ve stuck around given that Eason was likely to declare early for the NFL. Justin Rogers dealt with lingering injury issues and could never catch up with Max Duggan at TCU while Starkel couldn’t stay atop the depth chart at two different Power 5 stops.
If you can temper your expectations, you can avoid being too disappointed in the (probable) likelihood it doesn’t work all the way out.