Over at Football Study Hall I did a post explaining how West Virginia is tapping into market inefficiencies in recruiting by taking program guys from the Midwest while leaning on the transfer market for their feature talent.
You’ll notice that there are some team angles here that are the same as for the legendary Nebraska teams that I explored while discussing “championship recruiting” or the Permian Panther monster teams that inspired “Friday Night Lights.“
The “role player” positions are stocked by local products that are developed over time in the West Virginia system and then the stars are plucked from the ranks of losers in the great game of blue blood football. And I mean losers in the sense of a guy like Jack Allison, who’s Miami program decided to go in the direction of more of a dual-threat run game system and chose another young QB over him as their easiest path to building an offense. Does that mean Allison can’t be an ultra-effective QB of an explosive spread offense? Probably not.
Similarly, Nebraska would pluck a few blue chip athletes out from the national recruiting scene to come serve as the ballcarriers in their machine and the Permian Panthers would plug in a few different athletes at FB, TB, MLB, and flanker from year to year to benefit from playing with phenomenal role players in a strong infrastructure.
But while West Virginia stands out right now as the school working the transfer angle the hardest, it’s increasingly common across the sport and the rest of the Big 12 is finding it to be a major path. The Big 12 is uniquely well situated to benefit from this procedure for a reason you can probably guess…the spread.
“Basketball on grass”
That’s one of everyone’s favorite terms for high paced offensive football. It happens to be fitting for explaining the transfer-based recruiting system as well. Spread football tends to simplify the game and make it easier to plug in athletes in featured spots or to find roles for players.
Wichita State was in headlines a month or so ago for being the focus of a Koch brother plot to transform higher education into a conservative stronghold, it’s an amusing piece you should read. But they’ve been notorious for longer than that for how well head basketball coach Gregg Marshall works the transfer market. He runs a four or five-out, spread pick’n’roll offense that weaponized Cleanthony Early a few years back by playing him as a small ball 4 that opponents could never find a good matchup for without exposing themselves to getting shredded by the Shocker guards.
Basically they’d put four perimeter players on the court and then attack with whichever one you stuck your most plodding non-center on. That was usually Early since he was 6-8 and thus the obvious matchup for opposing PFs. In his second year in the system he went for 16 a game on 48% shooting and torched opponents in the Tournament until Kentucky edged them out by two points in a game where Anthony scored 31 points lightning up Julius Randle. Before this, Anthony was a JUCO. Wichita State is one of several mid-major basketball programs following the transfer strategy to build top teams of hungry upperclassmen.
The spread offense in college creates a similar effect. If you’re a blue chip wideout in the SEC who’s tired of playing second/third string behind other guys while coach yells at you to block more on run plays in the hopes that as a senior you’ll be the single wideout that actually gets the ball…you should transfer to the Big 12. Your chances of playing shoot up, your role simplifies to running routes all the time on RPOs or deep shots, and the offense is set up to allow you to put up huge numbers running choice routes on isolated DBs or quick hitters on conflicted LBs.
If you’re a QB? The West Virginia Air Raid is installed in three days and then the rest of practice is about repping everything and learning to execute the base offense by muscle memory so that you can advance to learning defenses and calling the plays from the line of scrimmage. That’s arguably a better audition AND a better prep for running an NFL offense than even executing a more pro-style approach in terms of the throws but doing so in a more limited fashion and with less autonomy.
I was asked about the challenge for West Virginia in getting a guy going with fewer years to work with before he’s exhausted his eligibility but A) the mountaineers tend to snatch transfers rather than grad transfers at QB, so they sit a year and learn the offense and B) the offense can be picked up fast. To recycle my new favorite metaphor, learning the Air Raid after being at another school is like learning Spanish after you already learned Italian.
The talent problem
Outside of West Virginia, the rest of the Big 12 doesn’t really need to use transfers to get talent at QB, RB, or WR. The state of Texas is absolutely loaded with all three, including at the 3-star rank where most Big 12 programs live in recruiting.
Of course, Oklahoma State was happy to take Tyron Johnson from LSU and WVU was willing to find room for TJ Simmons. As good as the WR rooms tend to be for Big 12 teams, if a big, freak athlete who’s realizing that LSU isn’t going to throw him the ball much wants to come, it’s easy to find use for them.
This is going to be the easiest kind of talent for the Big 12 to find and draw in because they can make a great case for setting up those guys to finally find the opportunity they’ve been fighting for.
Eventually though what West Virginia is doing on their DL this year is going to become more common across the league. It’s hard to recruit and hit on enough athletes to build a good D in the Big 12 these days but it’d be a lot easier if you were regularly calling up Ben Banogu’s from the lower levels or snatching up DL that couldn’t crack the rotation at a blue blood like Bama or Clemson.
Big 12 teams will have to work on their recruiting pitch for these guys but it shouldn’t be too hard. “Hey, want to play in a P5 conference with big time national attention where we can allow you to showcase your ability to cover or rush the passer against the best passing attacks in the country?”
The Big 12 doesn’t have a very strong recruiting base, especially compared to the other four P5 conferences. But they can always serve as a league for transfers and start to claw their way back up in total talent.