High-profile quarterback transfers are standard fare in the college football news cycle, and the telltale signs—a depth chart logjam, a reduction in playing time, a coaching change—are apparent long before the moves are made official. Equally standard fare is the speculation over possible landing spots for the outgoing player, and the opinion, in some corners, that the decision reflects a culture of entitlement that promotes taking the easy route over persevering through competition.
Clemson’s announcement on Monday that Hunter Johnson was leaving the program fit the mold. A blue-chip prospect out of Brownsburg (Ind.) High who was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Johnson opted for a fresh start after throwing just 27 passes as a true freshman at Clemson and watching this spring as Trevor Lawrence flashed the tantalizing skillset that made him one of the top two prospects in the incoming freshman class. To see more playing time in 2018, Johnson would have needed to beat out both Lawrence and returning senior starter Kelly Bryant. Already, Big Ten programs Purdue and Northwestern have been reported as potential destinations for Johnson.
Johnson is the third quarterback to leave Clemson this offseason, but the other two (Tucker Israel and Zerrick Cooper) didn’t share his distinction of being assessed a five-star rating as a high school recruit. Scouting services bestow that rating on only a select number of QBs each year, and for good reason: Five-stars are viewed as future top-tier starters in the college game with the upside to develop into early-round NFL draft picks. That makes it all the more striking that so many have not flourished at the programs with which they initially signed National Letters of Intent.
As USA Today writer Paul Myerberg pointed out on Twitter on Monday, Johnson is the fifth of the eight total five-star quarterbacks from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 classes to transfer since the beginning of his college career.* The four other five-star QB transfers over that three-year period besides Johnson are Blake Barnett (class of ’15), Kyler Murray (’15), Shea Patterson (’16) and Jacob Eason (’16). The exceptions who have stayed put: UCLA’s Josh Rosen (’15), Stanford’s Davis Mills (’17) and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (’17). Rosen was picked 10th in this year’s draft by the Arizona Cardinals, while both Tagovailoa and Mills are in the running for QB1 status this fall at their respective schools, with the former seemingly more likely to prevail than the latter.
*That group of eight covers every 247Sports Composite five-star passer set to play in college during the upcoming season, excluding true freshmen. However, the three-year period in question doesn’t represent an abrupt rise in QB transfers: 10 of the 16 five-star signal-callers from the 2010 to 2017 classes transferred.
No single explanation accounts for the high level of turnover among the QBs at the top of the recruiting rankings. The moves arose from different situations at different programs for different reasons. Yet taken together, they reinforce the sobering reality that recruiting rankings do not guarantee success at the next level. The rankings are a helpful evaluative tool that by and large do a good job of identifying the best players in a given age group and signaling which programs amass the most top-end talent. But they don’t take into account external factors that can hamper prospects’ growth, accelerate their progress or affect their development in some other way.
Johnson, for instance, may blossom into an all-conference stud at Purdue, Northwestern or elsewhere in the Power 5. And had Lawrence picked a different program coming out of Cartersville (Ga.) High, Johnson could have thrived under center for the Tigers. His transfer arguably says less about his own shortcomings than the confidence Clemson coaches have in Lawrence’s upside panning out. By contrast, Alabama’s Tagovailoa, who checked in one spot below Johnson in the 2017 QB rankings, didn’t face a spring battle with an elite signal-caller one class younger than him, like Lawrence. (Alabama did not sign a class of 2018 quarterback.) But Tagovailoa’s comments to a Hawaiian television station last week suggest he may have at least considered transferring if not for head coach Nick Saban’s bold call to bench two-year starter Jalen Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa at halftime of the Crimson Tide’s national title game win over Georgia.
Some passers may be so gifted that they can excel despite unfavorable circumstances. Not even an uber prospect (or three) lower on the depth chart, a bungling offensive coordinator, a shaky left tackle or an unreliable running game can stunt their rise to All-America and future NFL franchise savior status. But in the vast majority of cases, that outcome is realistic. It’s never a foregone conclusion that top QBs like Johnson will reach the ceiling suggested by their recruiting profile pages. Below, take a look back at how the five five-star quarterback transfers still in college football ended up in a spot few expected them to be on National Signing Day, and what’s in store for them.
Original school: Alabama
Current school: South Florida
After claiming MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2014 and being ranked below only Rosen in his class, Barnett spent a year learning the Crimson Tide’s system while redshirting as Florida State transfer Jacob Coker guided Alabama to a title. The next season, Barnett started the Crimson Tide’s highly anticipated opener against USC after a summer competition with true freshman Hurts and redshirt junior Cooper Bateman, but Barnett’s moment in the spotlight was short-lived.
By the end of that season opener, a 52–6 Alabama win, Hurts had accounted for four touchdowns and overtaken Barnett for the starting gig, with three full years of eligibility left after 2016. In late September, Barnett decided to enroll at a community college in California, then signed with Arizona State and was granted immediate eligibility for 2017. But last season in Tempe, he couldn’t unseat Manny Wilkins as the Sun Devils’ No. 1, and he finished the year with only 40 passing yards on five attempts with zero touchdowns and an interception.
With Wilkins back for 2018, Barnett chose to leave Arizona State this offseason as a graduate transfer and settled on South Florida, where he’ll have two seasons of eligibility beginning this fall. His college track record suggests his recruiting pedigree inflated his actual ability, but he will get an opportunity to helm the offense of an AAC contender if he can win the battle to replace prolific dual-threat Quinton Flowers. Barnett will have some catching up to do. He didn’t enroll in time to participate in spring workouts, and his prime competitors (fourth-year junior Brett Kean and third-year sophomore Chris Oladokun) have spent a full calendar year under Charlie Strong’s coaching staff, but Barnett’s path to first-team reps is relatively clear, and Strong probably won’t hesitate to send out the newcomer if the offense hits any rough patches.
Original school: Georgia
Current school: Washington
Eason seemed to have a firm grip on Georgia’s quarterback job at the outset of last season, but a left knee injury suffered in Georgia’s opener against Appalachian State opened the door for Jake Fromm, who cemented himself as Georgia’s starter with a sterling true freshman season in which he evolved into one of the most efficient passers in the country and guided the Bulldogs to the national title game. Relegated to reserve status, Eason’s prospects for returning to the field got dimmer when Georgia signed Justin Fields, the 247Sports Composite’s No. 2 quarterback behind Lawrence in the 2018 class.
While Eason stayed on with the Bulldogs through their SEC championship run, he announced in January of this year that he intended to leave Georgia. Eason’s destination, Washington, made geographic sense—he hails from Lake Stevens, about an hour north of Seattle—but Jake Browning’s return for his senior season removes any uncertainty about the identity of the Huskies’ 2018 starter.
Eason will be in the mix to succeed Browning in 2019, along with the two four-star quarterbacks Washington recruited in its most recent recruiting class, Colson Yankoff and Jacob Sirmon. It has a verbal commitment from a four-star quarterback in the class of 2019 (Dylan Morris), and redshirt freshman Jacob Haener appears to have the inside track on backing up Browning this season. Eason looks the part of an all-league standout, but he’ll need to prove he deserves to be the leader of the Pac-12 North heavyweight in his home state.
Original school: Clemson
Current school: TBD
Johnson probably missed his best opportunity to seize Clemson’s starting job last offseason, when he was engaged in a three-man quarterback battle to replace Deshaun Watson. Neither of the other two main candidates (Cooper and Bryant) were more highly regarded as recruits than Johnson, but head coach Dabo Swinney ultimately went with the more experienced option in Bryant. Johnson managed to stoke optimism about his potential last season by filling in ably for Bryant, but that limited seven-game sample mattered little this spring, when Lawrence put on display the cannon arm and big frame (6’6″, 208 pounds) that indicate he’ll be able to keep Clemson’s offense humming if called upon early in his college career.
Lawrence looked every bit the potential star suggested by his glowing scouting evaluations, and he’s set to spend at least three seasons at Clemson. Barring injury, Johnson’s odds of beating him out at any point during that span felt long. His transfer is a sensible move for a talented passer who had the misfortune of enrolling at an ACC powerhouse one year before an even more talented one. Either of the two schools mentioned as early favorites to land Johnson seem like logical fits: At Purdue, Johnson could bloom as a dual-threat triggerman in head coach Jeff Brohm’s high-octane attack, and at Northwestern, Johnson can rely on the counsel of his brother, Cole, a walk-on wide receiver with the Wildcats from 2013 to 2016. There’s no doubt that other programs would be interested, too, if his search expands beyond his Midwest roots.
Original school: Texas A&M
Current school: Oklahoma
The elevated expectations surrounding Murray’s signing with Texas A&M were easy to explain. Murray came to College Station as a five-star recruit in the class of 2015 following an illustrious career at Allen (Tex.) High in which he accounted for 14,500 yards and 186 touchdowns, compiled a 42–0 record as a starter and won three consecutive state championships. His brief time as an Aggie yielded far fewer milestones. After appearing in eight games as a true freshman, Murray transferred away from the program amid reported trust issues with Texas A&M coaches. (Kyle Allen, a fellow five-star QB from Texas in the class of 2014, announced he was leaving the program the same month.)
Murray decided to head to Oklahoma, where he now has an opportunity to succeed Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield after sitting out one season in accordance with NCAA rules and spending another as a reserve. Although he played in only seven games behind Mayfield in 2017, Murray flashed the wheels and accurate arm that could make him a potent playmaker in head coach Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid scheme. Murray completed 18 of his 21 passing attempts, recorded 142 yards on 14 carries (10.1 YPC) and, as the starter in the Sooners’ Nov. 25 game against West Virginia with Mayfield benched as punishment for his sideline comportment the previous week against Kansas, memorably ripped off a 66-yard dash to set up a short rushing touchdown from redshirt junior Rodney Anderson on the opening drive of a 28-point Sooners win.
Although redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall showed enough in the spring game to keep Oklahoma’s quarterback competition open into preseason camp, Murray enters the summer in pole position to lead the Sooners’ first-team offense onto the field for their Sept. 1 opener against Florida Atlantic. That assumes he doesn’t decide to eschew football in favor of turning pro in baseball. Murray, an outfielder who has significantly improved his numbers at the plate for the Sooners this season, is regarded as a potential first-round pick in Major League Baseball’s June 4 draft.
Original school: Ole Miss
Current school: Michigan
An NCAA policy shift and a joint statement from Michigan and Ole Miss in late April cleared the way for Patterson to suit up for the Wolverines this fall after months of speculation as to whether he’d be forced to sit out a season after transferring away from the NCAA penalties brought upon Ole Miss by former head coach Hugh Freeze. Senior Jordan Ta’amu proved to be a shrewd operator of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s uptempo system after Patterson suffered a season-ending knee injury last October, but the news of Patterson’s transfer was a considerable blow for a program facing heavy NCAA sanctions and increased the odds Ole Miss will spend this year looking up at in-state rival Mississippi State in the SEC West standings.
For Michigan, Patterson’s arrival adds another capable passer to a quarterback derby lacking any extensively experienced in-house options. Neither redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey nor true freshman Joe Milton—both of whom were assessed four-star ratings and ranked among the top 10 pro-style QBs in their respective classes, according to the 247Sports Composite—have attempted a pass for Michigan, and redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters didn’t provide the offensive jolt the Wolverines needed during his time under center toward the end of last season. He completed 52.78% of his 108 attempts for 672 yards with four touchdowns and a pair of interceptions and, after a long layoff following a concussion he suffered during a Nov. 18 game against Wisconsin, tossed two picks and managed only 186 passing yards on 44 attempts against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. It’s up to Patterson to make good on his recruiting bona fides by creating some separation between himself and that undistinguished crop of signal-callers before Michigan heads to South Bend for its Saturday-night, Labor Day weekend matchup with Notre Dame.