Column: Portal will expedite transition

Mike Norvell has found a portal in the college football universe to help him accelerate time — the time needed to rebuild the football program he inherited. Fortunately, you don’t have to be Einstein to understand it. 

Florida State has gone into the college football transfer portal and brought back seven experienced and talented players at positions of need, which can make the Seminoles much better much faster. The latest three players include defensive back Jammie Robinson and defensive tackle Keir Thomas, both from South Carolina, and Auburn running back D.J. Williams.

Thomas and Williams played high school football in Florida, at Miami Central and Sebring High Schools, respectively. 

The Seminoles are in the right place at the right time to capitalize on NCAA rule changes regarding transfer football players. These changes come at an opportune time for Norvell and he is taking full advantage. And, I am happy to report, these revised NCAA rules are good for the players, whether transferring into or out of Florida State. 

Before we get into the fun stuff about the players, let’s use just three paragraphs to explain the rules and why they are fortuitous for a program seeking to flip fortunes quickly.  

The first adaption to the transfer rule allows players to transfer and play immediately. In years past, transfers had to sit out a year to gain eligibility, which inhibited both players and coaches from wanting to mess with it. 

The less-known rule, which is beneficial to FSU, kicks in this year for graduate players who want to transfer. Last year, if a player earned his degree and had a year of eligibility remaining, they had to apply and be admitted to a graduate program at the school where they wanted to play. The graduate programs at Florida State, you will be proud to know, have much-more stringent admissions requirements, including high GPA and Graduate Record Exam standards than many universities. Many of the prospects who wished to transfer to FSU last year either could not meet those requirements or didn’t want to go through the hassle of the application process. Instead they followed the path of least resistance.

Under the new NCAA rule, they now have the choice to enroll in a second undergraduate curriculum or meet the requirements of graduate school. 

A unique opportunity for FSU and Florida kids

Norvell has signed seven transfer or graduate students thus far this year, bringing his two-year total to 16 and is likely to sign more. Don’t be surprised if next year you look out on the field and half or more of FSU’s 22 starters came through the portal.

What I like is many of these transfers are Sunshine State high school players returning home to finish their careers. What I find ironic is FSU is actually taking a “mulligan” on those who likely would have signed with FSU if the program had not been in coaching transition at the time they were recruited.

For many years, Florida State football has flourished against teams with larger athletic budgets. Why? Because FSU enjoys a wealth of high school football talent in Florida when its coaching staff is not in transition. 

It’s been a very big advantage over states with far fewer Division 1-level high school players and is now an even bigger advantage with the new transfer rules.

A research engine called Batchego tabulated the number of college football players from various states and determined that Texas produces most college football players (2877) followed closely by Florida (2589) with Georgia fourth (1950). While Texas has the most college players in all divisions, according to NCAA research, our Sunshine State is No. 1 in terms of the percentage of Florida players who are Division I prospects (9.9 percent) followed by the Peach State at No. 2 (8.6 percent). Just 2.7 percent of the huge population of Texas players are considered D1 prospects. 

Yeah, I get geeked on numbers. Why? Because there are more Division I football players who call Florida home than any other state, which gives college football programs in Florida – and your Seminoles, in particular – a decided advantage when those players come home to finish their careers. It’s not so big a deal for schools in South Carolina or Maryland who produce a smaller base of D1 players. 

It is a rare day, a very rare day, when the NCAA does something right for the players and does something that provides Florida State with an unintended competitive advantage.

By altering the NCAA rules to make it easier for players to transfer, FSU is in the right place at the right time to fill dire needs from all the Florida natives who signed Division 1 scholarships over the past four years (350-400 each year) and are now looking to come home to finish. 

And it is a gift that will keep on giving until the NCAA changes the rule.

Transfer players have become leaders

Devontay Love-Taylor
Devontay Love-Taylor started at three positions along the line in 2020. (photo courtesy WL Pearce / FSU athletics)

When the NCAA made it easier to transfer, many of my favorite Seminole fans worried that transfer players would bring baggage or could be bad for team chemistry. They could. But the opposite has proven to be true, which is a testimony to the evaluations Norvell’s staff has been doing of the players in the portal.  

Think about the leaders on FSU’s offense, and you’ll instantly name three transfers, who happen to have strong ties to FSU. Quarterback Jordan Travis played at West Palm Beach Benjamin, then transferred back to FSU from Louisville in 2019. His brother, Devon, was a Florida State baseball player, so Travis grew up doing the chop. Jashuan Corbin, a Rockledge (Fla.) native, was recruited by FSU and likely would have signed here but Jimbo Fisher took the Texas A&M gig and Corbin went there instead. Devontay Love-Taylor is a New Port Richey (Fla.) native, who claims to be a lifelong Seminole fan, and when he got the chance, he came to FSU as a graduate transfer from FIU and has become a leader on an improving offensive line. 

“I didn’t have it in my mind that I’m just gonna come in here and be a leader,” Love-Taylor said. “You know, it kind of just happened. Coach (Alex) Atkins mentioned it to me a few times, and I said, I’m just gonna do what I do and hope others follow, help what needs to be helped. Just try to lead by example.”

His approach and commitment worked.

“(Coach Norvell) gave me the opportunity to play at the school I grew up loving,” Love-Taylor explained. “He told me he’s gonna give me everything he has to help me get better and he has. He’s been a man of his word. He has always put us in the best situation possible, whether in practice or in games. His commitment to us is gonna reflect on the field.”

FSU and Norvell caught another big break in rebuilding the program when the NCAA granted players an extra year, so Love-Taylor can return in 2021 and will. Love-Taylor’s choice to return, as well as several others, speaks to something good that’s happening at FSU that isn’t happening everywhere else with transfers.

“I love it here at Florida State,” said Love-Taylor, who has NFL aspirations. “I could just see all the players started to buy in. I can see the program is about to turn around and I wanted to be a part of it. I couldn’t pass up another year to learn from Coach Norvell and Coach Atkins and the rest of the staff.”

Look to the special teams. Wyatt Rector, a 2019 transfer from Western Michigan, won special teams Player of the Year honors in 2020. The Leesburg (Fla.) quarterback signed with WMU in 2018, came back to Florida in 2019 to walk on at Florida State. He converted to a tight end for the 2020 season and earned a scholarship, in large part for his unselfish play on special teams. 

Jashuan Corbin said the transition was made easier for transfers by the environment the coaches created.

“The best example is how welcoming the team was and how welcoming the coaches were when I first stepped on campus here,” the Texas A&M transfer said. “That played a huge role. I stepped in and you would not have known the difference if I was on the team for three years or if it was my first year.”

Corbin is excited to play a role in FSU’s resurgence and helping transfers feel welcome.

“I feel we have a lot of new pieces coming in and we’re going to be a completely brand new team when we all step back on campus in a couple of days,” said Corbin. “The best thing I can do is relate to them. Welcome them in as I was welcomed in. They’ll see when they get here that it’s a family atmosphere. They’ll come in. They’ll feel welcome. And they’ll get to work.”

Norvell showing SEC recruiting chops 

Jammie Robinson
South Carolina’s Jammie Robinson is the latest transfer from the SEC to FSU. (photo courtesy 247Sports)

On Sunday night, Jammie Robinson announced his commitment, which followed a Saturday night announcement of Thomas and Williams. Robinson and Thomas lost their head coach at South Carolina. Williams lost his at Auburn. The three were looking for a school where they can develop their craft and believe FSU, which has needs at their position, is that place. Seems like a win-win to me. 

We believed Norvell’s class of 25 would include eight to 10 players from the transfer portal at positions of need. We thought the biggest needs were on defense, especially on the defensive front and in the secondary. If FSU could find the right linebacker, that would be a plus. 

The Seminoles added two on the defensive front, including Thomas (6-2, 275) who brings 47 games of experience from South Carolina. FSU signed another SEC player in Georgia’s Jermaine Johnson (6-5, 240, defensive end) a week ago.

Those transfers meet the Seminoles’ needs for experience on the front and will play alongside two transfers from last year, Fabien Lovett (6-3, 330, Miss State) and Riviera Beach native Jarrett Jackson (6-6, 281, Louisville), who was cleared to play late in the 2020 season.

FSU also made two solid steps forward in adding experience in a young secondary with the commitment of Robinson (5-11, 200) who earned Freshman All-SEC honors at South Carolina in 2019  and Lake Worth (Fla.) native Jarques McClellan, a cornerback who played in 24 of 24 games at Arkansas, another SEC school, before opting out of his redshirt-junior season.  

They join three 2020 transfers in cornerback Meiko Dotson (FAU), Caleb Blake (Colorado State) and safety Jarrian Jones from another SEC school (Miss. State). 

The Seminoles are looking for the right linebacker but have not announced one yet.  

On offense, FSU was only going to take a quarterback if they could sign the right one. Norvell made a splash signing with quarterback McKenzie Milton, a 2018 Heisman Trophy candidate, who generated 72 touchdowns and close to 8,000 passing yards in three season at UCF. After a 6-7 start as a true freshman, Milton engineered 24 straight wins, sustaining a horrific knee injury against South Florida on Nov. 23, 2018.  Now two years into an inspiring rehabilitation, Milton is said to be back to 85-90 percent of his playing ability and retains 100 percent of his ability to inspire teammates. 

Running back was another position where the ‘Noles could afford to be selective. The right opportunity arose when Sebring, Florida native D.J. Williams (5-10, 205) chose to leave the SEC and Auburn and transfer closer to home. Williams is a power runner who will be a great fit with Corbin, a Rockledge (Fla.) native, who transferred from Texas A&M last year. FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was involved in Williams’ recruitment to Auburn originally and now to FSU.

While FSU had some quality at both quarterback and running back, there’s no quicker way to improve the offensive productivity than to enhance the play at those critical positions. A high-performance running back can make an offensive line look even better if that back can find blocking creases and make linebackers miss at the second level. A wise coach once asked me, “Which is easier: sign one great back or five offensive linemen?” The same is true at the all-important quarterback position. The right guy can elevate everyone on offense.

FSU met both needs.

Norvell looking for a couple more

The Seminoles also need a veteran receiver. Andrew Parchment, a South Florida native who played a couple of years at Kansas, has committed. I’d like to see the Seminoles sign another receiver to bring additional experience to a yet undecided receiver room. If the right offensive lineman or linebacker becomes available, I’m sure the Seminoles would welcome them. 

By my count, the Seminoles have 23 of their 25 incoming class limit signed, leaving three scholarships remaining. Six of the 16 high school signees are enrolled for the winter semester and will compete this spring for playing time. While FSU has not made an announcement, we believe six of the seven transfers will also enroll and compete this spring, with Parchment enrolling in May.

Portal to hell or to rebuilding?

When the transfer portal was approved, many of my most-trusted football friends wondered if it might be the damnation of college athletics. I was not so sure.

My contrarian viewpoint is based on a progressive belief. If college coaches, grown ass men under long-term contracts, can legally pack up and leave for what they perceive to be a better opportunity, college players who play on a one-year revocable scholarship with a five-year term limit should be able to do it too. 

I’m unabashedly for college players for a number of reasons — some of which are actually good for the university too — and these new rules are player friendly. Many of the problems the FSU program has endured the past four or five years are the result of coaches leaving the players or the coaches being fired, either of which has an adverse effect on some players more than others. The new rules now enable a player to transfer to a program which can better develop their talent within their time-limited career. The new rules are good for the program in that it makes it easier for players who are discontent, or frankly don’t have the skills, to transfer to a program where they think they have a better chance to succeed and to replace them with players at positions of need.

Is it like free agency? Yes. But that doesn’t mean its a bad thing when appropriately applied.

The players transferring to FSU are coming from schools where their coach was either just fired (Auburn and South Carolina) or terminated in recent years (Mississippi State and Louisville).  

Hop on the fun bus

As I watched Miami and Florida State play in 2019, I thought I may not live to see the day the Big 3 — Florida, Florida State and Miami — would all be good at the same time. Hell, there were 14 long years between the 1999 and 2013 National Championships. But thanks to this transfer portal, Miami was able to flip a lousy 6-7 roster with the signing of six transfers and instantly became a competitive 8-3 team. 

Looks to me like Mike Norvell took notice and is now serving notice.

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