It’s definitely been a rough season for the Kansas State Wildcats as it relates to the transfer portal. Since the season began, there have been nine transfers from the program, including three members of the 2020 class, five from the 2019 class, and one grad transfer. Overall, since the start of the 2019 season, there have been a whopping 13 transfers, including three more members of that 2019 recruiting class. That’s certainly not ideal, especially for a program that desperately needs to be rebuilding young depth.
But is it panic mode time? Should we start wondering what’s going wrong inside Vanier Football Complex that there’s been such a high number of transfers?
No, it’s not panic time yet. Sure, on the surface it looks bad enough, but let’s take a dive into things and try to ascertain what’s really going on with Chris Klieman’s program.
For starters, as you all well know, this has been a remarkably weird year. Like Drew talked about in his write-up regarding the most recent departure from the team, there’s a big mental health component to this season, moreso than normal. College life is different this year, and these guys aren’t able to interact as much outside the locker room as much as they would in normal years. It’s so much harder to “have fun” being in college this year. Plus with the opt-outs being effectively removed from the program (it was their choice, and it’s for their safety), it creates another barrier to creating bonds with your teammates — at least a handful of the most recent departures are guys that had opted-out of the the 2020 season.
And it’s not just teammates, the pandemic has created issues with players getting home and parents getting to games. A guy from Arizona or Georgia might be thinking more about home than he would normally. Missing family and home-town friends more than normal. So those guys living extra-far from home are starting to look back at programs closer to home as a solid option, even if that means taking a step down in level (like to G5 or FCS) or even heading to JUCO for a year.
This season has been brutal for the average college student, and worse for the student-athletes, regardless of sport, because of the higher restrictions and testing protocols needed just to keep the seasons going.
And on top of all of that, at K-State we had the issue of the insensitive comments made by a fellow student during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. A good number of the guys who have transferred were also deeply involved with the push for the K-State players to boycott to force the University to take action. Many were not happy with the administration’s response (especially that the admin could not expel the student in question), and that certainly had the weigh heavily on their decision.
Those are all things completely, or very nearly completely, outside of the program’s and coach’s control. What about the things within the program’s control?
There’s a big black mark right now on the 2019 recruiting class, Klieman’s very first in Manhattan. Only two players that signed their National Letter of Intent during the early December period (right after Klieman was hired) have left the team: Chris Herron, who was a Snyder recruit at QB who did not want to make the switch to WR, and Logan Wilson, a defensive back. Herron is now at Blinn College in Texas, presumably still trying to make his path at QB. Wilson is now at Louisiana-Monroe. Both left in December of 2019 at the conclusion of the 2019 regular season.
Conversely, six of the nine players who signed in February have now left the team. One of those nine didn’t make it to K-State last year thanks to grade issues and is now at Butler CC (defensive line recruit Kenny Givens), so just two of those nine remain on campus — running backs CJ Price and Jacardia Wright. One of those six who left was gone at the end of 2019, defensive back Kenyon Reed. Of the five who remained on the K-State roster towards the start of the 2020 season, three had decided to opt-out before the start of the season: Jonathan Alexander, Matthew Pola-Mao, and Thomas Grayson. Alexander actually got COVID in June, and was open about dealing with the mental-health side of things.
The last two were a bit more surprising. Joshua Youngblood was expected to be a starter, and star after earning All-American honors in 2019 as a returner, but desperately needed the spring practice period to get better in the offense. Tyrone Lewis played in four games last year, and nearly earned a start in the Liberty Bowl that would have burned his redshirt. But his development was clearly slowed, and he was passed over at the safety spot by both younger players and walk-ons, which is never a good sign.
So what’s the deal then with that 2019 class? Well the guys who signed in December of 2018 where either recruited by and committed to Snyder (meaning they were already heavy EMAW leans to begin with), or already had a relationship either with Coach Klieman or one of the assistants (like Collin Klein or Taylor Braet). These are all guys the staff felt very comfortable with, that they had spent time recruiting and developing relationships with even before the early signing period. As a bonus, once those guys signed in December, recruiting restrictions went out the door and the staff had a two month head start on getting those guys full ingrained with the program.
And that’s not to say they didn’t have some of those things with the second half of that group, the chunk that signed in February of 2019. But it definitely was much more of a mad-dash with that group. That group was put together by the new assistants, who only had a couple months to evaluate, offer, and earn commitments. It’s entirely not uncommon that a new coach’s first recruiting class experiences heavy turnover, especially when that new coach is moving up a level.
They took more chances on the 2019 class. They couldn’t be as-sure of fit as they would like. And while they got some talented players (three of the four of that group who transferred played some or all of the 2019 season, including an All-American), that doesn’t mean they were great fits with the overall program. K-State is a “development” program, where guys need to buy-in to the system, be willing to work their way up, and be team-first. We’re not trying to say any of those guys weren’t that, but sometimes a guy wants to play and not wait, and ends up affecting his mood and the mood of those around him.
And these were also guys the staff wanted to keep on. They hadn’t been “recruited over” as often happens, but they had clearly been passed up by younger/other competition for playing time. Certainly the opt-outs didn’t help their case with that, and that’s not their fault either. But guys who were expected to be big contributors that didn’t also opt-out, like Joshua Youngblood and Tyrone Lewis, were just not doing the things necessary to keep their head above the pack.
The real issue will come up if this starts to happen at a much more regular clip. The 2020 class was much more thoroughly vetted, the staff had a lot longer time to work with those guys on the recruiting trail, they were in for camps, etc. That said, ignore what might happen with the 2021 class (both here and nationwide), because with the current restrictions on recruiting, it’s entirely possible that transfers during and after the 2021 season could make this year feel like a walk in the park.
Last but certainly not least, new rules this year both related to the pandemic and the future.
The paused eligibility clock this year means the players are not worried about losing a year on the transfer. This year doesn’t count, so if the player decides to leave in the middle (or near the end) of the year, there’s no real penalty. And for the student-athletes, that’s not a bad thing. But for coaches it’s a thin line to walk to try and keep those guys from wanting to leave but doing what’s best for the program long-term.
And the NCAA is looking to pass legislation allowing a one-time “penalty-free” transfer, which would allow players to be eligible immediately at their new school on the first transfer. If that ends up passing, which is very likely will, it removes another barrier that might keep an unhappy player from leaving. Again, this is a great thing for the student-athletes who have long been held to a much higher standard than their coaches and administrators. But, again, it’s going to make a coach’s job, especially regarding roster management, a lot harder.
So, for many of these guys, they were buried on the depth chart, or were looking like they would be after their opt-out year, and so decided this would be a great time to move on. As a fan watching these guys leave, it really sucks. But if they aren’t happy with their situation, it’s hard to fault them for wanting to change it if the opportunity is available.
And all this isn’t unique to K-State. There’s some big numbers from programs with a new head coach this year (like Mississippi State’s current number of eight, including “Mr. Helicopter” Garrett Schrader), but also programs with more-established head coaches. It’s just the nature of 2020 and the state of college football. And with the pending NCAA legislation, the yearly transfer numbers are only going to go up, much the same way they have for most other sports (especially basketball).
TL;DR — The sky isn’t falling, and this isn’t a ultra-critical issue that should cause us great concern about the coaching staff or program direction right now. There’s just too much else going on in the world, too many outside influences and impacts.
But it’s also not nothing, and will be something to keep an eye on in the next few years as Klieman rebuilds that particular roster hole. Expect to see incoming transfers (yeah, they go both ways), but not a heavy dip into the JUCO pool (which would signify trouble, ala Ron Prince).