For years, Karl Dorrell had become accustomed to the NFL way of building a roster.
NFL teams find young players through the draft and plug holes with experienced veterans in free agency, and Dorrell was a part of the process for 11 of 12 seasons from 2008-19.
Hired as Colorado’s head coach a year ago, Dorrell had to adjust to a new way of roster building – but it’s not as different as it used to be.
For decades, college football teams have been built through recruiting high school players and developing them over a four- or five-year period. A few junior college transfers might be sprinkled in, with a rare transfer from a four-year school thrown into the mix. That transfer typically had to sit for a season, though, per NCAA rules.
Suddenly, the college model is looking more like what Dorrell grew familiar with in the NFL.
The recruiting of high school players is, essentially, like the NFL Draft, while the NCAA transfer portal is becoming a form of free agency.
“That’s really the perspective I’m looking at this really being for us,” Dorrell said. “We’re going to recruit the freshmen to come in … and I think the portal has to be utilized for those, I say special pieces that can enhance your program.”
After signing 17 players – 16 from high school and one from junior college – during the December signing period, CU didn’t sign anyone on national signing day last Wednesday. Instead, the Buffs have turned their attention to the transfer portal.
“In my mind, I’ve already completed the 2021 class in the December signing period,” Dorrell said. “(At this point), I think my mindset was more portal, trying to find those extra little pieces to fill some of those scholarship numbers.
“We were playing that game with what’s the best available? What do we need to do? How do we focus moving forward? So, we feel that the best available for us were in the portal.”
After CU’s quiet Wednesday, linebacker Jack Lamb announced his intention to transfer from Notre Dame. Lamb played three seasons for the Irish and fills an instant need for the Buffs, who wanted experience at linebacker.
“It was a need position for us and probably a need position that can be effective for us right away that’s going to help us in 2021,” Dorrell said.
The same could be said for CU’s other transfers, quarterback JT Shrout (Tennessee) and outside linebacker Robert Barnes (Oklahoma), as both are expected to compete for starting roles. The Buffs are trying to add two or three more transfers.
Dorrell reiterated he wants to build the CU program with high school recruits, but in trying to win in 2021, CU is interested in “trying to find those pieces that have experience that can plug-and-play, so to speak.”
CU and other schools are using transfers more than ever because the game has changed. Just a few years ago, players could transfer, but did so knowing that they would likely have to sit out a year and possibly lose a year of eligibility, per NCAA rules.
In the last couple of years, however, many players around the country have asked for and been granted waivers to play right away. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA gave all players immediate eligibility this year.
The NCAA is considering a rule that would allow players to transfer one time without sitting out a year. That rule is expected to get voted in at some point.
This week, Northern Colorado head coach Ed McCaffrey said the “perfect world” would be getting players out of high school who develop in the program for four or five years.
“But, I think that perfect world, that ship has sailed, probably for 90% of schools,” he said.
In his first year at UNC, a Football Championship Subdivision school, McCaffrey has taken advantage of the portal to sign several former Football Bowl Subdivision players, including his son, Dylan, who recently announced his transfer from Michigan.
“Players can leave at any time, regardless of their grade, and go back and forth from FCS to FBS one time without sitting out,” Ed McCaffrey said. “Because of that, there’s been a lot of pin action, not just with our team, but with every team and I think that rule is probably going to be here to stay for a long time.
“Ideally, you would love to get the best players possible and hold on to them for four or five years, but they can leave now whenever they want if they think there’s greener grass somewhere else.”
According to 247Sports.com, which tracks transfer portal movement, roughly 1,200 players have put their name into the portal this year. Many have found new schools, some have returned to their original school, and many others are still looking. As of Saturday, there were 126 quarterbacks listed by 247Sports.com in the portal, 58 of which still hadn’t found a new school.
For Dorrell, McCaffrey and other coaches around the country there is no shortage of options if they need to fill some holes with transfers. Dorrell and his staff likely aren’t done utilizing the transfer portal as they build their 2021 roster.
“That’s my mindset of how to build the roster each and every year; it’s going to be, first and foremost, the recruiting aspect (with high school players),” Dorrell said. “Then we supplement those classes with, hopefully, some key pieces coming from the portal.”
It’s an NFL-type of model that is being embraced in college football.