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Portal to Pros: NFL teams eyeing rising number of transfers

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The prolific pace of school-switching among college players has helped some NFL prospects have breakout seasons and demonstrate they can adapt to a new system.

They’re hoping that pays off in the draft.

Offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence followed his coach, Billy Napier, from Louisiana-Lafayette to Florida and proved he could thrive against Southeastern Conference competition. He could get rewarded with being a first-round pick in April — and doesn’t have to answer questions about the level of competition he faced.

“I feel like it shows that I’m more versatile than it originally seemed, and that I could hold my own against bigger, faster players,” said Torrence, an All-SEC selection. “And just different looks and different things I faced in the SEC. It just shows that I’m ready to hit the ground running with whatever team drafted me.”

The transfer floodgates opened wide after the NCAA’s April 2021 rule change meant they wouldn’t have to sit out a year at another FBS school. It’s created some more opportunities for players and a chance for more homework from NFL teams, which can evaluate how players made the transition from one system to another and get feedback from multiple college coaching staffs.

“We try to keep up with it as best as we can,” said Matt Groh, the New England Patriots’ player personnel director. “But you can look out there and there are countless number of players from this school, he was at that school.

“We keep up with all that, and really it’s just another group of coaches, support staff from different schools (and we) get their opinions and their input on a prospect. You can be at one school and have four different offensive coordinators, though, so that’s the way it is here these days. These kids have got to learn to adapt.”

Some do it better than others. The Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game rosters are loaded with players who played for multiple college teams in bids for more playing time, better personal situations or chances to improve their NFL draft stock. It’s likely too early to tell how the increased movement affects players’ transition to the NFL.

Several first-rounders in last year’s draft were transfers, including ex-Alabama and Ohio State wide receiver Jameson Williams, Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson Jr. (via Georgia) and Boston College guard Zion Johnson, who started his college career at Davidson.

Zion Johnson became an immediate starter for the Los Angeles Chargers, Williams missed most of the Detroit Lions’ season while recovering from a knee injury and Jermaine Johnson played in 14 games for the New York Jets.

This season’s prospects include some who clearly took advantage of their new situations.

Linebacker Daiyan Henley went from second-team All-Midwest Conference as a Nevada junior to first-team All-Pac-12 and a Butkus Award finalist at Washington State.

Ivan Pace Jr. became Cincinnati’s first unanimous All-American after moving 40 miles down Highway 27 from Miami, Ohio. Both are projected as likely mid-round picks.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate in his second season after transferring from Virginia Tech. Hooker’s season ended with a torn ACL, leaving him as a bystander at the Senior Bowl practices in between meetings with NFL teams.

He’s not sure he would have reached that point without the move.

“It’s a long shot,” Hooker said. Also a long shot, but not out of the question: him being a first-rounder, though most projections have him closer to the third.

How transfers handle the switch is more information for NFL teams to sort through. Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl’s executive director and a former scout, said evaluating how players handled the transition from high school to college had been part of the process. Now, it’s frequently how did they adapt to changing college teams.

Plus, he said, sometimes the staffs at different schools have very different takes on a player.

“I think there’s more benefits sometimes from an NFL perspective, getting guys that have transferred and been through that, more positives than negatives,” Nagy said.

Like Groh, Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams pointed out that sometimes players can stick it out at one school but still go through several different position coaches.

“The more things that you’re exposed to, the more you’re able to grow,” Williams said. “And that’s if that person is willing to grow from those situations.”

Cornerback Keidron Smith moved from Mississippi to Kentucky for his fifth year after logging 29 career starts in 47 games for the Rebels.

“Just talking to the scouts, they really said I made a great decision,” Smith said. “Even my coaches at Kentucky said the decision to transfer was a momentum shift for me in this process.”

Kansas defensive end Lonnie Phelps transferred from Miami, Ohio, for his final season. He had a ready answer for NFL teams wanting to know about the move.

“All of them ask me why I transferred and I just tell them exactly the same thing: Kansas was just the icing on the cake and I’m an undersized defensive end and obviously they want to see me against bigger and better competition,” Phelps said.

Now, Phelps & Co. are hoping those decisions prove beneficial in the draft.

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