Welcome to the Unprecedented New Era of College Football Free Agency

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterFebruary 11, 2015

USA Today

Before Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl and then lost a Super Bowl, he had a decision to make. Fresh off a failed baseball career and three years of sporadic—but still successful—quarterback play at North Carolina State, Wilson took his talents from Raleigh, North Carolina, to lovely Madison, Wisconsin, in June 2011.

The circumstances were unique, although Wilson operated well within the rules. With his degree completed, the quarterback headed to Bret Bielema’s Badgers without penalty as a graduate transfer. He started immediately.

The rest is history, present and future. Wilson posted enormous numbers his senior year, setting the single-season FBS record for passing efficiency and taking Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl without having to wait his turn. That April, Seattle selected him with pick No. 75 in the third round of the NFL draft.

Wilson won a Super Bowl, came a yard from another and could be the proud owner of the largest contract in the history of the NFL in short order. Without his one-year voyage to Wisconsin—and the freedom to play immediately in a change of scenery—the path would have likely been extraordinarily different.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Quarterback Russell Wilson #16 of the Wisconsin Badgers throws the ball against the Oregon Ducks at the 98th Rose Bowl Game on January 2, 2012 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It’s unrealistic to assume that new Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. will follow this exact path, although it’s easy to dive headfirst into the possibilities wormhole given his array of abilities.

And, perhaps more significant to the future national landscape, one can’t help but wonder if college football’s free agency—The Great Russell Wilson Effect—will quickly gain further traction. Adams could be just the beginning in 2015 and beyond.

The former Eastern Washington quarterback announced on Monday that he and his 10,438 passing yards, 1,232 rushing yards and 121 career touchdowns were headed to the Oregon Ducks.

Oregon it is! First off, I want to thank God for this amazing opportunity. I want to thank all of… http://t.co/yMkAHNt1f2

— Vernon Adams Jr. (@vadams_qb) February 9, 2015

After three fantastic years with Eastern Washington—years that included box-score-shattering performances against Pac-12 defenses—Adams will reboot in Eugene. In two games against Washington and Oregon State the past two seasons, Adams accounted for more than 800 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. He is, in just about every way imaginable, a perfect fit to run Mark Helfrich’s offense.

Scheduled to graduate this spring, Adams will be allowed to leave scot-free once he earns his degree. Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves chimed in on the decision, offering the player praise while openly questioning the rule that allowed his star quarterback to leave.

"We wish Vernon the best in his future endeavors and thank him for all that he has done for Eastern. The chance for him to pursue this opportunity is certainly a unique one given the fifth-year transfer rule," Chaves said in a statement, via ESPN.com. "We are not sure that this was the actual intent of the legislation when it was approved, but it is the rule currently in place that we and potentially other schools have to adhere to. We will continue to work through the process of this transfer based on the rule as it stands now."

Those comments won’t change NCAA legislation that actually makes quite a bit of sense: Put in the time in the classroom, get a degree, and do what you please with the rest of your athletic career. In the end, that’s precisely what this is all about.

Other players have taken advantage of this rule in recent memory and delivered mixed football results. Last year’s most notable transfer was Jake Coker, who left his backup role at Florida State to join Alabama. Given the Crimson Tide’s uncertainty at the position, many assumed Coker would step in despite not having the luxury of spring practice and be named the starter.

Coker’s early inconsistencies—in combination with Blake Sims’ unexpected strong play—derailed those assumptions. However, with one year of eligibility remaining, Coker could be Nick Saban’s starting quarterback come fall 2015. The book isn’t closed on this one yet.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Coker #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks to pass against the Texas A&M Aggies at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Clint Trickett, another former Florida State quarterback, fared far better in his new digs. After mulling over several offers, Trickett settled on West Virginia upon early graduation. Although his individual performance trickled off at the end, Trickett led West Virginia to an unexpected seven-win season.

That brings us front and center to this season, which has already provided one of the more notable quarterback transfers in recent memory. Things might only be getting started.

Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton—who was just granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing the final 11 games last season—could all, theoretically, change area codes. 

Imagine turning over Florida State’s offense to a healthy Miller and freeing him of a clogged depth chart. Imagine putting Golson in a new setting in Baton Rouge, pairing him with talented, youthful skill-position players and an experienced offensive coordinator. Imagine if Keeton reunited with former head coach Gary Andersen at Oregon State for one final encore on a grand stage.

All three quarterbacks should have their degrees by the end of this semester, which would essentially make them free agents. It’s worth noting that the connection to other programs is merely speculation at this point, although it’s clear why each quarterback would evaluate potential options.

Miller, for what it’s worth, sounded like someone ready to embrace the nation’s most complex and complicated quarterback battle next fall at Ohio State's national championship celebration.

Step back from these three individual cases and view the possibilities from a satellite. There are few instances when players have complete and total power after they send in their letters of intent to a program.

This, however, is a glaring exception. They have the power, if they choose to use it. It won't be for everyone, although it will be for some.

It takes years to see through—not to mention a hearty serving of coursework—but the immense benefits of this once-lesser-known rule are secrets no more. Whether you’re a blue-chip recruit or a hopeful, under-the-radar contributor pondering the possibility of this rare athletic freedom, why wouldn’t you at least consider it?

Adams, having thrived at the FCS level, has a chance to become a star—a player with Heisman potential—on a new campus, in a new offensive system, with a coach who just got paid a Brink's truck of cash for his national championship run. His move to Oregon completely alters expectations of the team. It reshapes the makeup of the Pac-12. It re-energizes the Ducks’ aspirations to crash the College Football Playoff.

Just one move; that’s all it takes.

If that’s not a tantalizing billboard that thousands of young players will gawk at, eyeing the possibility of exciting, penalty-less new beginnings, I’m not sure what is. And while it’s unreasonable to assume that anyone will capitalize the way Wilson did under Bielema at Wisconsin, the allure of a fresh start—especially for a player having fulfilled his classroom requirements—will be an intoxicating avenue for many to pursue in 2015 and beyond.