CFB Transfers Who Could Have the Biggest Impact in 2021 Season
The 2021 college football season will go down in history as the Year of the Transfer.
Because the 2020-21 academic year did not count against anyone's eligibility clock and because the NCAA finally approved the one-time free transfer proposal (undergraduates aren't required to sit out for a year if it's their first time transferring), transfers are taking place en masse.
The vast majority of those transfers will be either inconsequential or only mildly consequential, but a handful could make a College Football Playoff-altering impact in their new homes.
A player leaving one team to lead another to championship heights is not a new phenomenon. A former transfer won the Heisman Trophy in 2017, 2018 and 2019, after all. But it feels like there have already been at least five times as many "Oh, wow, that's a huge pickup for an already solid team" reactions to transfers as usual.
Not all of these players are guaranteed to thrive with their new teams. The ones who do, though, should be in the mix for a CFP berth.
Players are listed in alphabetical order by school.
Jameson Williams, Alabama WR and Henry To'o To'o, Alabama LB
Two years ago, Alabama had what was almost unarguably the most dominant quartet of wide receivers in college football history. Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III were both taken in the top 15 of the 2020 NFL draft. Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith both went in the top 10 last month.
Aside from guaranteed-to-start John Metchie III, the Crimson Tide entered the spring with a lot of question marks in the receiving game. Granted, a "question mark" at Alabama typically means "highly coveted recruit who has not yet gotten the opportunity to shine."
Still, there isn't a lot of meaningful experience within that unit, so getting Jameson Williams from Ohio State could be a game-changer for what was already bound to be an explosive offense.
Over the past two seasons with the Buckeyes, Williams hauled in 15 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns. And while no one is going to step in and perfectly replace Waddle or Smith, Williams has speed for days and could immediately become a favorite downfield target for Bryce Young's big arm.
Alabama also spruced up its defense by picking up Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To'o To'o this past weekend. The Crimson Tide are already loaded at linebacker, but extra depth at that position is always a plus, particularly given the litany of season-ending injuries to linebackers that Alabama endured in recent years.
Demarkcus Bowman, Florida RB
For the second consecutive year, Florida picked up perhaps the best running back available in the transfer portal.
The Gators can only hope former Clemson tailback Demarkcus Bowman makes more of an immediate impact than former Miami running back Lorenzo Lingard did. (He had only five carries for 32 yards in 2020.)
Bowman was the third-highest-rated running back in the 2020 class, so when he originally chose Clemson, he was viewed as the heir apparent to 2021 first-round pick Travis Etienne. Instead, he lasted only two games with the Tigers before entering the transfer portal.
Florida's backfield depth chart is quite crowded with Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, Nay'quan Wright and Lingard all returning. However, none of them amounted to much last season.
Davis had an 81-yard game against LSU, and that was the only instance of a Gators tailback rushing for 70 or more yards. In other words, it wouldn't take much for Bowman to emerge as the lead back in what should be a more run-oriented offense in 2021.
Per MaxPreps, Bowman averaged better than 11 yards per carry and rushed for 60 touchdowns in 26 games over his final two seasons at Lakeland High School.
Dan Mullen also leveraged the transfer portal to beef up his defensive line, snagging Antonio Shelton from Penn State and Daquan Newkirk from Auburn. Both tackles could be in line for starting gigs, as Florida works to replace both Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slaton.
Tykee Smith, Georgia DB
Georgia's secondary is going through quite the facelift this offseason.
Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, Richard LeCounte III and Mark Webb were among the nine Bulldogs selected in the 2021 NFL draft. DJ Daniel also left for the draft. And UGA-to-Miami transfer Tyrique Stevenson will be making an appearance here shortly.
The Dawgs still have plenty of raw talent in their defensive backfield, including 2020 No. 4 overall recruit Kelee Ringo. However, meaningful experience is limited. Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine both saw a lot of action in 2020, but that's about it.
Thus, getting Tykee Smith from West Virginia was massive.
Smith accumulated 111 tackles and four interceptions over the past two seasons with the Mountaineers. He was also a disruptive force in the backfield, recording eight tackles for loss in only nine games in 2020.
His wide-ranging impact will be a big asset for a Georgia secondary with many holes to fill.
Mike Jones Jr, LSU LB
After three years at Clemson, Mike Jones Jr. still wasn't guaranteed a starting job in 2021. Veteran linebackers James Skalski and Baylor Spector both opted to return for one more season, which meant Jones would have been jostling with Trenton Simpson for the "Sam" linebacker gig—a job which Simpson had more or less already won over the latter half of last season.
Rather than risk settling into a backup role in South Carolina's Death Valley, Jones entered the transfer portal and landed in Louisiana's Death Valley with hopes of leading LSU's defense back to something resembling competence.
The Bayou Bengals were terrible on D last year, allowing just under 500 total yards and 35 points per game. Linebacker Jabril Cox (58 tackles, three interceptions) was one of the few bright spots, but his decision to enter the NFL draft left the Tigers with big shoes to fill in the middle of the defense.
Jones should slide admirably into that role.
Despite some minor injuries and timeshare situations, Jones racked up 44 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Had Skalski not decided to return for a sixth season, Jones likely would have become the face of Clemson's linebacking corps in 2021.
Clemson's loss becomes LSU's gain, as Jones might be LSU's best defender not named Derek Stingley Jr.
Charleston Rambo, Miami WR and Tyrique Stevenson, Miami DB
All signs pointed toward Charleston Rambo becoming Oklahoma's next great wide receiver in 2020.
From 2015 to 2019, the Sooners had so seamlessly transitioned from Sterling Shepard to Dede Westbrook to Marquise Brown to CeeDee Lamb, each boasting at least one season with more than 1,200 receiving yards. And when Lamb left for the NFL after the 2019 season, Rambo (43 receptions, 743 yards, five touchdowns) was the obvious top candidate to become the No. 1 receiver in what is pretty much always a top-five offense.
Instead, Rambo surprisingly finished fourth on the team in both receptions and yards (25 and 312, respectively) before entering the transfer portal and landing in Miami.
With the Hurricanes, Rambo should be no worse than the second-favorite target of D'Eriq King. Fifth-year senior Mike Harley will probably remain the No. 1 wideout, but Rambo shouldn't have much difficulty supplanting Mark Pope and Dee Wiggins on the depth chart. And with tight end Brevin Jordan now in the NFL, the No. 2 receiver in this offense should get a lot of targets.
In addition to improving its passing game, Miami also got better at defending the pass via the portal, picking up former Georgia Bulldogs cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.
Stevenson went to high school in Miami and originally spurned the Hurricanes for the chance to thrive in the SEC. But the former top-40 overall recruit will return to his hometown after two years in Athens.
He didn't have any interceptions while with UGA, but he was credited with 47 tackles and 10 pass breakups. He should immediately become the most valuable asset in Miami's secondary.
Ty Chandler, North Carolina RB
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell will enter the 2021 season as one of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, and with good reason. He threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns with seven interceptions last season, guiding the Tar Heels to more than 40 points per game.
But his supporting cast is going to look a lot different.
Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome had a combined 4,761 yards from scrimmage and 48 touchdowns last season, and that quartet is now in the NFL. The only returning players who scored more than three times in 2020 are Howell and kicker Grayson Atkins.
Enter Ty Chandler.
He wasn't the most prolific running back in the SEC, but he did amass more than 2,000 rushing yards over the past four seasons with Tennessee. Excluding the true freshmen, UNC's other four candidates for rushing attempts—British Brooks, D.J. Jones, Josh Henderson and Elijah Green—have a combined total of 474 rushing yards and two touchdowns in their careers.
In other words, North Carolina more than quadrupled its experience at running back by snaring Chandler from the transfer portal. If nothing else, his veteran presence could pay dividends.
Jack Coan, Notre Dame QB
Over the past three seasons, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was an excellent game manager. That term is often used as a slight against a player, but it's intended as a positive here, as his play resulted in a ton of wins for the Fighting Irish.
Book averaged 242 passing yards and 37 rushing yards with a combined 2.4 touchdowns per game. He didn't have many mammoth performances—his career high was 360 passing yards—but more importantly, he rarely made back-breaking mistakes.
And in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, the Fighting Irish should be getting more of the same.
Coan missed the 2020 campaign following a foot injury that he suffered in the preseason, but he guided the Badgers to 10 wins and a Big Ten championship game appearance in 2019. The defense and running back Jonathan Taylor did most of the heavy lifting, but Coan was a strong game manager.
During the 2019 season, Coan had only one game with more than 300 total yards, but he didn't have any games with multiple interceptions. He completed 69.6 percent of his pass attempts, leading the Big Ten in that category.
With Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C'Bo Flemister returning in the backfield, Notre Dame should be every bit the run-first offense in 2021 that Wisconsin was in 2019. But in the 20-25 times per game that the Fighting Irish decide to try to move the ball through the air to Avery Davis or star tight end Michael Mayer, they should be in good hands with Coan.
Wanya Morris, Oklahoma OT, Key Lawrence, Oklahoma DB and Eric Gray, Oklahoma RB
Has any team ever been as gutted by transfers as Tennessee has in this year's cycle? The Volunteers have already lost 23 players to other schools, while seven others remain in the portal without a new destination.
The biggest benefactor of that Tennessee exodus has been Oklahoma, as Lincoln Riley added three key former Volunteers to his roster.
The biggest pickup (literally and figuratively) was Wanya Morris. He was a 5-star recruit in the 2019 class, and he's now the favorite to protect Spencer Rattler's blind side in 2021.
In terms of sacks allowed per game, 2020 was Oklahoma's worst season since 2015. Morris should help immensely in the quest to keep Rattler off the turf.
Key Lawrence was Tennessee's highest-rated recruit in the 2020 class, but he is also now in Norman. The Sooners lost defensive backs Tre Norwood and Tre Brown to the NFL draft and lost Brendan Radley-Hiles to the transfer portal, so Lawrence was (forgive the pun) a Key pickup as well. There's a good chance he'll start at safety for the Sooners.
And then there's Eric Gray, who ranked sixth in the SEC in yards from scrimmage per game in 2020. Oklahoma is getting Kennedy Brooks back after he opted out of the 2020 season, but all three of last year's leading rushers (Rhamondre Stevenson, T.J. Pledger and Seth McGowan) are no longer on the roster.
Brooks might be the bell cow, but Gray should get plenty of touches in this backfield.
Others to Monitor
While we're predominantly focused on guys who could be stars for teams that should be great, we would be remiss if we didn't also briefly mention a few players who should be stars on teams that conceivably could win their conference. (As well as two major "free agents" who have not yet chosen a new home.)
McKenzie Milton, QB (UCF to Florida State): Milton has not played since suffering that horrific leg injury in November 2018, but he was a Heisman candidate once upon a time. If he's even 75 percent of the quarterback he once was—he looked pretty doggone good in FSU's spring game—the Seminoles could be a major factor in the ACC.
Tyler Shough, QB (Oregon to Texas Tech): Shough's decision to leave Oregon came as a big surprise, considering he did a respectable job as the Ducks' primary QB last season. Now, instead of battling with Anthony Brown and Ty Thompson for the lion's share of 25-30 pass attempts per game, Shough should be the starter for a Texas Tech team that throws closer to 45 times per game. The Red Raiders probably aren't going to win the Big 12, but Shough may well lead the nation in passing yards if he stays healthy.
Alan Bowman, QB (Texas Tech to Michigan): A big reason Shough went to Texas Tech in mid-February was that Bowman left Lubbock in late January. When he was able to stay healthy, Bowman was a solid quarterback, throwing for more than 380 yards on six occasions. He isn't likely to start for the Wolverines, but he could be an intriguing factor/backup.
Charlie Brewer, QB (Baylor to Utah); T.J. Pledger, RB (Oklahoma to Utah); Chris Curry, RB (LSU to Utah): The Utes restocked the shelves on offense in a big way. Brewer had more than 10,000 combined passing and rushing yards over the past four seasons at Baylor and will provide a major upgrade over last year's convoluted QB situation. At running back, the Utes had found a star in Ty Jordan, but he tragically died an accidental shooting in December. Pledger and Curry should both be in the mix for the starting gig on a roster in which no returning player rushed for even 100 yards in 2020.
Zach Charbonnet, RB (Michigan to UCLA): After rushing for more than 700 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, Charbonnet found himself in Jim Harbaugh's doghouse last year. Now he's in UCLA, where he'll likely split touches with returning super senior Brittain Brown.
Wan'Dale Robinson, RB/WR (Nebraska to Kentucky): Given what he was able to do with Lynn Bowden Jr. from 2017-19, it should be fun to watch Mark Stoops integrate Robinson into his offense this year. The former Cornhusker had a combined 134 carries and 91 receptions for 1,494 total yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons.
Jordan Strachan, LB (Georgia State to South Carolina): Transitioning from the Sun Belt to the SEC will be a challenge, but Strachan racked up 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last season. For a South Carolina defense that needs all the help it can possibly get, he could be this year's most noteworthy Group of Five-to-Power Five transfer.
Arik Gilbert, TE (LSU to ?); Derion Kendrick, CB (Clemson to ?): Hands down, these are the two most intriguing names left in the portal. The teams that get these guys should also get a slight boost in the projected preseason rankings. Gilbert in particular could be a national-landscape shifter.