Graduate transfers make smart move for more education, chance to play

Thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, Jeff Driskel has revived a college football career that wasn’t playing out the way he hoped.

Urban Meyer wooed the blue-chip recruit to Florida, but Driskel never played a down for the national-title winning coach. Meyer briefly retired from coaching due to health issues after the 2010 season, so Driskel began his career playing for Will Muschamp.

Things started well for Driskel, who led the Gators to an 11-2 record and the Sugar Bowl as a sophomore in 2012. Then everything fell apart. He redshirting as a junior in 2013 after breaking his leg and Muschamp was fired in 2014 while Driskel was viewed as the scapegoat.

But Driskel still had a year of eligibility remaining. So he did the only thing he could to salvage his career and a shot at the NFL — he graduated from Florida with a degree in sports management and transferred to Louisiana Tech. As a graduate transfer, Driskel stepped immediately into the starting quarterback spot.

“I wanted to get somewhere where I could be successful,” Driskel said before the first game of the season. “I enjoyed my four years at Florida, I made a lot of lifelong friends, but it was time to move on and try something new.”

Through seven games, Driskel has already surpassed his best year at Florida (2012). For Louisiana Tech, he has completed 161 of 264 passes for 2,115 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Louisiana Tech is 4-3 overall, though one of those losses was last week to SEC member Mississippi State, and 2-1 in Conference USA. In the season opener against Southern, Driskel was the nation's most efficient passer (321.4 rating, 274 yards, 5 touchdowns). Against Western Kentucky during the second week of the season, Driskel threw for a career-best 357 yards. He has passed for 300 yards or more four times this season.

Those performances are nothing short of what the Bulldogs expected when they recruited him.

“He’s got all the God-given ability,” said Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who recruited Driskel. “He’s got first-round draft pick ability, he’s a great kid and he reminds me, way back in the day, I had Chad Pennington at Marshall. They’re both coachable, smart, great kids.

“The situation in Florida was really up and down and now he’s got a chance to finish his career on a high note.”

Driskel is one of a growing number of Division I college athletes who are taking advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which some refer to as college’s shot at free agency. The rule has garnered more and more attention ever since Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson used it in 2011 to transfer from North Carolina State to Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.

The rule allows a student-athlete who has completed his/her undergraduate degree in fewer than four years of athletic eligibility to shop the remaining eligibility to a school that offers a graduate degree not available at his/her current school. Instead of having to sit out a year for regular transfers, the student-athlete can play immediately.

The rule has been a key discussion point among NCAA members over the last few seasons, with strong opinions both for and against.

“While it can be beneficial to a lot of kids, it may not be for the reason that’s being stated, that they are looking for a degree that is not offered at their institution,” said Pittsburgh men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon, who has graduate transfer Rafael Maia on his roster this season. “But it’s part of it and it’s not going away right now.”

The NCAA does not track graduate transfers, though easily half a dozen high-profile football programs, including Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan and Oregon, are starting graduate transfers at quarterback this season.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Louisiana Tech’s Petersen. “I think if the kid had done their job, if they have graduated (early), they should be able to do what they want with that last year of eligibility. I know a lot of people have things to say, but I think the kids have earned the chance for a new opportunity.”

SO WHY DO STUDENT-ATHLETES use the rule? While it’s often about athletics, there are situations where sports really do take a second seat to academics.

University of Massachusetts starting quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (above) had every intention of getting his graduate degree when he started his collegiate career at Marshall with his twin brother Eric. Blake, now a second-year starter for the Minutemen, completed his undergraduate degree in science and economics and had two years of eligibility remaining after redshirting as a freshman.

Frohnapfel finished his undergraduate degree in three seasons and spent his final two seasons as a backup to Rakeem Cato.

“I think for us, we kind of thought, ‘Hey, we’ll get redshirted our first year, if we can graduate in three years, then we could use the other two to get our masters,” Blake said of he and Eric. “He ended up playing the first year, so it didn’t really work out for him. “I feel like if there are guys who get their work done and graduate early, they should be rewarded.”

Eric, who spent the summer in training camp with the San Diego Chargers before being cut in August, also finished his undergraduate work in three years, and as a starter for the Thundering Herd, chose to stay at Marshall for his graduate work.

The Marshall coaching staff views the Frohnapfels as poster-children for using athletics as a means to education. In fact, according to offensive coordinator Bill Legg, the football program encourages early graduation.

“We push our kids to graduate in three-and-half years knowing if they aren’t redshirted and they are playing well, the opportunity to go to a higher level is there and they have their degree in their pocket,” he said. “Getting it done in three straight up is not unusual. “

And UMass was the happy recipient of Frohnapfel’s decision.

“If a player does everything right, on and off the field, they should always be allowed the opportunity to compete,” said UMass quarterbacks coach Liam Coen. “I’m in favor of the graduate transfer rule. Blake is the epitome of what it can provide for a player. And our team was a beneficiary. Our Isenberg School of Management, too.”

Pitt’s Maia didn’t even know the opportunity to get his master’s degree paid for by his basketball scholarship existed until his coaches at Brown clued him in last season.

“I planned on staying four years at Brown,” he said. “But I didn’t play my freshman year (due to injury) and I didn’t know I had the option to get my master’s until the beginning of my senior year.”

A business economics undergraduate, Maia, who transferred to Pitt, one of the most celebrated basketball programs in the country, is pursuing a Master’s of Science in Customer Insights. And though education was the driver in his decision, the chance to play at a big-time program was really enticing.

“I think the magnitude to what basketball is here is way bigger,” he said. “At Brown, we got treated really well and I had a tremendous experience, but here at Pitt, everything is here for us … so there is a lot more opportunity to succeed.”

From a coach’s perspective, bringing in a graduate transfer is tricky. The coach must do his homework, just like during the recruiting process out of high school. Why is the student transferring? Will he/she fit into the new school’s culture? How will the team react to a new, experienced player?

“You’re got to make sure the kid is the kind of kid you hope he is,” said Petersen. “Why isn’t he staying for another year? In our case, Florida had a coaching change and for Jeff,  I think, it had run its course. But we did our homework and hadn’t heard anything bad.”

Louisiana Tech is starting a graduate transfer at quarterback for the second consecutive season — Iowa transfer Cody Sokol led the Bulldogs to the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014.

THOUGH MOST GRADUATE TRANSFERS don’t pan out in the way that Wilson did, transferring can provide an athletic opportunity that may otherwise have been missed. Quarterback Jameill Showers (above) is the perfect example.

After playing behind Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, Showers decided to graduate early and take his game elsewhere. He landed at UTEP, where he led the Miners to the New Mexico Bowl (2014) and was invited to participate in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl (2014). He believes the decision to transfer gave him a shot at the pros. After spending the summer with the Dallas Cowboys, Showers was cut, but was claimed again by the team and is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad.

“I’d probably be working right now, if I didn’t leave,” Showers said during a Cowboys minicamp. “If you don’t have any kind of starting experience, you won’t get a chance in the NFL.”

That’s just the kind of story that Driskel wants to hear, though it may not be completely in the spirit of the reason the graduate transfer rule was created. In the end, for the athletes, anyway, the rule is a carrot.

“I think the NCAA does a really good job of making that available for graduates,” Driskel said. “It’s kind of a reward for graduates to make that available without sitting out.”

After all is said and done, Driskel may epitomize the perspective of most athletes — whether it is the NFL or another professional opportunity gained through graduate work that comes knocking, the rule has done its job.

“The whole thing with NCAA is they see it as a way to use it as a free agent thing and that might not be a good thing for the NCAA,” Frohnapfel said. “But I sorted schools with good MBA programs and then sorted them by schools that needed a quarterback. I feel like that’s the way it should be used. I feel like if there are guys who get their work done and graduate early, they should be rewarded.”

Above: The NCAA's graduate transfer helped Jeff Driskel find a new home at Louisiana Tech — and Louisiana Tech find anew quarterback. (Courtesy Louisiana Tech Athletics)
Blake Frohnapfel courtesy of UMass; Jameill Showers courtesy of James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys)

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