Alabama, Cincinnati and how the transfer portal shaped the playoff

This is the way college football has worked. One minute, a wide receivers coach at Eastern Michigan is watching Jerome Ford rip off a 79-yard touchdown run in last year’s Peach Bowl between Cincinnati and Georgia. The next minute, that wide receivers coach is a running backs coach at Cincinnati, and Ford is walking into Darren Paige’s office morning after morning, wanting to build a relationship and set goals for the season.

When Dan Lanning was the recruiting coordinator at Memphis, he introduced himself to Jameson Williams knowing the wide receiver was bound for bigger schools. Lanning was hired by Georgia a few weeks later, and he returned to Williams’ hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, this time with an actual recruiting pitch and offer from Georgia. Lanning is now the head coach at Oregon.

For decades, coaches were free to come and go as they pleased. If a player wanted to move on, he would need the blessing of his previous school and need to sit out a year.

Both Williams and Ford found themselves in similar situations the last two seasons: They had come to Ohio State and Alabama, respectively, looking to fulfill their dreams, but found themselves buried on depth charts without clear paths to more touches. They both realized the best option was to go somewhere they could prove themselves.

This is the way college football now works, too.

“It was scary at first,” Ford told ESPN this week about entering the transfer portal. “You don’t know where you can go or who wants you, but luckily, I found a home in Cincinnati pretty fast.”

This year’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic matchup between the Tide and Bearcats (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app) show the two sides of college football’s new portal-powered world.

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At Alabama, Nick Saban can operate with laser focus, cherry-picking the best players available, especially those he originally missed out on. Lose DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to the NFL? No problem, bring in Williams. Need a standout linebacker? Just add Henry To’oto’o from Tennessee.

But it’s not just about the rich getting richer. There’s not room for everyone to be a star in Tuscaloosa, and a team like Cincinnati can offer a different environment and immediate playing time to a player like Ford.

“Man, It’s been blowing things up,” Paige said of the portal. “Maintaining relationships with players is a 24/7 thing now.”

Jameson Williams didn’t start playing wide receiver until his sophomore year of high school, but it didn’t take long before his talent and speed brought the likes of James Franklin and Urban Meyer to St. Louis and offers from nearly every top program in the country.

Throughout the recruiting process, Williams’ dad, James, knew he wanted his son to end up at Alabama. Williams, however, gravitated toward Buckeyes’ wide receiver coach Brian Hartline, who, like Williams, had also run track, specifically hurdles, in high school. The relationship was enough to get Williams to Columbus. But once he arrived, snaps and targets were few. Frustration built up. His high school coach Brandon Gregory encouraged him to push through. The portal was a last resort.

“He was really unhappy, but he wanted to fight through it and show them that he could play,” Gregory said. “I kind of heard it in his voice, like, ‘I’m doing everything I can, but it’s not working out.'”

Once it was clear in spring camp that Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were going to be the Buckeyes’ top two receivers this season, Williams entered the transfer portal.

Most of the coaches who recruited Williams in high school were ready to rekindle relationships. Gregory had a relationship with Alabama wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins, but was still surprised when Wiggins reached out expressing interest. He had seen the Nick Saban quotes that appeared to be criticizing the transfer portal and, at that point, the Tide hadn’t fully dipped even their toes into the sport’s new roster-building tool. But Saban relayed a message to Williams, telling him to “come home.”

“There were other schools, but when [Alabama] tells you you can be like the last two [wide receivers], the last four wideouts they lost, what are we talking about?” Gregory said, referencing Smith and Waddle. The move has turned out to be fortuitous for both parties. Williams has had a stellar season, catching 68 passes for nearly 1,500 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns. With wide receiver John Metchie out for the season, Williams is now the Tide’s undisputed top receiving option.

“This is something I envisioned,” Williams said of the success he’s had. “I feel like [the transfer portal] works well if the person finds the right spot.”

Much like Williams, To’oto’o was originally recruited by Alabama but signed with Tennessee due, in large part, to a relationship with an assistant coach — in his case, the program’s director of player development, Kevin Simon. Unlike Williams, though, To’oto’o was coming off a successful season where he started, led the team in tackles and made the SEC All-Freshman team before entering the portal.

“Tennessee was in disarray there,” To’oto’o’s high school coach, Justin Alumbaugh, said. “He was looking for a place where he’d get the things that he needed with structure and guidance, to challenge himself.”

After what had been a stressful and overwhelming recruiting process in high school, To’oto’o simplified things and narrowed his choices quickly. Alabama quickly became the best option. Once he got to Tuscaloosa, To’oto’o also quickly turned into a leader on the defense and became the signal caller for the unit.

“He’s the captain of the ship,” defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis said. “He’s a great leader and he’s played a big role on this defense. I’m glad he transferred.”

To’oto’o said that, for his part, the decision to enter the portal was a long process, but ultimately a decision he had to make. In 13 games this season, he has accrued 100 tackles, four sacks and is now just two wins away from completing the kind of season he visualized when he transferred. And even if there’s no title to speak off at the end of the season, as Alumbaugh put it: “The results justify the decision.”

Maybe Jerome Ford didn’t know he needed a running backs room that played games of UNO, journaled their thoughts and discussed anime. But Ford did know he craved structure. It had been Cincinnati passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli who had ultimately created a relationship with Ford during his high school recruitment that led him to transfer to Cincinnati, but it was running backs coach Darren Paige who tried to ensure Ford felt at home.

When Paige heard Ford wanted structure, he had a double take. This was a player coming from Alabama — a program and head coach that essentially embodied structure. Soon, Paige realized Ford wanted to feel supported in the goals he wanted to achieve, and above all, he wanted a relationship.

“There is structure and then there’s military structure, there’s Nick Saban structure,” Paige said. “But if you build a relationship with your players and understand them, you can tailor that structure to where it’s still tough, but it fits their personality a little better … the way we do things here fits his personality a little bit better. Sometimes you don’t find that stuff out in the recruiting process.”

Over the course of numerous one-on-one meetings, Paige came to understand that Ford craved consistency, on and off the field. He wanted to set up a schedule, so Ford got him a planner to organize his classes and assignments that they’d go over at the start of the week. Ford wanted to show he was more than the struggles at Alabama. He wanted to be the Bearcats’ top back and the MVP of the conference title game after missing the award last season, so they mapped out a plan in the weight room and on the field to improve. Paige wanted Ford to graduate and keep his grades up. So he did this with his whole unit: Good grades merited a steak dinner, and the higher the GPA, the bigger the steak.

“He’s a guy you want to be like,” Ford said of Paige. “I feel like a relationship like that with a coach doesn’t come around often.”

After turning in a 1,200-yard season with 19 touchdowns, Ford is reluctant to talk about the past. This week, he and his current and former teammates, have been asked about the connection between the running back and his former team. Ford seemed to expect this line of questioning but shut it down quickly, asking that he not be referred to as “the Alabama transfer.”

“To be honest, I got sick of hearing it,” Ford said. “That’s not my identity.”

Paige is not wary talking about where Ford came from, in part, because he has accepted the changing landscape of the game, not just with something like the transfer portal, but with the way coaches have to approach their jobs now. For him, showing an interest in every part of a players’ lives — from their families to their grades — affords him the ability to be tough on the field in certain situations. And yet, the most important trait might simply be flexibility.

“These guys deal with a lot more things now, especially on social media,” Paige said. “So you have to be a bit more flexible, more willing to listen to your guys and what’s on their minds or what they need.”

That last part is more crucial than ever. Beyond tailoring the approach to maximize a player’s success, the fact they could be the next to enter the transfer portal and leave for greener pastures is more real than ever, too.

If any coach knows the importance of maintaining relationships and not burning bridges during the recruiting process, it’s Sonny Dykes. The now-TCU head coach has been at the forefront of the transfer portal since it began. At SMU, he used the portal heavily to build out a roster, and the expectation is that he’ll do the same now at TCU. It’s a different game now though, in large part because Nick Saban is also playing.

“There’s more competition for these guys now than there used to be, but there’s also more people in there,” Dykes said. As Dykes pointed out, the “messed up” recruiting calendar has exacerbated some of the madness, too. Players are having to choose schools to enroll in a tight window without being able to make visits. “It’s a huge advantage for teams on the quarter system,” Dykes said. “Because the dead period ends and if you don’t start school until the end of January, you have a two-week window there where you can bring guys official visits.”

Alabama’s position in all of this is one of luxury. Losing Ford didn’t hurt them, and should they be in need of a player, they can immediately be in play for one the best players available at a position. It’s how they ended up with Williams and how they ended up with LSU cornerback Eli Ricks and Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs in this year’s transfer portal.

“I think Saban is very smart,” Gregory, Williams’ high school coach, said. “He’s the old-school guy, but he’ll do what he needs to do to keep up with the Joneses … the rich will get richer.”

While the transfer portal is still a fresh addition to the sport, the potential trickle-down effect has some coaches in both high school and college wondering if, as the NBA pivoted away from college veterans and toward one-and-done stars, college football will do the opposite.

“Sometimes it negatively impacts the recruiting of high school kids because teams are going for the known quantity,” Alumbaugh said. Paige added: “I’m curious to see the effects in the next few years on how it’s gonna affect recruiting. Obviously the really good [recruits] are going to get their opportunities, but maybe the next tier down.”

For now though, players and teams at this level are both benefiting. While it’s a new wrinkle for coaches to deal with, for players, the flexibility has been a boon. After years of committing to coaches who could leave for another job at any point, the players feel like this allows them to look out for themselves.

“I think the transfer portal has been good for people to be able to find out what’s best for them,” To’oto’o said. “What a lot of people don’t understand is, players are human too. We have a life to live and we want to have a successful life too.”

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