While college football has neither trades nor free agency for addressing pressing roster needs, it has the next best thing—transfers. And the following 16 transfers are poised to make the most noise on their new campuses in 2016.
16 for ’16: Top College Football Transfers
Sometimes in life—and in football—the grass is greener after all.
As the transactional dust begins to settle and the carousel slows down, swaths of athletes have now transferred to new programs for various reasons, from a desire to be closer to home to the search for a fresh start on a new campus. Above all else, though, the quest for more playing time and exposure is always heads the decision-making process.
Unlike at the pro level, college football doesn’t technically have free agency. However, coaches understand the annual opportunity to serve as safe havens for those one-time high school and college stars who have chosen to take their skills to a new zip code.
In some cases, they sat out last year, leaving the spotlight, while many others have made use of the graduate transfer rule. They’re all eligible in 2016, though, and hungry to resume careers that have taken intriguing geographical detours.
16. TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, USC via Florida
The Trojans are looking for someone other than JuJu Smith-Schuster to make plays in the passing game this season. Imatorbhebhe, who traveled cross-country to play on the same team as his brother, could be one of the answers from tight end, a position Troy has underutilized in recent seasons.
Imatorbhebhe is a 6-4, 225-pound seam-buster, with the length and the burst to wreak havoc on opposing linebackers. Taylor McNamara is USC’s steady and reliable option at the position. But Imatorbhebhe has the higher ceiling as a playmaker, performing in the spring as if he plans on carving out an important role in the offense in 2016.
15. LB Hardy Nickerson, Illinois via Cal
There was a two-for-one deal on Hardy Nickersons this offseason, and the Illini landed the defensive coordinator and inside linebacker who go by the same name.
Junior couldn’t pass on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for his father, who was hired by Lovie Smith on March 10. Twice-in-a-lifetime, actually, since dad also coached his son at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Nickerson, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 as a junior, brings 244 stops and nearly three seasons of starting experience into his final year of eligibility. He could be the answer to the departure of T.J. Neal, who ironically created an opening with his own transfer to Auburn.
14. WR Avery Peterson, Cincinnati via LSU and Jamil Kamara, Cincinnati via Virginia
So decimated by graduation is the Bearcat receiving corps that it’s going to take multiple high-profile transfers to properly equip Gunner Kiel with playmaking targets this fall.
Cincinnati’s six best receivers of 2015 were seniors, so the arrivals of Peterson and Kamara from Baton Rouge and C’ville, respectively, couldn’t possibly be timelier. Both players are 6-2, with the requisite athleticism to continue ascending up the depth chart in the summer. While the Bearcats are committing to a more assertive ground game in 2016, they’re also seeking balance and ways to accentuate the strong right arm of Kiel. Somehow, Peterson and Kamara are going to factor into this offensive blueprint.
13. RB Barry Sanders Jr., Oklahoma State via Stanford
Sanders will conclude his amateur career in Stillwater, the town where his Hall of Fame, Heisman-winning dad introduced himself to the country a quarter-century earlier.
Another Sanders in the Oklahoma State backfield makes perfect sense. Junior had a hard time getting touches on the Farm, buried behind the likes of Tyler Gaffney and Christian McCaffrey since 2013. And he probably won’t enjoy more than 12-15 touches a game as a Cowboy, sharing carries with seniors Chris Carson and Rennie Childs. Still, Sanders will inject depth and a spark of electricity to an OSU rushing attack that ranked No. 9 in the Big 12 last season, while averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.
12. LB Rommel Mageo, Ole Miss via Oregon State
While it didn’t generate a ton of headlines, Mageo was a vastly underrated get for a Rebel defense looking to replace C.J. Johnson at middle linebacker.
Mageo has yet to arrive at Ole Miss, but there’s hope he can nab the starting assignment shortly after hitting the practice field. He was one of Oregon State’s top defenders a year ago, posting a team-best 87 tackles and forcing five turnovers. Mageo is a sturdy 6-2, 233-pounder, with the intensity and the football speed to adapt to his new surroundings. As a one-year stopgap up the middle, he’ll be an asset for Ole Miss this season.
11. LB T.J. Neal, Auburn via Illinois
For the second straight year, Auburn has poached the Big Ten to fill a defensive need. In 2015, CB Blake Countess was imported from Michigan. And this fall, Neal has been signed out of Illinois to bolster a linebacker unit that lost Kris Frost, Justin Garrett and Cassanova McKinzy to graduation.
In Neal, the Tigers are getting a two-year who starter who finished second on the Illini with 109 tackles and 14 stops for loss to earn honorable mention all-league a year ago. He’s a rugged 6-1, 235-pound run stopper, a particularly valuable cog in an SEC West division loaded with north-south running teams like Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
10. WR Gehrig Dieter, Alabama via Bowling Green
And playing the role of Richard Mullaney this season will be Dieter, the second straight year Bama has beefed up its receiving corps from a talented transfer.
A year ago, Mullaney emigrated from Oregon State to give the Tide a possession receiver to complement Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. Well, Dieter is actually better than Mullaney, promising news for whoever wins the quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa. The well-travelled senior from South Bend, who began his career at SMU, erupted for 94 catches for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. The 6-3 Dieter possesses the size and the sticky mitts to quickly become a reliable go-to target in the passing game.
9. WR Geno Lewis, Oklahoma via Penn State
After his production plummeted in Happy Valley, Lewis elected to finish his career in Norman, where it’s going to take a collaboration to replace Sterling Shepard.
The Sooners are in the market for reliable targets for Baker Mayfield now that Shepard and Durron Neal have graduated. Lewis wants to be this year’s Justin Brown, who caught a career-high 73 balls in 2012 for Oklahoma after transferring from Penn State. Lewis isn’t flashy, but he’s exactly the kind of experienced and consistent leader who can move the chains and help mentor the younger kids in the locker room. In his best season, 2014, he was second on the Lions with 55 receptions for 751 yards and a pair of scores.
8. RB Keith Ford, Texas A&M via Oklahoma
A crowded backfield in Norman. A suspension for academic and team rules violations. Whatever the reason was behind Ford’s transfer, he’s just happy to be an Aggie.
Texas A&M will field an all-ex-Sooner backfield at times this season, with Ford joining starting QB Trevor Knight in the huddle. Ford was a blue-chipper at Oklahoma, rushing for 526 yards and six scores on 104 carries over two seasons. He’s a physical 5-11, 215-pounder, with just enough wiggle and experience around him to make a run at 1,000 yards in his Aggie debut. With Knight throwing to a terrific set of receivers and Ford working the running lanes, A&M should improve upon last year’s second-half futility.
7. QB Luke Del Rio, Florida via Oregon State
College football’s version of the Travelocity Roaming Gnome may finally be planting roots in Gainesville.
Del Rio is on his sixth school in the last five years, dating back to his high school years. He walked on at Alabama, sipped a cup of coffee in Corvallis and is now close to being the starter for Jim McElwain, who recruited him at Colorado State. Del Rio is more of a heady grinder than an elite pocket passer, the kind of kid who could become a coach when his playing days end. These days, though, he’s looking to breathe some life into a stagnant Gator attack that hasn’t finished higher than seventh in SEC passing efficiency since 2009 … Tim Tebow’s senior season.
6. DL Gerald Willis, Miami via Florida
After a turbulent start to his career in Gainesville, Willis is determined to redeem himself as a Hurricane.
Talent is not an issue for Willis, who dominated on the Cane scout team last fall. Discipline was his undoing as a Gator, though he’s working hard to remain on the straight narrow path in Miami. At 6-4 and 280 pounds, he has the versatility, size and physical attributes to play any position on the line. Mark Richt’s new staff has been impressed by Willis’ knack for making noise in opposing backfields, and the Canes are banking on him being a regular handful at the point of attack this fall.
5. QB Kenny Hill, TCU via Texas A&M
It was only two years ago that Hill took the game by storm, throwing 21 touchdown passes in his first six games as Johnny Manziel’s heir. But plenty has changed since the first half of 2014.
Hill petered out versus tougher competition, lost his job to Kyle Allen and relocated to Fort Worth. Now, he’s out to prove he can still be a franchise quarterback in a Power Five conference. Since becoming a Horned Frog, Hill has done everything by the books for Gary Patterson and the coaching staff, with an eye on succeeding Trevone Boykin as the triggerman of a potent attack. First, though, he must outplay sophomore Foster Sawyer, who’s gone stride-for-stride this offseason with the former Aggie.
4. RB Duke Catalon, Houston via Texas
The Cougars had no shot at Catalon two years ago, then a four-star recruit from local Eisenhower (Tex.) High School. Well, they’ve got him now, and he could be Tom Herman’s feature back for the next three seasons.
Sensing he was getting buried in Austin, Catalon elected to return home to continue his collegiate career. He chose his second act wisely, because Houston has been stripped bare by graduations and a dismissal at the position. The 6-0, 210-pound Catalon is already turning heads as the focal point of the ground game. And his ability to soften defenses between the tackles is going to mesh nicely with the all-around playmaking ability of dual-threat QB Greg Ward Jr.
3. QB John O’Korn, Michigan via Houston
After thriving with a graduate transfer in 2015, Iowa’s Jake Rudock, Jim Harbaugh could follow the same path again this fall.
Rudock brought stability to the Wolverine offense, using Ann Arbor as a stepping stone to the Detroit Lions’ roster. O’Korn, who’ll have two years of eligibility to learn from Harbaugh, could wind up being an even better free agent pickup. He has good arm talent, and he had a terrific debut as a Cougar rookie in 2013, throwing for 28 scores and 3,117 yards. However, O’Korn will need to elevate his game to fill the opening this summer, because junior Wilton Speight did a solid job of moving the offense in the spring.
2. QB Trevor Knight, Texas A&M via Oklahoma
The Aggies needed a quick-fix in the huddle. Knight was looking for a second chance. Looks like a perfect marriage in College Station.
In the span of a few days last December, Kevin Sumlin lost two of his prized quarterback recruits, Kyler Murray to Oklahoma and Kyle Allen to Houston. Those departures cast a pall over the coach and his program, which has lost its swagger since Johnny Manziel left. Nah, Knight isn’t the Heisman candidate some thought he’d be in 2014, but he’s a solid one-year solution as A&M rebuilds its depth at the position. He’s also played a lot of meaningful Big 12 football, so his veteran leadership should help unlock the potential of a dynamite corps of Aggie receivers.
1. QB Dakota Prukop, Oregon via Montana State
For the second straight year, the Ducks have dipped into the FCS ranks to fill the opening behind center with an experienced quarterback. In 2015, Mark Helfrich signed Vernon Adams. This past winter, Prukop made his way to Eugene after spending four years in Bozeman.
In his Bobcat finale, Prukop threw for 3,025 yards, rushed for 797 more and accounted for 39 touchdowns. He’s a better scrambler and all-around playmaker than Adams, but he still needs to prove he can make all the throws against Pac-12 defensive backs. Prukop must also shake loose from redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen, who’s determined to keep the quarterback competition from becoming a coronation this summer.