Michigan football is doubly changed by impact of NCAA transfer portal
As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped society and forced Michiganfootball to pause activities last spring, Joe Milton and Ronnie Bell passed the time by practicing together. The strong-armed quarterback spent hours throwing the ball to the athletic wide receiver, building a connection they hoped would endure for multiple seasons.
But the bond formed during those quiet months didn’t even last a year. On Feb. 18, Milton announced he had entered the NCAA transfer portal. His departure came after he started five games and suffered through bouts of inconsistency as the Wolverines slogged to a 2-4 record in 2020.
“It was not something I was ready for because we knew spring ball was about to be here, and then of course he pulled the plug right before that,” Bell said Thursday.
Although Bell was caught off guard by Milton’s decision, he wasn’t necessarily surprised. After all, these kinds of moves have become commonplace in this era, with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh recently saying they’re part of a “trend.” To that point, 10 of Bell’s teammates who were on scholarship have left the program within the last five months, eyeing an opportunity to play elsewhere.
The Wolverines have become accustomed to their yearly roster’s evolution into something resembling a Google Docs spreadsheet, with names added and subtracted throughout the academic year. Look no further than the offensive line: In October, Louisiana Tech tackle Willie Allen announced his commitment to Michigan, and 55 days later, U-M center Zach Carpenter announced plans to finish his career at another program.
“The transfer portal is a pretty crazy thing developing,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said Thursday. “I fully support people leaving for various reasons, whether it’s personal reasons or they’re not seeing playing time. But I do think there is something to be said for sticking with the team for as long as you can — making a decision to the team and committing to the team. I think a bunch of guys that I know here have. The majority of people who come here stay.”
Safety Dax Hill is one of them.
A former five-star recruit, Hill faced one challenge after another — from the disappointment of 2020’s losses to the staff changes that directly affected his development. Since enrolling in 2019, Hill has worked under five different position coaches, including one, Aashon Larkins, who was supposed to be an off-field analyst and another, Ron Bellamy, who had never been an assistant at the college level.
Yet Hill has no intention of leaving.
“Finish what I started,” he said. “That’s been my mentality.”
With the expected implementation of a universal one-time transfer policy that would allow athletes in the major sports to join other programs without sitting out a year, Hill may become an outlier among his peers. The allure of a quick fix could prove too enticing to a starter who faces adversity or a backup disgruntled with his reduced role, and there is growing fear among coaches that filling their rosters will become a never-ending quest. Added into that equation is the NCAA’s cap on 25 signees in an academic year, which inhibits the ability to fill the transfer-induced vacancies.
“It starts affecting roster management,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley told the Free Press. “For example, now I don’t have enough scholarship players, which becomes a student-athlete safety issue because I don’t have enough players to field a competitive team. These are some of the issues.”
Michigan hasn’t reached that critical point, and it may never get there. But the Wolverines are now rebuilding their program in an unprecedented environment, with no guarantee the players they depended on during one season will remain the next.
Case in point: Milton
A year ago, he had begun locking down the starting quarterback job.
Now, he’s already finished in Ann Arbor and looking for his next destination.
“It’s really all personal,” Hill said. “If they don’t feel like they see themselves here, then that’s their deal. Really just staying true to yourself. If you can see that you can stick it out and be productive towards the team, then I’m all for it. If not, then if you see yourself playing somewhere else, then that’s their decision.”
Meanwhile, those who are staying are left to hope the program will somehow improve without their former teammates, bracing for the possibility of more surprises within the transfer portal.