Transfer merry-go-round speeding up for elite high school football players

Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports Images

Transfer merry-go-round speeding up for elite high school football players

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Transfer merry-go-round speeding up for elite high school football players

High school football coaches who worry that their sport will one day mirror high school basketball with a high number of transfers are a little late. At the top level, it’s already there.

A quick glance of the top players in the 2018 class shows that 18 of the top 50 players in the 247Sports.com rankings are on their second school, or in some cases, their third. While coaches in Texas and elsewhere are concerned IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) is scooping up all the top talent, only four of those top 18 players transferred to IMG. The rest often went from one good high school football team to another.

RELATED: From coast to coast: How California football stars ended up at IMG Academy

There are plenty of reasons for the increased number of transfers in high school football. Parents across the country are demanding greater school choice and increasingly open enrollment laws have opened the door for athletes to look for the best situation.

Take football hotbeds Southern California and Florida.

Last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law HB 7029, which includes provisions that ease transfer and eligibility rules. Beginning this fall, students will be allowed to transfer to any public school in the state, regardless of zoning boundaries. The law supercedes prior Florida High School Athletic Association rules that usually meant that student-athletes who transferred would be ineligible for one season.

California’s transfer policies have increasingly become more liberal. Last year, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) statistics showed there were a record 16,595 transfers, roughly 2% of the state’s student-athletes, and that number will likely rise.

Beginning this school year, high school students in California, with a valid change of residence, can transfer for any reason, even for solely sports reasons, and not be penalized. There are still exceptions. Transfers may be deemed invalid if the student follows a coach to another high school or recruiting is proved. Also, if a student transfers without making a valid change of residence, they will still have to sit out half a season. The new rules are relaxed compared to prior years, where those who transferred for purely athletic reasons could be ruled ineligible. Even under the old rules, state champion St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) has double-digit transfers over the past two seasons, led by former Upland linebacker Jaiden Woodbey last season and former Buena Park wide receiver Devon Cooley this season.

Jaiden Woodbey (Photo: 247Sports)

States that attempt to make transfers more difficult often have a hard time passing more stringent rules.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) attempted to tighten its transfer rules this past winter, to no avail. After the NJSIAA mandated a 30-day no competition rule for athletes who transfer, even for a bona-fide move, Acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education Kimberly Harrington voided the rule in April.

That means that four recent high-profile athletes who transferred to Paramus Catholic (Paramus, N.J.) will be able to play right away this fall: defensive end Dorian Hardy from state champion St. Joseph Regional (Montvale), along with Pope John XIII (Sparta) quarterback Trey Dawson, Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.) defensive back Jarrett Paul and DePaul Catholic (Wayne) quarterback-receiver Shelton Applewhite.

DePaul Catholic coach John McKenna said transfers often are led by players looking to get more playing time.

“I grew up and fought and played hard for a position and that’s how it was,” McKenna said.

“Now, there are a lot of factors that go into it. (Players and parents) look at depth charts and how many touches they’re going to get. There are some reasonable factors, where kids have to move or they go to a public school because they can’t afford the tuition. But a lot of them are looking at the depth chart and trying to get the college exposure they need. It’s always been a factor, at least the last 10 years.”

Grayson (Loganville, Ga.) won its state AAAAAAA football title last season, but the Rams garnered notoriety because they landed five of the state’s top 100 players via transfer, just for their senior season, including running back Kurt Taylor. He transferred back to Newton High for his final semester after helping Grayson win the title. Taylor went on to sign with Michigan.

D’Angelo Gibbs was one of five elite in-state players who transferred to Grayson (Loganville, Ga.) last year as seniors. (Photo: Jim Halley, USA TODAY Sports).

A Georgia High School Association (GHSA) committee floated a rule this spring that would have required a student to sit out half the season if his or her transfer was deemed to be for athletic reasons. The rule was tabled by the GHSA’s executive committee by a 62-2 vote, though it may be reintroduced.

Sometimes, the transfers flow both ways. Last season, when Gilman coach Biff Poggi took a job as an assistant at the University of Michigan, three Gilman players transferred to St. John’s (Washington, D.C.): quarterback Kasim Hill and talented linebackers Shane Lee and Arik Smith. This season, with Poggi leaving Michigan to become the head coach at St. Frances Academy (Baltimore), he’s been able to snag four St. John’s players: Lee; running backs Joachim Bangda and Kwinn Hall; and defensive end Demon Clowney, the cousin of NFL defensive lineman Jadaveon Clowney.

IMG’s football program was built on high-level transfers. The Ascenders, who will be playing their fifth season this fall, graduated their first four-year player, Christian Pluchino, earlier this year.

Texas coach Tom Herman, speaking at a Texas High School Coaches Association Convention, said he would discourage recruits from transferrring to IMG.

“It doesn’t matter whether you go to IMG or you go to Cartage High School,” Herman said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “We’re going to find you. I believe high school football is more than just getting recruited. It’s more than X’s and O’s. It’s about community, especially in this state. That community starts to get torn apart a little bit because people want to come in and recruit other players. I’ve got a problem with that.”

IMG coach Kevin Wright wryly noted that won’t prevent Herman from trying to recruit his players. During the last school year, Texas assistants Stan Drayton and Jason Washington visited IMG. Texas A&M assistants Aaron Morehead and Noel Mazzone also made trips to the Ascenders’ campus in Bradenton. Baylor didn’t, but the highest-ranked player the Bears signed last season was rated No. 348 by 247Sports.

“I do think there’s some hypocrisy when I hear things said about us,” he said. “The kids who come to IMG make sacrifices to come here. They are going away from home and their families. We don’t force people to come here but they do because it’s a great opportunity and a great setting. This place isn’t for everyone, though. You have to be intrinsically motivated.”

Herman later backtracked his comments, saying in a statement:

“As I said to the Texas high school coaches, playing football in our state is tremendously rewarding, but I also recognize the value for those who choose to pursue other opportunities.”

Wright points out that the rise of football transfers is a national trend that began before IMG was playing varsity football.

“We live in a world of instant gratification,” Wright said. “People want to play and they want to play now. Even before this, when I was at Carmel in Indianapolis. Parents would come to us with their kids in middle school and wanted an answer on where their kid would fit in at Carmel football. It’s part of the sports culture and football is no different.”

Some of the top players are so well-traveled, their Hudl highlight accounts are crowded with video from former schools. American Family Insurance preseason ALL-USA defensive back Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hiles grew up in Inglewood, Calif., but played his freshman season at Calabasas, Calif., his sophomore year at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas), was back at Calabasas his junior year will be at IMG Academy this season.

Akeem Dent, one of the top cornerback-wide receivers in the 2019 class, is already on his third school and he’s only a junior. He played at Royal Palm Beach, Fla., as a freshman, helped lead Pahokee to a 1A Florida title it was ultimately stripped of for ineligible players last season, and this season is at Palm Beach Central (Wellington, Fla.).

Texas has similarly open transfer rules. While the state’s University Interscholastic League prohibits transfers purely for athletic reasons, very few athletes face a hearing before a district executive committee to determine whether the transfer was legitimate.

Not surprisingly, the top teams in Texas — like the top teams in other states –often end up with the most talented transfers. Allen is already the largest school in the state and the Eagles, while compiling a 57-game win streak that ended last season, relied on three quarterbacks who began their high school careers elsewhere: Kyler Murray; Seth Green; and Mitchell Jonke.

Shawn Robinson transferred in last season to help DeSoto win a state title (Photo: John Glaser/texashsfootball.com)

That’s hardly new in the Lone Star state. The 2017 state champion, DeSoto, won its first title with quarterback Shawn Robinson, who was on his third school (he played at Chisholm Trail in Fort Worth as a freshman and Denton Guyer as a sophomore and junior). He beat out quarterback Jaylin Nelson, who had transferred to DeSoto from First Baptist. When Nelson lost the starting job to Robinson before the 2015 season, he transferred to Duncanville.

Andy Stefanelli is a new coach this year at powerhouse Good Counsel (Olney, Md.) which plays in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference that includes traditional powers DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), St. John’s and Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.). Prior to becoming the Falcons’ head coach, he was an assistant for 10 years at Good Counsel to longtime coach Bob Milloy. He said position shopping by parents and poaching by high schools plays a factor in the rise of transfers.

“I was the recruiting coordinator here for eight of those 10 years and I’ve been the guy helping coach Milloy to talk some of our parents off the fence (from transferring),” Stefanelli said. “What’s changed it is these institutions that have gotten super aggressive that have deep, deep pockets.

“The reason players are leaving is these kids are offered full scholarships to transfer to their schools. They are poaching kids out of good situations. IMG was one of the first ones to start it and St. Frances and St. John’s are in that realm.The parents of kids are so caught up in getting them a Division I scholarship that they’re willing to do just about anything to put their kid in a situation that will enhance their chance of getting a scholarship. I think that’s the driver.”

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