Joe Burrow will be the first graduate transfer in LSU history to start at quarterback, the latest sign of the new normal in college football.
The trendy acquisition method could give the Tigers some consistency at a position that’s had a different season-opening starter in five of the past six seasons.
Burrow’s lack of tenure at LSU isn’t much of a factor, Ed Orgeron said Wednesday, because the Tigers were making a transition on offense this season, shifting to a new spread-out attack under Steve Ensminger when the 6-foot-5, 216-pound junior transferred from Ohio State in May.
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“(Burrow) wasn’t that far behind anyone else,” Orgeron said. “He was there for the first day of installation for a lot of this offense. I think that was an advantage.”
And as No. 25 LSU kicks off against No. 8 Miami at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Burrow will be one of 24 graduate transfer quarterbacks making their debuts on new Division I rosters.
The use of the graduate transfer rule has exploded since its inception in 2006.
According to an NCAA report, 17 football players used the rule in 2011.
In 2017, 211 football players became graduate transfers.
It’s something first-year UCLA coach Chip Kelly said he had to adapt to upon his return to collegiate coaching. When Kelly left Oregon after the 2012 season to begin a four-year coaching stint in the NFL, the graduate transfer rule was not as prevalent.
“It was interesting,” Kelly said during Pac-12 media days. “I had never been in the grad transfer world. That’s one thing we’ve talked about earlier that has changed in college football.”
It has changed the Bruins roster: Former Michigan starting quarterback Wilton Speight transferred as a graduate to UCLA in April, and he is now listed as a possible starter for the team’s season opener against Cincinnati.
“So you’re getting a guy that’s got some maturity to him and has been there, done that,” Kelly said. “He’s there for a reason. He wants to get a degree from UCLA from graduate school, and he wants to play football. I’m excited about adding that experience to that room.”
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Coaches tend to trust graduate transfers with having to transition to a new team in such a short turnaround, pointing to theor graduate status as evidence that the players are intelligent enough to handle the challenge.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Wednesday morning that true freshmen have also successfully made the transition to college football in recent seasons, and he doesn’t expect a graduate transfer’s experience to be much different.
Pruitt has not yet announced whether Stanford transfer Keller Chryst will start at quarterback in the Volunteers’ season opener against No. 17 West Virginia.
What seemed so obvious, what was so widely expected, is now finally official: Joe Burrow, starter. Myles Brennan, backup.
“I don’t think age has a lot to do with it,” Pruitt said. “You can look all over the country. I’m sure there’s probably going to be some freshman quarterbacks that are going to start in (a) game. They might have been there since mid-year; they may not. Maybe (they arrived) the first week of the season. So some things come easier to others, and I think things do come easy to Keller, and he’s done a nice job since he’s been here.”
So how do graduate transfer quarterbacks generally pan out?
There are the success stories: Russell Wilson moved from North Carolina State in 2011 to Wisconsin, where he finished ninth in the Heisman voting and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.
And there are the busts.
Baylor benched former Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon last season after the Bears opened with losses to Liberty and UTSA. And former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, who lost his job to Danny Etling in 2016, moved on to North Carolina for one year. Harris played in six games, completing 49 percent of his passes for one touchdown and eight interceptions.
In 2017, eight quarterbacks transferred as graduates to Division I programs, according to Advocate research, and five of them started in their new team’s season opener:
- Max Browne, from USC to Pittsburgh
- Solomon, from Arizona to Baylor
- Shane Morris, from Michigan to Central Michigan
- Damian Williams, from Mississippi State to Texas State
- Harris, from LSU to North Carolina
The five quarterbacks had a combined record of 3-2 in their season openers.
Harris struggled in a 35-30 loss to Cal.
Each of the other four quarterbacks made their debuts against programs from the Football Championship Subdivision. It wasn’t until Week 2 that Browne, Morris and Williams played against Power 5 opponents, and the results were polarizing.
Morris threw for 467 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 45-27 win over Kansas (the Jayhawks finished 1-11); Williams went 6 of 16 for 95 yards and an interception in a 37-3 loss to Colorado (the Buffaloes went 5-7); and Browne went 19 of 32 for 138 yards with 2 interceptions in a 33-14 loss to No. 6 Penn State (the Nittany Lions finished 11-2).
Out of those, Penn State is the most relatable opponent to what Burrow will face against Miami on Sunday — but Browne’s Pittsburgh team had deeper flaws and less talent than what Burrow has at LSU.
LSU's Ed Orgeron has opposed the idea of Southeastern Conference "free agency" but is fully aware of how transfers have impacted his team in r…
LSU starting quarterbacks have played statistically well in season openers over the last five seasons. Among Etling, Harris, Anthony Jennings and Zach Mettenberger, none recorded a passer rating below 100.
On Sunday, LSU will find out if Burrow is any different.
“Going into the game, obviously, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen — how he’s going to react under fire,” Orgeron said. “But we do feel that he’s poised, he’s consistent, he’s mature. We expect him to play well.”