Grad transfers shift the sands of Razorback rosters

Trevor Ezell / Photo:

As we are all adjusting to a short-term new normal with our lives because of the coronavirus, we are seeing a new normal continue to play out in college athletics with the graduate transfer rule.

The rule has been in place since 2011, but for Razorback fans it’s been more and more noticeable in recent years as Arkansas coaches have not only looked to it but also embraced it as a tool to attempt to improve their teams.

The rule allows a player who has graduated from one university to transfer as a graduate student with immediate eligibility. In other words, a grad doesn’t have to sit out a year before being able to play like an underclassmen does.

In the past year, the Razorback baseball and basketball teams gained great help from the play of Trevor Ezell on the diamond in 2019 and Jimmy Whitt Jr. on the hardwood for the abated 2019-2020 basketball season.

Ezell, a Cabot native who transferred in as a grad from Southwest Missouri State, came to Arkansas with the thought of playing second base for Dave Van Horn’s Hogs, but because of the effect an arm injury had on his throwing, he wound up being a season-long fixture at first base, where throwing wasn’t an issue.

Ezell, a switch-hitter, played well all season but he was the Razorbacks’ best batter in the postseason with a .459 average (17-for-37) in the in NCAA Tournament. He belted six doubles, two homers and had eight RBI. He was also reliable in the field and reportedly well liked in the locker room.

Whitt, who played his freshman year for the Hogs, transferred back to Arkansas after playing his sophomore and junior seasons at SMU. Similarly to Ezell for the Diamond Hogs, Whitt became a great glue guy for head coach Eric Musselman’s inaugural Razorback basketball team, filling whatever roles needed to be filled on the court.

His length and tenacity allowed the guard from Columbia, Mo. to guard every position on the floor. He specialized in fronting post players as much as five inches taller than him. He also did a solid job rebounding and was the Hogs’ third-leading scorer averaging 14.0 ppg. behind Mason Jones (22 ppg.) and Isaiah Jones (16.9 ppg.).

Jimmy Whitt Jr. / Photo:

Dave Van Horn’s 2019 squad, which finished 46-20, and Musselman’s 2019-20 team, which finished 20-12, would not have been the team’s they were without Ezell or Whittl.

However, Hog fans have also seen the other side of the story play out, too, with Razorback football.

Former Razorback coach Chad Morris sought help in his second — also abbreviated — season on the grad-transfer market, bringing in not only one but two quarterbacks in Ben Hicks from SMU and Nick Starkel from Texas A&M. Both moves blew up in Morris’ face.

Even though Hicks started two seasons for Morris at SMU, his play was so mediocre at Arkansas that Starkel was called upon to play much of the second half of Arkansas’ second game at Ole Miss. Starkel showed some flashes, but the Rebels took advantage of the Hogs’ numerous mistakes and posted a 31-17 victory at Oxford.

Like every quarterback during Morris’ nearly two-year tenure at Arkansas, Hicks and Starkel seemed to regress the more they played. Starkel had a monumentally bad game with five interceptions in an embarrassing 31-24 loss to San Jose State. Hicks never played that poorly, but the Razorbacks needed a difference-maker at quarterback not just a bus driver.

The season finally blew up in Morris’ face when Western Kentucky grad transfer quarterback Ty Storey returned to Arkansas to lead the Hilltoppers to a 45-19 blowout of Morris’ Hogs at Razorback Stadium. Storey, of course, was the Razorbacks’ starter for much of Morris’ first season with the Hogs, who Morris all but chased out of the program.

The following day Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek mercifully pulled the plug on Morris’ coaching tenure at Arkansas, dismissing him with an open date and two games remaining on the season.

Some fans might be put off on graduate-transfer quarterbacks after the results of last season, but bringing in Hicks and Starkel wasn’t the Hogs’ problem last year. It’s the way Morris and his offensive coordinator Joe Craddock coached them.

Remember, Hicks and Starkel weren’t the only quarterbacks at Arkansas to fail under Morris. Every quarterback did. It’s pretty clear the issue was with the coaches more so than with the players.

Ben Hicks / Photo:

That’s why I’m enthused and not concerned that Morris’ replacement Sam Pittman and his staff recruited five graduate transfers in their first recruiting staff to bolster the Razorbacks talent and depth.

Florida grad transfer Feleipe Franks (6-6, 214) is the heir apparent at quarterback. He was having a strong season for the Gators last year before he suffered an ankle injury, which he had practically recovered from when the corona virus put a halt to Arkansas and SEC athletics for the rest of this academic year. Franks’ experience should be valuable to the Hogs this season, and he has a possibility of gaining another year of eligibility if he desires through an injury hardship petition.

Arkansas State grad transfer Jerry Jacobs (5-11, 195) should add experience, depth, and perhaps leadership in the secondary. He’s played safety and cornerback for the Red Wolves. Like Franks, he was on-campus and ready for spring practice.

Three other projected grad transfers are finishing up coursework before transferring to Arkansas. Strong-legged kicker A.J. Reed (5-11, 175) will be coming in from Duke. Linebacker Levi Draper (6-2, 230) is making the move from Oklahoma, while defensive lineman Xavier Kelly (6-4, 300) will be making the move from Clemson.

One or more of those players might become fan favorites for what they mean to the Razorbacks like Ezell or Whitt?

I think that’s a possibility because of the talented staff, Pittman pieced together when he became the Hogs’ head football coach.

Jalen Harris / Photo:

I have to believe Franks is excited to work with Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, and Briles is probably just as enthused to have an experienced QB under his tutelage for his first year with the Razorbacks.

On the other side of the coin, Razorback guard Jalen Harris has decided to move on from the Razorbacks for his senior year. He announced that he entered the NCAA transfer portal on Tuesday.

Harris was a solid back-up player for the Razorbacks this season and last, and he would probably have only improved with a second year in Musselman’s program.

However, with an infusion of talent on the way with this year’s recruiting class, and the possibility of the return of Jones and/or Joe, Harris might have a better chance of extended playing time in another program.

As a fan in years past, I might have resented Harris’ decision to move on to a degree. However, today with the ever shifting sands of NCAA rosters, his move is probably the best thing for him and the Hogs. Hopefully, he’ll find the perfect fit for his talents.