Football School: A coach's view inside the transfer portal

Football School: A coach's view inside the transfer portal


Message boards are full of so-called experts who never played or coached the game at the high levels. I’m one of them. CanesInSight is blessed to have Mike Zuckerman, a ten-year college coaching veteran, take us to Football School. He will join the show regularly to provide insight on terms we use every day, but may not fully understand.

Zuck, a Miami alum, spent seven years in UM’s football program in various roles and, for the past three years, served as the linebackers coach at Utah State. During his tenure, Utah State had an 11-win season, won the conference, and produced 2023 first-team All-Conference LB MJ Tafisi. Zuck has taken a leave of absence to return to civilian life, which is a blow for Utah State but a blessing for Canes fans.

In this week’s Football School, he takes us through the transfer portal from the perspective of a college coach:

On the first steps when an interesting player enters the portal: A lot of it depends on what level you're at. The bigger schools have an entire department that’s job is to constantly monitor the portal.

Nowadays, the fastest way to figure out when people are in the portal is by watching the same Twitter accounts you guys follow. You may also know somebody tied to that kid. His high school coach or his parent may reach out and say, “Hey, this guy’s in the portal.”

Your antennas need to be up in advance. In the past, your recruiting conversations were, “In this class, we need X amount of this position, X amount of that position, X amount of that position.” Now, even in May and June when you're planning out your entire recruiting class, you have to say “We're going to take X amount of high school here and X amount of transfer here.” The amount of years matters, too, because if you take a kid who just redshirted and has four years there's really no difference between taking him and taking a high school kid.

So the number one thing is figuring out your needs, and (1) how many transfers and (2) what type of transfers you're looking for. Once a kid is officially in the portal, the quickest way to get the kids is usually just a DM on Twitter.

One of the most challenging things is how fast and furious it happens with the current transfer portal rules. You have a very short amount of time to develop a relationship, trust your evaluation, figure out whether they fit with your team and get them signed. It happens really, really, really quick. It’s such an accelerated part as opposed to high school recruiting, where sometimes you're meeting these kids when they're freshmen and sophomores and building that long relationship with their families over time. This is happening in like two weeks.

On character evaluations in the portal: It all comes back to the culture of your locker room and how strong it is. I'm a very firm believer that culture wins in college football. You'll hear a lot of coaches talk about how there's way more teams that lose games on Saturdays than win games on Saturdays. Everyone's got good coaches trying to win. I think back to the two games versus Toledo in '17 and '18. Toledo had a quarterback who stuck around in the league for a bit. Three really, really good receivers who played in the NFL. That was a talented team. They developed over a long time with culture and they were coached well.

When you bring a kid in, it's still really, really, really important to evaluate. Are they a cultural fit? And if they're not a cultural fit, is our culture good enough to bring them in? Because if you have culture issues, and then bring in more culture issues, things are going to fall apart. I don't care how talented you are. When things get hard in a game, your kids aren't going to pull together, they're going to pull apart.

If your culture is really good, I think you can take a little bit more of a risk. Because you know that you have really good kids that are going to make sure that that guy falls in line. That’s the hardest challenge of the portal, Anyone in a few weeks can come off a certain way. And then over a few months it's, “Oh my God, this wasn't a fit.” So you have to have some blind faith and trust your gut and talk to as many people as possible about, “Is this a guy who fits?”

That’s why I would advise any athlete who's in the portal, “You need to treat everyone with respect.” For me as a coach, I tried to dig into every single place I could to find out as much information as possible on a transfer kid. If there's somebody in that building that you've treated poorly and somebody asks that person, he's not going to speak well about you. That can hurt your chances. From the NFL side, those guys evaluate and find every single person to talk to in the building to try and figure you out. In college, with NIL and with scholarships, it's a big investment now. So you have to do everything possible. You better not be treating anybody the wrong way because that stuff's going to get out.

On evaluating a portal player from a lower level: It's very similar to high school recruiting. Even at the best levels of high school football, a dominant D1 prospect should be dominating who he plays against. First of all, you want to look for physical traits. Are the physical traits there for this guy to be successful? If you're playing really well at Group of Five, I have a hard time believing that you're not going to at least have some success at the Power Five level. You look at physical attributes. “Is this guy legitimately running away from everybody? Is he playing in a league that has less speed? Is his speed going to translate here?” If he’s a smaller receiver, is he playing against anybody with bigger DBs? That can become an issue if a guy's moving up.

The Group of Five level, to me, translates pretty well. As you move down, it becomes more and more of a risk. The top FCS teams can play with anybody. If a Power 5 school sees a “Dakota” on the schedule, it's always pretty terrifying. But as you get into lower FCS and D2 and even D3, it gets harder and harder because it's such a drastic change.

On what he learned about the portal at Miami (where they signed Jaelan Phillips, KJ Osborn, Dee Delaney and others): You talked about a bunch of kids with an incredibly mature mindset right there. Coming out of the portal, you need to have that mature mindset and understand how important it is for you to do everything right and get on the field right away.

The kids who play as freshmen are mature beyond their years. They understand how to be a pro and understand their playbook. And they balance school and football, because that's a thing. There's always kids who have really good camps. Then, once that full class schedule hits with four or five classes, all of a sudden you have to balance assignments and tests and the grind of the season. It gets hard. There’s a lot of kids who fall off at that point.

So the most mature freshmen coming in always were the ones who saw the field. That’s even exacerbated when you get to portal kids who only have a few years to play. Especially if you're a one-year kid, you better have the mindset that I'm going to do everything possible to succeed and not get in my own way because you got one year.

So need to look for the kids who are in the portal because they love football and are looking for a better football opportunity. You can get into trouble with guys who are looking to get more money and don't really love the game. Now, there's nothing wrong with somebody trying to get more money. Good for the kids. But you need to find mature character guys who love ball.

On the process of evaluating a portal prospect: First of all, I'm going to see if I knew anyone on the previous staff. That's going to be the best source of information. You always have to take it with a little bit of grain of salt. You’ve got to be sensitive about it, too.

You're also going to reach out to the high school coach. You're going to talk to the coach in your building who has that kid's area to find a contact in high school. You're going to try and get in touch with parents. Basically, it becomes your four-year recruiting high school process in a week. Try to hit all of those people, figure out exactly who they are, what they like, what's important to them, why they got in the portal. There’s a million different reasons why kids get in.

Most programs have PFF (Pro Football Focus) at this point. You have PFF cuts up the kids for you. So you'll watch a cut-up of all their good and bad plays from the year and try to evaluate. Is this a fit? Is it not? If it's a kid who hasn't played in the game, they'll normally have some type of highlight from practice and things like that. It's all about gathering as much information as you can to eliminate the chance of not getting a good player.

On building a team through the portal v. high school recruiting: It’s based on your needs and how quickly you need to fill that need. Do I have a backloaded roster where I want to take all young guys? Or do I have a hole due to a guy leaving for the draft or getting poached in the portal? It's all just based on how your roster is built and what your needs are for that next coming year.

Ultimately, the job is to win next season. Everyone wants to say, ‘We're gonna build a program here over a few years.” But nobody really gets that much time anymore. That’s just the reality of college football.

On conversations with players considering entering the portal: In this day and age, when you want an answer to something, you pull out your phone. You Google it and you have the answer immediately. When I was a kid, you had to wait until Wednesday at 8:30 to watch a TV show. Now, you go to Netflix. Everything that we're trained about now is instant gratification. So it's really hard.

When you come in as a freshman, you were the best player on your high school team for a long time. Everything on the Internet shows you all these amazing freshmen doing amazing things. When you don't have that success right away, it's challenging and it's hard. You want instant gratification. So you think, “Well, I didn't get it here. I should go somewhere else.”

What hurts is there's transfer culture in high school now. So some kids have already done this by the time they get to school. They didn't have success at their first high school and transferred to another high school. That’s what they’re programmed to do.

The only thing I'd say is you need to look at your situation. If the only reason that you want to leave is because you didn't get the playing time you wanted, I don't think you're being fair to yourself. You need to look at everything. If you go to a school that you're really happy at, and you love your coaches, you don't need to transfer. Go have a conversation with your coach. As a coach, you should have video documentation of why they're not in the game. You need to be able to back up your opinions. That's why it's so important to grade practices .

Sometimes guys can be grading out extremely close, so you have to actually show why you feel that way. It's frustrating as a player if you say, “Why am I not playing?” and the coach can't give you a good answer. That’s part of your job as a coach to be able to explain that to a kid.

If someone still wants to leave, that's why the portal is there. Don't make a decision while you're angry. Don't make a decision while you're sad. Take some time, think about it and get to a place where you're comfortable and making a non-emotional decision. And if he still wants to transfer, and you're fighting to keep him to stay, there's just going to be something else that makes him leave. You’ve got to be all in where you're at. If you're not all in, you're going to end up finding a reason to leave.

Non-portal discussion on Kam Kinchens, who was just drafted in the third round: Sometimes kids walk in the building and from their personality, you just know, “This is a guy.” We offered Kam early. He wasn't prototypical like James Williams as an eighth as a ninth grader. Kam didn't have that body type yet as a young guy. But he just immediately, from a young age, looked you in the eye, could hold a conversation. You could tell there was something to the kid. Some substance there. And then you watch the film, and he's such a good football player. The immediate comparison was Jaquan Johnson because of the way he just found the ball.

There are kids who are so good at football that they transcend physical attributes. Kam is not James Williams-type physically gifted, but he's just so unbelievably good at football. He had this amazing ability to track the football and make plays. Combined with who he was as a leader, I wasn't surprised at all to see his success.

It goes back to what I was saying earlier. Mature kid who was all about ball. He knew what he was doing and kept his head down and came in and had that mindset that allowed him to play as a true freshman and handle all that expectation and responsibility.

Comments (5)

“an entire department that’s job is to constantly monitor the portal.”

Where do I apply?
I would like to know how a defensive team prepares for playing a team the first time. For instance, how would Miami's defensive coaches plan to play against UF's offense for the first game of the season? And if they just watch tape of the previous season, what if the coaching staff is different from the opponent's previous season? Also how are adjustments made at half? What is that conversation like? Who talks at halftime?

Also, is Geddy Lee really NYSOM? Does Coach Zuck know that?
Transfer portal is a bit crazy, they need to find the right rules for it. Maybe bring back the 1 year rule but you don't lose that year of eligibility? Maybe they are only allowed to play 4 games and redshirt? Idk they need to find some kind of balance.
I would like to know how a defensive team prepares for playing a team the first time. For instance, how would Miami's defensive coaches plan to play against UF's offense for the first game of the season? And if they just watch tape of the previous season, what if the coaching staff is different from the opponent's previous season? Also how are adjustments made at half? What is that conversation like? Who talks at halftime?

Also, is Geddy Lee really NYSOM? Does Coach Zuck know that?
Love this idea. We will do it on a future show.