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WKU football

Hilltoppers embracing transfer portal for this year's signing class

How Tyson Helton and staff changed WKU's approach to recruiting

The questions started coming as the hours passed Dec. 16 – the first day of the early signing period.

Western Kentucky announced its first signing of the day with Miguel Edwards, a cornerback from Independence Community College, on Twitter at 8:34 a.m.

Then, crickets.

Other programs around the country showcased large signing classes, and their fans enjoyed graphics and highlight videos circulating around social media. For the Hilltopper faithful, however, there wasn’t much celebrating that day.

Edwards was the only player the program had announced signing that day – Adam Cofield, a graduate transfer running back from North Dakota State, was introduced earlier in the month – by the time then-offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis and then-defensive coordinator Clayton White spoke with the media that evening. The Hilltoppers announced another – Chance McDonald, a quarterback out of Steilacoom High School in Washington – later that day, but that was it for what is usually a day to celebrate the next in line at a program.

But the message from head coach Tyson Helton and staff was clear – be patient, because there’s more coming.

“We feel good about it,” Helton said two days before the early signing period began. “I think we’re on a good path right now.”

“Just bear in there with us. I think we’re going to be fine,” Ellis said Dec. 16. “Nobody needs to panic yet.”

The Hilltoppers knew more were coming, and they have – just from other colleges, not high schools.

WKU was prepared to attack the transfer portal.

THE BREAKDOWN ... SO FAR

The announcement came Wednesday that Niko Cooper had signed with WKU after spending last season at Nebraska. The defensive end is one of several transfers the Hilltoppers have added so far.

Cooper was the 17th member of the 2021 signing class. Of those 17, 15 had been with a Division I program previously. Only McDonald and tight end River Helms have been signed out of high school, and neither are with WKU for its spring session.

Fourteen of the 15 who had previously been with a Division I program were signed directly out of the transfer portal. Edwards came from Indy, where he was unable to play because the 2020 fall season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but spent two seasons at Oklahoma before that.

Cofield came from an FCS program, as did receivers Jerreth and Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff and quarterback Bailey Zappe. The latter four played at Houston Baptist and followed Zach Kittley to WKU after he was named the Hilltoppers’ next offensive coordinator.

Cooper was the sixth to come from a Power Five program, along with linebacker Matthew Flint and defensive back Tre Shaw from North Carolina, receiver Daewood Davis from Oregon, offensive lineman Boe Wilson from Nebraska and cornerback Davion Williams from Michigan State. WKU also landed defensive end Michael Pitts from Cincinnati, tight end Zac Lefebvre from Buffalo and offensive lineman Cameron Stage from Bowling Green.

In comparison, WKU had 15 players come directly from high school in the 2020 signing class and seven from junior college, and also added Tennessee transfer linebacker Will Ignont, Maryland graduate transfer quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, Iowa State transfer kicker Brayden Narveson and Michigan transfer long snapper Matt Baldeck later.

“I think we’re in a really good spot. I really like the game plan we have right now,” Helton said March 15, the day before WKU opened spring practices. “We’ve still got some scholarships left and we’re going to continue to evaluate some guys. We may sign a high school guy or two even late, but probably going to be more transfers this time around.”

CHANGING THE PROCESS

When the staff started seriously digging into the current recruiting cycle, it was hoping for around a 50-50 mix of signing transfers and high school players knowing a one-time transfer rule was likely coming. The NCAA Division I Council approved in May a resolution that outlined its intention to adopt a one-time transfer waiver of immediate eligibility for all sports that was expected to be adopted by January 2021. It has since been pushed back, but is is expected to be voted on as early as April.

Knowing that the change was likely coming, WKU felt comfortable at that time taking 10-15 transfers for the 2021 signing class, according to director of football player personnel Zach Grant.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything shut down. WKU went without its spring football season, and the NCAA put into place a recruiting dead period, which has since been extended to May 31.

It meant no camps for high school players, which didn’t give Helton and staff an opportunity to bring players in to evaluate in person to see what they were really like and how they actually looked.

“At the major Power Fives, you might be recruiting a guy when he’s a freshman, sophomore, he’s been on your campus, and for us, it’s more of yeah, you might see him late in his sophomore year, but really it’s not until his junior year that you’re really getting to work with that guy,” Helton said.

“ ... I’m certainly OK with taking a couple of those (high school) guys, but I always kind of tell myself, ‘If I’m going to guess wrong, how do I want to be wrong?’ Well, I want to be wrong watching film on somebody who’s played at the college level where I can pick up the phone, talk to somebody I know and I can get an honest opinion about that person.”

With uncertainty about how much of the season could be played – if it could be played – the NCAA introduced a blanket waiver for an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it for fall athletes.

“That was probably the moment that we decided we would go heavy into the portal,” Grant said.

Helton has embraced the transfer portal and calls it a “two-way street,” stressing that the importance of open communication between players and staff to support one another in it.

WKU was expecting a gap in its roster – it had 25 players on last year’s roster listed as a senior, redshirt senior or graduate student and a lot of inexperienced younger players, but not much in between – and as the season drew closer to a close, the staff had a good feel of who would or wouldn’t return, and knew what it needed to do to try to fill that gap. It was the “perfect storm,” according to Helton.

“On a normal year, the downside to taking a class full of transfers is that you would cut into the development of your roster and the balance of it in terms of what scholarship numbers you have per class,” Grant said.

“Say, for example, the NCAA didn’t have that retaining eligibility deal and our freshmen last year became sophomores and we took all transfers – we’d have a class of freshmen with zero freshmen, and you just can’t do that because in four years you’ll have a class with zero seniors, theoretically, but once we found out eligibility would be retained and we started to get a feel for which guys on our roster would come back and you’re projecting for it a little, we knew that this was the year that we could solve both problems – we could fill the middle of the roster and we could also not cut into the balance of numbers on our rosters – so we’re sitting in a pretty good spot now because we have almost even numbers of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen.”

ATTACKING THE PORTAL

“There’s definitely some nervousness,” Grant said. “It was the first year the portal’s been like this, so I think for all schools, and especially us because we’re heavily invested in it, you’re at the mercy of who’s going to go in the portal. If no players in the country went in, then what were we going to do?”

Grant, who is in his fifth year as director of player personnel after taking the job at just 23 years old, says Helton, who’s entering his third year as head coach, is “very analytical with the way he approaches recruiting and roster management.” The staff would evaluate each player that went in during the season, checking film and references and deciding how hard to recruit them, and landed the first signing with Cofield on Dec. 6.

The staff had looked at past data on the number of players that typically enter the portal and expected an uptick this year with the one-time transfer rule likely to come into place. With the eligibility extension, getting a graduate transfer who had redshirted could mean multiple years of eligibility remaining, like with Davis, who redshirted his first year and comes from Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in general social science, or Flint, who earned an undergraduate degree from North Carolina in three years and redshirted in 2018.

Eligible players trickled in daily, but once the season ended, there was a rush.

“During the season there were just a couple of guys who went in every day, and then when the season ended and probably through the first two weeks into January it was just a monsoon in the portal,” Grant said. “People were going in all the time. We had a bunch of guys from our roster go in, which we kind of expected to happen. I don’t know the exact numbers, but there was probably like 20 guys a day going in the portal. It was ‘hard’ to manage, I guess, but that’s part of the job.”

It led to quicker decisions having to be made from both sides. There was less time to evaluate players, but there was also less time for players to figure out who’s offering them and to get paperwork ready before the spring semester begins.

COVID-19 protocols also made for virtual recruiting, and Grant says WKU director of football recruiting Taylor Brown “worked his butt off all the time” to get people to campus virtually, while the staff doubled down on virtual meetings with potential signees.

Grant understands the fans’ frustration that came with a slow signing day, and said he would have been the same way before working in football, but he was trusting the process even if it came with nerves.

“I believed in what we were doing, so I was hoping other teams would sign as many high school guys as they could just because I knew the more high school guys that they signed, the less guys in the transfer portal they’d have room in their class to sign, which means there’s less spots in the country for kids in the portal to go to and the more we have, so generally we should get a better product in the portal based on that,” he said.

IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIPS

When White addressed the media on the first day of the early signing period, he could only talk about Edwards in terms of new defensive personnel, because he was the only signee. WKU’s then-defensive coordinator credited his relationship with the Deerfield Beach High School coaches from his time coaching at NC State. The Hilltoppers later signed Davis, another Deerfield Beach product.

Stephen Hamby, who was promoted to WKU’s offensive line coach after working in an offensive quality control role, was previously the offensive line coach at Bowling Green State, where Stage comes from. Grant says new running backs coach Carlos Locklyn, who previously served as director of high school relations at Florida State and Memphis, “may know every single high school coach in the state of Alabama.”

Connections like that have helped WKU land transfers in a time where campus visitations are limited, and why recruiting high schools will stay important further down the line.

“I think it’s important for us to develop relationships with high school kids because you don’t know when you’re going to get them now,” Helton said. “In the back of my mind, I may be recruiting a kid and I know he’s going to a Power Five school, but in my mind I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in two years.’

“I’m trying to build that relationship with that kid so that if it doesn’t work out for him at a place, he goes, ‘Hey, I really liked Western Kentucky. I liked how they recruited me, I like what they do there.’ It’s an easy decision for him. I’m not fighting a battle right out of the gate with somebody that didn’t know me up front. There’s been a lot of thinking ahead here that I think can benefit us down the stretch.”

The relationships among college coaches are equally important. With coaching connections across the country among its staff, WKU believes it is not just bringing in quality players, but quality people as well.

“That’s a thing you worry about with the transfer portal. Everyone’s leaving a school for a reason. You want to make sure they’re leaving for the right reason. You want to make sure you’re getting somebody that can be coached in our system, does the right things, enjoys the process and loves football,” Grant said. “ ... We liked a lot of guys on tape that we heard bad reports about and it was immediately crossed off the list because you want the culture to be right on the team. That’s a huge thing for coach Helton and bringing in a class of transfers can disrupt the culture if it’s done wrong.”

LOOKING AHEAD

WKU still has spots to fill on its roster, and expects to sign more players leading up to the start of the 2021 season. The staff likes the competition the portal has brought to each position, and says every starting spot is up for grabs – Helton even said he’s not against signing another quarterback to accentuate that point, despite bringing in Zappe and returning Pigrome, the 2020 starter.

With spring practices currently ongoing throughout the country, there’s expected to be another increase in players entering the portal in the coming month, and with plenty of roster space left, the Hilltoppers can be aggressive in targeting players to fit the needs they may find during their own spring practices.

Moving beyond this season, the process is still in question. Much depends on what recruiting and transfer rules come into place before the summer and how much WKU will be able to evaluate high school talent.

“Who knows? I can’t tell you what it would be if I signed 25 guys in the 2022 class,” Helton said. “If you said ‘Take a guess,’ I’d say, ‘50% high school guys, 50% transfers.’ I think it’s the way college recruiting’s going to be, to be honest with you, particularly at our level.”

“The portal is kind of like free agency now, and you’re going to have the draft, which is like high school guys, and free agency, which is like the transfer portal,” Grant said. “There’s no perfect way to do it. You’ve got to build your team through both.”

With so many layers to recruiting now, Grant says he and the staff are still learning the best way to move forward and that this season is a good opportunity to learn. WKU will be able to evaluate after the 2021 season, which kicks off Sept. 2 at Houchens-Smith Stadium against UT Martin, to see where the team missed, where it hit and how to do better.

“It’s been an interesting year, but I think every time there’s change, a lot of people are worried about it, but coach Helton’s whole message to the staff has always been that if there’s a change that’s happening with the rules or with how things are going in college football, why aren’t we the people to take advantage of it? Why aren’t we the people to become better?” Grant said.

“With changes, some people are going to just sit back and try to do their old thing and get left behind, and some people are going to adjust to a way that creates advantages for us. I feel like we’ve done that and we’re on the forefront of that.”

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– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.