Oklahoma football: Transfers have been big contributors to OU’s success

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 28: Wide receiver Marquise Brown
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 28: Wide receiver Marquise Brown /

It’s interesting, when you stop to think about it, how many former Oklahoma football players have come in and had great success in a Sooner uniform after beginning their college careers somewhere else.

What got me thinking about this is the flood of names that are now appearing every year on the college football superhighway better known as the transfer portal. It’s like the free agency of college football and an additional way for teams to fill roster needs, if only on an interim basis.

Junior colleges have long been a fertile ground for players who may have needed one or two years to develop the skills and maturity needed to compete at the Division ! level or may not meet the academic requirements of a bigger school coming out of high school.

JUCO transfers often come into the program with lofty accomplishments at the lower level and promising upside, but more generally fall short of expectations. There are always exceptions to this, of course, and the Sooners have been a big benefactor of guessing right on junior-college prospects in recent years.

A couple of examples of players who came to OU with high accolades via the junior-college route and soared to even greater heights while in a Sooner uniform were wide receivers Dede Westbrook and, more recently, Marquise Brown.

Brown, who played one season at College of the Canyons in California before transferring to Oklahoma, exceeded 1,000 yards receiving in his two seasons at OU. The player who acquired the nickname “Hollywood,” in reference to his hometown in Florida but also for his electrifying speed and dazzling pass-catching skills, led the team with 75 catches last season, and his 1,318 receiving yards in 2018 ranks fourth best in a single season in Sooner history. He was one of two Sooners selected in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft.

Westbrook, the Biletnikoff Award winner in 2016 as the best receiver in college football, had a similar success story after coming to OU from Blinn Community College in Texas. Westbrook also displayed blazing speed. His 17 touchdown catches in 2016 is a school record for a single season. A Heisman Trophy finalist his senior season, along with his quarterback, Baker Mayfield, Westbrook was a fourth-round NFL Draft selection.

Those are just two of the more noteworthy examples in recent seasons who gained national recognition at Oklahoma after beginning their careers in the JUCO ranks.

Assuming a player can receive a release to transfer from the school he originally signed with, he is typically required to sit out a year by NCAA rule before regaining eligibility at his new school.  Walk-ons, as we learned from the Mayfield situation when he transferred to Oklahoma, are not necessarily governed by the same requirement.

The last three starting quarterbacks for Oklahoma (Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and this coming season Jalen Hurts) all began their college careers playing at another Football Bowl Subdivision school. Another player who did exceedingly well after transferring to OU from another FBS program was wide receiver and return specialist Jalen Saunders.

Saunders had two strong seasons at Fresno State before arriving at OU in 2012, and he was an equally strong performer in a Sooner uniform. He was an All-Big 12 selection as a return specialist and also caught two touchdown passes in OU’s 2013 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

Hurts’ OU story is yet to be written, but his two predecessors at the Sooner QB position both ended their college careers by winning the Heisman Trophy.

Hurts was recruited by Nick Saban at Alabama and played three seasons in Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide. He has played for Alabama in the last three national championship game, starting in two of them.

Because he has already graduated, and also largely because he has been relegated to a backup role behind Heisman hopeful Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts had the opportunity to transfer to another school for his final year of eligibility and play immediately.

Hurts is arguably the highest profile player to come through the transfer portal this offseason, and Oklahoma won out in the recruitment for his services. The Sooners will have Hurts for just one season, but they have a pretty good quarterback prospect waiting in the wings in true freshman Spencer Rattler, the top high school quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class.

Hurts is one of several graduate transfers in recent seasons who elected to play at Oklahoma for their final season of collegiate eligibility and were solid contributors to the Sooners’ success that season.

Former Sooners who fall into that category in the past decade are wide receivers Justin Brown. Geno Lewis and Jeff Badet. Brown and Lewis both played three seasons at Penn State (although four years apart) before transferring to OU for one season. Badet spent most of his college career at Kentucky, finishing at Oklahoma in 2017.

Brown caught 35 passes in his best season at Penn State in 2011. He doubled that production in his one season at Oklahoma, with 73 receptions for 879 yards and five touchdown. He had 15 catches in a game against Oklahoma State, which tied a school record.

Lewis finished his college career at Oklahoma in 2016, contributing 32 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns.

Badet’s season at OU, in 2017, coincided  with the inaugural season for both “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb. Needless to say, Baker Mayfield had a loaded arsenal of playmakers at wide receiver. The trio combined for 129 catches for nearly 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns. Badet’s portion of that total was 26 receptions for 400 yards and three TDs.

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Bringing everything full circle, transfers have been good for Oklahoma football, and Oklahoma has been fertile ground for those who have chosen to continue and even end their collegiate career playing for the Crimson and Cream.