MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen took the podium on national letter of intent day in February his voice battled the mechanical noises from Milan Puskar Center renovations, which provided a proper backdrop for a football roster under construction.
Among the 26 additions that day were nine junior-college transfers, the highest number in a single class in program history. Then, two graduate transfers, quarterback Clint Trickett and running back Charles Sims, joined the class.
Nine of those 11 transfers have started in their first season at West Virginia, the lone exceptions being offensive lineman Stone Underwood, who is redshirting, and defensive end d’Vante Henry, who was dismissed from the team after an arrest in August.
The numbers represent a growing trend in college football, with junior-college transfers being pursued as quick-fix solutions.
Following the blueprint made by Kansas State, which has had nearly 80 junior-college transfers since 2006 and carries 23 on its current roster, the West Virginia coaching staff scoured off-the-radar schools in small towns to fill holes in the roster and get the Mountaineers up to speed in the Big 12.
“Those guys need to come in and play right away, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone the junior-college route,” Holgorsen said on signing day.
The obvious drawbacks to taking a junior-college player are he’ll have fewer years of eligibility and he’ll have to quickly learn a new system with the expectation of making an immediate impact.
The benefits are that instead of getting a high school athlete with a flashy highlight tape, coaches get a more matured player — mentally and physically — that has quality starting experience in college, albeit at a lower level.
When asked what a player gains from going the junior-college route, receiver Kevin White, a transfer from Lackawanna College, said: “It’s going against men and not boys.”
And players at that level aren’t exactly sandlot players.
Punter Nick O’Toole, a transfer from Fullerton College, called it a “grab-bag mix” of guys. Some, like O’Toole, were overlooked out of high school, some were recruited but couldn’t make the grades and some would never cut it at the Division I level as freshmen.
Offensive line coach Ron Crook has been around college football for two decades, and he attributed the rise in popularity in part to the fact that coaches have a shorter leash.
“You don’t have a long-term contract to get things done anymore,” he said. “You’re looking for guys that can help you win right away. On one hand, it’s unfortunate because you’re always going to build your program around guys who are here for an extended period of time. But at the same time, you have to be realistic and ask, ‘How can we get the best team on the field?’ “
Running backs coach JaJuan Seider added that with rosters capped at 85 scholarship players — compared to 125 when he played at West Virginia in the mid-1990s — a transition like the school made last year from the Big East to the Big 12 is a radical adjustment. Coaches don’t have enough time or roster spots to recruit and develop young talent to get up to speed.
“You’re behind the eight ball in recruiting, so now you’re trying to catch up to JUCO guys that can play in the Big 12,” Seider said.
But there’s still a transition period, though it tends to be shorter than for an average high school recruit. Every former transfer, from nose tackle Shaq Rowell to running back Dreamius Smith, mentions the same difficulty: tempo.
“There’s no tempo in JUCO like they run in Division I,” Rowell said. “Especially in the Big 12 where it just happens to be the highest-tempo conference in the country.”
Then there’s the little stuff.
“You’ve got to pay attention to everything — keys, reads, where’s the defense flowing,” Smith said. “You’ve got to open up your game. You can’t just be a running back that can run — you’ve got to block, pick up blitzes.”
“I’m still adjusting,” White said with a laugh. “In JUCO and high school I never had signals or had to change my route because of defensive schemes.”
It certainly seems to be working, so are junior-college transfers the way of the future? Not exactly. Holgorsen called it a “year-to-year thing.”
“You never want to take a lot of them, because you want to build your depth,” Seider said. “You like to build from within and let your own kids mature, but we were in a situation where we needed depth. We needed guys that could come in and play right away and push the guys in front of them to create competition.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.