Four years ago, Aaron Cochran went through the discombobulating process of being a highly touted college football recruit. After taking visits and hearing pitches, he ultimately signed with Cal.
But Cochran was not satisfied with the end of his college career. So this offseason, he opted to become a graduate transfer.
This time, Cochran didn’t need to be sold. He wanted somewhere he could start immediately. And somewhere that had a chance at a championship.
“After four years,” Cochran said, “you know what you want.”
Scott Pagano knew what he wanted, as well.
Pagano could’ve stayed at Clemson and remained a significant piece along the defensive line of the defending national champs. But Pagano’s goal had always been to reach the NFL. And to get there, he felt he would need more snaps from his final college season than Clemson’s loaded defensive front could offer.
“I just felt for my last year,” said Pagano, who chose to transfer to Oregon, “I really wanted to get more reps and more game film for my NFL future.”
This offseason alone, Pagano and Cochran are just two of dozens of grad transfers, who in search of better paths to the next level, have shaken up conference championship outlooks and buttressed the playoff hopes of their new teams.
If signing day is college football’s version of the draft, the grad transfer practice has become its free agency.
“These young men who come in, they know everything,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “They’re smart. They’re college graduates. They know this is their last year and are looking for somewhere where they can fit in.”
The grad transfer rule, adopted in 2006, allows players — already physically developed and usually rather seasoned — who earn their undergraduate degree before completing their eligibility to transfer without having to sit out. Quarterback Russell Wilson became the cover boy for grad transfers when he left North Carolina State in 2011 to play his final season at Wisconsin, and led the Badgers to a Big Ten championship.
The movement has since ballooned.
“It’s changed in the last couple of years,” Gundy said. “It’s become so popular now.”
Before this year, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had never used grad transfers. This offseason alone, he added four including former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris.
Yet while Fedora has just begun to test it, Gundy has been utilizing the grad transfer window for years.
The wave began in 2013, when Tyler Patmon arrived from Kansas and took on a critical part in Oklahoma State’s secondary. Since, the Cowboys have added Michigan linebacker Josh Furman, Indiana cornerback Michael Hunter, Louisiana-Monroe cornerback Lenzy Pipkins and Stanford running back Barry J. Sanders, who, to varying degrees, made key contributions for the Pokes.
This spring, Oklahoma State shored up the two biggest question marks on its depth chart by snagging a pair of high-profile grad transfers in Cochran and Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker.
“These young men, they’re doing a lot of research on their own and they’re actually contacting us,” Gundy said. “They’ve seen the history we’ve had with grad transfers and how they’ve been successful.”
Like Pagano, Baker would’ve been a rotation piece for Clemson’s defense this season, having started three games on the Tigers’ College Football Playoff team in 2015. But after an ACL tear knocked out him for the year, Baker said bouncing back to win a full-time role in the Clemson secondary would’ve been difficult.
“When you get older, you learn you have to make a business decision,” said Baker, who, like so many grad transfers, holds NFL aspirations. “Once I realized, OK, here at Clemson I’ll only be playing so many snaps, I didn’t want to do that.”
Pagano and Baker both received their releases from Clemson’s compliance office to be recruited by other schools the day they asked Tigers coach Dabo Swinney for it. And Baker and Pagano each noted that both Swinney and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables helped them find new homes, too.
“They were completely supportive,” Pagano said. “It really helped the process with them being so supportive.”
Pagano got word out to other coaches that he was available with Instagram and Facebook posts; Baker used the media to relay his availability. As soon as that happened, it was as if they were in high school again.
“That first day, I got like 35-37 calls. It got pretty crazy,” said Pagano, a Honolulu native who was one of the country’s most sought after high school defensive tackles in 2013.
Pagano didn’t want his grad transfer to drag out the way high school recruiting can. So he quickly whittled down his list to Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Oregon.
“There would be new schools that would pop up seeing if I was interested,” he said. “But by then it was too late. I wasn’t trying to make this a five-month process. I was trying to get it done in two months.”
Baker too was an ESPN 300 recruit from Hollywood, Florida, with offers from many of the bluebloods. This time, Baker began hearing from schools he never even spoken with out of high school, including several on the West Coast.
“It was very similar to high school,” he said. “They called, texted. People hit me up on Instagram.”
It was a conversation with Venables, however, that helped Baker narrow his list.
“He told me which schools were good, which would be a good fit,” Baker said. “He said [Oklahoma State] was similar to Clemson, that they treat players the right way, that they believe in the right things, do stuff the right way.
“He also said that they’d win a lot of ball games.”
Though loaded offensively, Oklahoma State exited spring ball without a single corner boasting starting experience. If Baker can solidify one of those corner spots, the Cowboys figure to be that much more dangerous this season.
“I think they have a good chance to go far, go to the CFP,” Baker said. “I just wanted to be a part of that.”
Dear Clemson Family, I want to thank you all for the support that you have given me and my family over the past 4 years here at Clemson. I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of the Clemson Family and earn a degree from such great institution, especially during such a historic time for Clemson’s football program. While Clemson is a long way from Hawaii, I have always felt at home here and will forever treasure my time at Clemson. Because of this my decision to transfer was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. I have nothing but the upmost respect and appreciation for Coach Swinney, Coach Venables, Coach Brooks and the other Clemson coaches. I would not have the opportunities in front of me without you. However, the thing that I will miss most is my Clemson teammates. You guys are all brothers and I will always remember the battles we endured. No matter where football takes me next, I know that there is no where that will come close to playing in Death Valley. From the Tiger Walks to constant encouragement on campus and around town, thank you to the Clemson fans. You guys are the #1 fan base in the country. I also want to thank my family. Some of you may not know that part of my family moved to SC from Hawaii to support me. Having your support as I begin the next chapter of my journey means the world to me and I appreciate all of the sacrifices you have made for me. Lastly, none of this would be possible without God. He’s blessed me beyond my wildest dreams and I owe all the success that I have had and will have to him. Thank you all from the bottom of heart. Wherever life takes me next, I will continue to represent Clemson University well. Mahalo, Scott Pagano
A post shared by Scott J Pagano Jr. (@scottpagano56) on Feb 17, 2017 at 10:12am PST
It didn’t take long for Cochran to decide Oklahoma State was for him, as well.
“No one really had to sell me,” he said. “No school had to sell me on anything.”
Cochran started 16 career games for Cal, including 10 at left tackle last season. But when the Bears fired coach Sonny Dykes, Cochran saw an opportunity for a fresh start elsewhere.
“One more year with the same offensive staff would’ve been good enough reason to stay,” said the 6-foot-8, 350-pound Cochran. “But when everyone got let go, I just didn’t want to be [at Cal] anymore.”
One of Cochran’s closest friends, Oklahoma State linebacker Chad Whitener, had previously transferred from Cal. And by coincidence, Cochran was in Stillwater helping Whitener move apartments when Dykes was fired.
“I put it out there with him right then,” Cochran said. “I told him I didn’t know what was going on, but I may or may not need to leave.”
Despite returning four starters on the offensive line, the Cowboys had a vacancy at left tackle. Cochran also took visits to Auburn (he was born in Alabama) and Texas Tech (his former position coach at Cal landed a job there).
“I didn’t want to make a hasty decision. I had to keep an open mind, I wanted to be sure,” Cochran said. “But Chad being there, I knew what kind of program Oklahoma State was. And I knew they needed a left tackle.”
The Cowboys, however, weren’t the only Big 12 playoff hopeful to nab a noteworthy grad transfer this spring.
After growing frustrated with his limited role in Kentucky’s run-first offense, wide receiver Jeff Badet concluded he wanted to use his final season playing for a program that would boost his NFL draft stock.
“I felt like all the work I was putting in was going unnoticed,” said Badet, who led the SEC in 2016 with an average of almost 22 yards per catch but finished with only 31 receptions and four touchdowns. “I wanted to show my versatility, not just be the outside receiver running go-routes all day. I wanted to play for a team that could get the ball in my hands.”
Once he got his release, Badet said it felt like “pretty much every school in the country” began to recruit him.
“I can’t even tell you,” he said. “… So many coaches calling me, following me on Twitter, DM’ing me, it was crazy.
“It was pretty much like high school again.”
After also considering West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Oregon and Troy, Badet picked Oklahoma — the place he thought could best help him get to the pros.
“I felt like, that’s the school that’s going to me the exposure I need,” he said. “A place I can make plays and help my draft stock.”
The Sooners are banking that Badet can step in for departed Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook and become the new go-to guy for quarterback Baker Mayfield. And in turn, bolster Oklahoma’s chances for another playoff run.
“You can’t beat having the best quarterback in the nation throwing you the ball,” Badet said. “They’ve got a lot of young receivers, so I felt like I could help out, make an immediate impact.
“And they could help me get to where I want to be.”