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Changing places: College football’s all-time all-transfer team

Mike Huguenin05/27/22
Article written by:On3 imageMike Huguenin

MikeHuguenin

RandyMoss
Randy Moss signed with three schools, practiced with two but got on the field for just one, with Marshall. (Al Tielmans/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

While the transfer portal has transformed the way current coaches build their rosters, transfers have been around basically since the start of college football. The sheer number of transfers these days obviously is different, but coaches always have relied on transfers, both from junior colleges and other four-year schools.

To that end, we decided to put together a sort of all-transfer team from throughout college football history. We considered all transfers: those from junior colleges, those from one college to another, those who changed colleges after returning from World War II. And we did not rely solely on a transfer’s college football exploits: 17 of our 22 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (maybe it’s chickening out, but that was a tiebreaker of sorts; the idea, though, was to pick the best football players who had been transfers).

By far the toughest position was quarterback because of the number of possibilities. There have been five quarterback transfers who have won the Heisman; two of those also won the national title. But only one of the five has won the Heisman, a Super Bowl (two, actually) and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  

Here are the 22. And we freely admit that when this exercise is done in another, say, 15 years, almost every player on here could have changed.

OFFENSE

QB Roger Staubach

The particulars: New Mexico Military Institute, then Navy
The skinny: Staubach, who was from Cincinnati, attended NMMI for a year before transferring to Navy, where he was a three-year starter. He guided the Midshipmen to a 5-5 record as a sophomore in 1962, then won the Heisman as a junior in 1963, the last service academy player to win the honor. Unbeaten and second-ranked Navy met top-ranked and unbeaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl for the national title, with the Longhorns turning in a stifling defensive performance in a 28-6 win; Navy finished with minus-14 rushing yards. Staubach had an injury-plagued senior season in 1964 and Navy finished 3-6-2. Staubach graduated in 1965 – the school retired his No. 12 jersey during the graduation ceremony – and went on to serve four years of active duty, including a year as a supply officer in Vietnam. Staubach then played 11 years in the NFL with Dallas and led the Cowboys to four Super Bowls, including two victories. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, his first year of eligibility. Staubach was known for clutch plays and led Dallas to 23 fourth-quarter comeback wins, including 14 in the final two minutes or overtime.
The four other quarterback transfers who have won the Heisman: Joe Burrow (from Ohio State to LSU), Baker Mayfield (from Texas Tech to Oklahoma), Kyler Murray (from Texas A&M to Oklahoma) and Cam Newton (from Florida to Blinn College to Auburn).

RB Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch

The particulars: Wisconsin, then Michigan
The skinny: Hirsch, a Wisconsin native, played for the Badgers’ freshman team in 1941, then was named a first-team All-Big Ten selection as well as the league’s offensive back of the year as a sophomore in 1942. After the season, he entered the Marine Corps and was sent to the University of Michigan as part of a Naval training program. In the fall of ’43, he played for the Wolverines and teamed with former Minnesota star Bill Daley – also at Michigan for the same training program – in the backfield for a team that finished the season ranked third nationally. He also starred in basketball, baseball and track in his one year at Michigan. After the school year ended, he moved on to Marine bases in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and California. Hirsch then moved on to pro ball, playing three seasons in the All-America Football Conference before heading to the NFL, where he became a standout wide receiver. He played nine seasons in the NFL and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. As for his nickname, he had a peculiar running style; his Hall of Fame bio reads “his muscular legs seemed to gyrate in six different directions at once.”

RB Marion Motley

The particulars: South Carolina State, then Nevada
The skinny: Motley went to high school in Canton, Ohio, where he later was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. He attended South Carolina State as a freshman in 1939, then transferred to Nevada; he was a three-year starter (1940-42; the school retired his No. 41 jersey), then returned to Canton to work before joining the Navy in 1944. He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago; he played for the base’s football team – which was coached by Paul Brown, who was on leave from his coaching job at Ohio State while in the Navy. After the war, Motley again returned to Canton to work. By now the coach of the Cleveland Browns, Brown reached out to him in the summer of 1946 and Motley was on his way to stardom. He played nine years of pro ball, and his 5.7 yards-per-carry average still is the NFL career record. In an obit headlined “The Monster In My Memory” in Sports Illustrated after Motley’s death in 1999, famed NFL writer Paul Zimmerman noted that in his late 1960s book “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” he called Motley “the greatest player I’d ever seen.”

RB O.J. Simpson

The particulars: City College of San Francisco, then USC
The skinny: Everybody knows about the off-the-field Simpson. On the field, he was one of the greatest running backs in football history. He starred for two seasons at CCSF, then transferred to USC. He was a two-time All-American with the Trojans, leading the nation in rushing in 1967 and ’68. As productive as he was, he truly burst into the national consciousness in 1967 with an unreal 64-yard TD run that gave the Trojans a 21-20 nationally televised win over archrival UCLA. He won the Heisman as a senior, when he rushed for 1,709 yards and 22 TDs; Simpson added 171 yards and a TD for the No. 2 Trojans in a Rose Bowl loss to top-ranked Ohio State. Simpson was the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft and played 11 seasons in the NFL; he was a five-time first-team All-Pro pick, was the first player to rush for 2,000 yards (in a 14-game season!) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. (The other running back we considered was Army’s Doc Blanchard, a Heisman winner who did not play pro football.)

WR Isaac Bruce

The particulars: West Los Angeles College, then Santa Monica College, then Memphis
The skinny: Poor grades sent Bruce, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to West LA after he had signed with Purdue out of high school (West LA is the same junior college alma mater as Keyshawn Johnson and Warren Moon). Bruce spent one season at West LA, then transferred to nearby Santa Monica College because that school had a better quarterback. He then transferred to Memphis. He had 113 receptions for 1,686 yards and 15 TDs in two seasons with the Tigers, and was a second-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Bruce played 16 seasons in the NFL. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons and is fifth in NFL history with 15,208 receiving yards. Bruce was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

WR Randy Moss

The particulars: Notre Dame, then Florida State, then Marshall
The skinny: Moss signed with Notre Dame out of high school in West Virginia (he was a basketball teammate of future NBA star Jason “White Chocolate” Williams) but was denied enrollment; the official word was academic issues, but his arrest for a fight in West Virginia seemed to be the more likely reason. He then moved on to Florida State; Moss sat out the 1995 season as a redshirt, then tore up FSU’s talented defense during spring ball in ’96. But some legal issues led to him being kicked off the team in May ’96 after he admitted smoking marijuana while on probation. Moss then transferred to Marshall and helped the Herd win the Division I-AA title in its final season at that level; he had 78 receptions for 1,709 yards and 28 TDs. He again put up huge numbers in 1997 in the Herd’s first season as a FBS program – 96 receptions for 1,820 yards and 26 TDs – then turned pro. Moss was a first-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and played 14 seasons; he is fourth in NFL history with 15,292 receiving yards and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.

OL George Connor

The particulars: Holy Cross, then Notre Dame
The skinny: He is one of the most decorated linemen in college football history. Connor played for two years at Holy Cross and received All-America mention as a sophomore in 1943. He then spent two years in the Navy during World War II, and after the war, he enrolled at Notre Dame in 1946. Connor twice was a consensus All-American for the Irish, who won back-to-back national titles with Connor opening holes up front; he won the first Outland Trophy in ’46. He played eight years with Chicago in the NFL and was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection. Connor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975. Connor’s New York Times obit said that when famed sportswriter Grantland Rice saw Connor play, he wrote, “Connor is the closest thing to a Greek god since Apollo.”

OL Walter Jones

The particulars: Holmes CC (Miss.), then Florida State
The skinny: He was the Mississippi junior college player of the year as a sophomore in 1994, then transferred to play for Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles. He redshirted in his first season on campus to bulk up (he played at 265 at Holmes and eventually was a 290-pounder at FSU), then was a second-team All-American in 1996 for an FSU team that lost to Florida in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. He turned pro after the season and was the No. 6 pick in the 1997 NFL Draft by Seattle and played his entire 13-year career there. Jones was a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2014.

OL Bob St. Clair

The particulars: San Francisco, then Tulsa
The skinny: St. Clair was huge by football standards in the 1950s and ’60s, going 6 feet 9 and about 270 pounds. (Actually, the 6-9 part is huge at any time). He starred on San Francisco’s unbeaten 1951 team as a junior, and after USF dropped football following that season, he transferred to play his senior year at Tulsa and helped the Golden Hurricane go 8-1-1. A San Francisco native, he then played his entire 11-season NFL career with the 49ers and was a five-time first-team All-Pro pick. His 2015 obit in the San Francisco Chronicle said that when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, he was asked if players from his era could play in the current NFL. His response: “I don’t think the question should be, ‘Could we play today?’ The question is, ‘Could these candy-asses have played with us?’ ” An aside: That obit and his Hall of Fame bio mentioned his fondness for raw meat.

OL Ron Yary

The particulars: Cerritos College (Calif.), then USC
The skinny: Yary is one of the best tackles in history; he was the No. 1 pick in the 1968 NFL Draft and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played at Cerritos for one season, then transferred to USC. He was the Pac-8’s defensive lineman of the year as a sophomore in 1965, then moved to offensive tackle as a junior. Yary was a consensus All-American as a junior and senior, and won the Outland Trophy as a senior on a Trojans team that won the national title. He then played 15 seasons in the NFL and was a six-time first-team All-Pro selection. Yary was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

C Frank Gatski

The particulars: West Virginia, then Auburn
The skinny: Gatski, a West Virginia native, was a two-year starter at Marshall before leaving school during World War II. When he returned to the U.S. after the war, Marshall had not resumed playing football, so he played his final season at Auburn in 1945. Gatski played 12 seasons in the NFL, was a four-time first-team All-Pro and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985; others in that class included Staubach, Simpson and Joe Namath. He is the only player in Marshall history to have his uniform retired (No. 72) and reportedly never missed as much as a practice at Marshall, Auburn and in the NFL.

college-football-all-time-all-transfer-team-junior-college-transfers-transfer-portal
After transferring from Central Michigan, J.J. Watt became an All-American at Wisconsin and helped the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

DEFENSE

DE Deacon Jones

The particulars: South Carolina State, then Mississippi Valley State
The skinny: The best defensive end in history? You can make a good case for Jones. He played one season at South Carolina State, then was dismissed (reportedly for participating in a civil rights demonstration); he transferred and sat out the 1959 season, then played his senior season at Mississippi Vocational College (now called Mississippi Valley State) before being selected in the 14th round of the 1961 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. Jones played 14 years in the NFL and was a five-time first-team All-Pro. Sacks were not an official stat when he played, but Pro Football Weekly has him with 173.5 of them, which would be third all-time. Jones had a lethal helmet slap, a move that eventually was banned. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1980.

DT Cortez Kennedy

The particulars: NW Mississippi CC, then Miami
The skinny: After two seasons in junior college, Kennedy eventually became a star for the Hurricanes. He was a backup in 1988 behind Russell Maryland, then started alongside Maryland in 1989 on Miami’s national-title team. Kennedy earned All-America acclaim as a senior and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. He played 11 seasons in the NFL, all with Seattle, and was the league’s defensive player of the year in 1992 – despite playing for a 2-14 team. He was a three-time first-team All-Pro and was inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. Like another former UM defensive tackle in the Hall of Fame (Warren Sapp), Kennedy was squatty (6 feet 1, 300 pounds) but strong and quick and a legit pass-rush presence in the middle (he had 58 career sacks)

DT Alvin Wistert

The particulars: Boston U., then Michigan
The skinny: Not only was Wistert a star, he has one of the most unique stories in college football history – yes, all of college football. He did not play prep football and went straight to work out of high school in Chicago. Wistert was a Marine in World War II and decided to enroll at Boston U. after the war; he played one high-level season of football for the Terriers as a 30-year-old freshman in 1946, then transferred to Michigan, where both of his brothers (Francis and Albert) had played. Alvin became an All-American, starring for Wolverines teams in 1947, ’48 and ’49 and earning consensus All-American honors as a junior and senior. Those teams went a combined 25-2-1, with the unbeaten ’47 team finishing No. 2 in the polls and the unbeaten ’48 squad winning the national title. That ’48 team was the last Michigan national titlist until the 1998 squad shared the crown with Nebraska. Wistert didn’t play pro ball, instead going into the insurance business. All three Wistert brothers are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

DE J.J. Watt

The particulars: Central Michigan, then Wisconsin
The skinny: If you don’t know the story of how Watt went from a two-star tight end with the Chippewas to an All-American edge rusher with the Badgers to an NFL superstar … well, you must not follow football.

LB Lavonte David

The particulars: Fort Scott (Kan.) CC, then Nebraska
The skinny: David, from Miami, signed with Middle Tennessee out of high school but didn’t qualify academically. He was a two-season standout at Fort Scott, then transferred to Nebraska. David starred with the Huskers, too, racking up 285 tackles in two seasons; he had a school-record 152 tackles as a junior in 2010, then followed that up with 133 stops – fifth-most in a season – as a senior. David was a second-round pick in the 2012 draft by Tampa Bay and has been a 10-season starter for the Bucs; he has had eight 100-tackle seasons. He has been a first-team All-Pro pick once and a second-teamer twice.

LB Andre Tippett

The particulars: Ellsworth (Iowa) JC, then Iowa
The skinny: Cheating a bit here, as Tippett starred as a pass-rushing end at Iowa before moving to an outside linebacker spot in the NFL. A New Jersey native, Tippett played junior college ball for a year, then became a Hawkeye. He was a reserve as a sophomore, then started as a junior and senior. Tippett was an All-Big Ten pick in 1980 (when he had 20 tackles for loss) and ’81, and was an All-American as a senior on Iowa’s Rose Bowl team (one of the starting safeties on that team was Bob Stoops). He was a second-round pick in the 1982 NFL Draft and played 11 seasons in the NFL, finishing with 100 career sacks. Tippett was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

LB Dave Wilcox

The particulars: Boise Junior College, then Oregon
The skinny: Wilcox played two years at Boise JC (now Boise State) and was a junior college All-American before transferring to Oregon. As with Tippett, he was a college defensive end who was moved to outside linebacker in the NFL. He played 11 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and was known both for his physical play and high football IQ. Wilcox was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. His son, Justin, also starred at Oregon and is the head coach at California.

DB Dale Carter

The particulars: Ellsworth (Iowa) CC, then Tennessee
The skinny: Carter, from the Atlanta area, was a two-time junior college All-American before transferring to Tennessee. He then became a two-time “regular” All-American; he had 17 interceptions – a school record – in his two seasons in Knoxville. Carter was a first-round pick by Kansas City in the 1992 NFL Draft and was the league’s defensive rookie of the year that season. He played 12 seasons in the NFL and was a two-time second-team All-Pro selection. At one point, he was the league’s highest-paid defensive back. But Carter had substance-abuse issues and was suspended five times; he missed all of the 2000 season because of a suspension.

DB Willie Heston

The particulars: San Jose State, then Michigan
The skinny: Heston was a two-way player in the late 1890s and early 1900s (hey, everybody was a two-play player before the 1950s) who made his name as a running back. But he also was a top-notch defender and is one of the best players in college football history. Heston went to high school in Oregon and attended California State Normal School (now San Jose State), where he became a star despite never having played football before. In the last game of the 1900 season, San Jose State played Chico State and Fielding Yost – then the Stanford coach – fortuitously agreed to help out the San Jose State team. Heston graduated in 1901 and was set to become a teacher. But Yost, who had taken over as Michigan’s coach after the 1900 season, convinced Heston to head to Ann Arbor and enroll in law school. There, Heston became a national sensation, being named an All-American four times (he played seven seasons of college ball). Those four Wolverines teams (1901-04) with Heston devastated opponents: Michigan was 43-0-1 and outscored foes 2,326-40. Almost half the wins (20) were by at least 50 points, nine were by at least 80 and four were by at least 107. Officially, Heston is credited with a school-record 72 TDs – but in “NCAA Football’s Finest,” the NCAA said stats exist for just 17 of those 44 games. That’s 72 TDs in 17 games – 4.2 per game. As for his defensive acumen? In a 1925 “Sportlight” column, Grantland Rice quoted Yost as saying, “He was one of the greatest defensive backs, one of the hardest, surest tacklers who ever lived.”

DB Emlen Tunnell

The particulars: Toledo, then Iowa
The skinny: Tunnell, from the Philadelphia area, was a star halfback as a freshman at Toledo before suffering a broken bone in his neck in the fifth game of his season; he missed the rest of the season but was medically cleared to play basketball early in 1943 and helped the basketball team get to the NIT final, where the Rockets lost to St. John’s. After the school year ended, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he spent three years. He enrolled at Iowa, playing for the Hawkeyes in 1946 and ’47, then signed with the New York Giants in 1948; he was the Giants’ first Black player. Tunnell played 14 seasons in the NFL, was a six-time first-team All-Pro and retired with an NFL-record 79 interceptions; that total now is second. He was the first Black player – and the first pure defensive back – inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1967.

DB Willie Wood

The particulars: Coalinga JC (now known as West Hills College, in L.A suburbs), then USC
The skinny: Wood, from Washington, D.C., was a star quarterback/safety in his one season of junior college football, then transferred to USC for the 1957 season. The Trojans were just 13-16-1 while he was there. Wood, also a safety, had injury-plagued seasons as a junior and senior and went undrafted; he signed with Green Bay as a free agent and was installed at safety; he was a backup as a rookie, then started for the next 11 seasons before retiring. Wood was a four-time first-team All-Pro and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.