PARK CITY, Utah – The Lumberjacks once had a plan to use a transfer quarterback as the foundation of a revamped offense. Now Northern Arizona is trying to ensure their current signal caller is not part of the recent trend of marquee stars making an exodus from the Big Sky Conference.
In the spring of 2015, head coach Jerome Souers and first-year offensive coordinator Tim Plough were busy installing a new up-tempo spread offense in sharp contrast to the pro-style West Coast system Souers favored his first 17 years at the helm in Flagstaff. And Souers and Plough thought they had the man to run it: Arizona transfer Connor Brewer.
A few months after spring drills ended, Brewer – a former four-star in-state product who made stops at Texas and Arizona – declared he would instead transfer to Virginia before the 2015 season. For a moment, the Lumberjacks were in a state of disarray.
A year later, Brewer spurning NAU looks like an ideal scenario for the Lumberjacks. Souers and his staff scrambled, ultimately bringing in freshman Case Cookus from Ventura Junior College. Cookus showed no learning curve whatsoever, instead ripping the Big Sky Conference apart as a rookie. Last season, Cookus earned FCS Freshman of the Year honors by leading the country with 37 touchdown passes compared to just five interceptions. He led the nation with a passer efficiency rating of 184.1.
The last two off-seasons in college football have been dominated by stories of graduate transfers. If a player earns his degrees in four years, he essentially becomes a free agent with the ability to pursue graduate school anywhere in the country. If a player has a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, football becomes a major part of the equation. The controversial rule has hit the Big Sky Conference close to home each of the last two summers.
Two years ago, Vernon Adams looked primed to continue his domination of the league. Fresh off a runner-up finish for the Walter Payton Award that included a Big Sky record 55 touchdown passes, the Eastern Washington record-breaking quarterback entered 2015 with a receiving corps flush with talent and an offensive line filled with veterans. Instead, he dominated the headlines during the off-season, endured one of the most highly publicized math tests in recent memory to earn his undergraduate degree and played his senior season for the Oregon Ducks.
In December, a similar tale unfolded in Bozeman. Dakota Prukop, a two-year starter and 2015 first-team All-America for Montana State, earned his degree just weeks after MSU fired head coach Rob Ash and most of his staff. Before Christmas, Prukop went on visits to Eugene and Tuscaloosa, Alabama to see Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. By January, he was enrolled and working out with the Ducks. He is the front-runner to be Oregon’s starter this fall.
“From the institution side, you are like, ‘We have invested in this young man, we have developed this young man. What have you done?’ But I know it’s out there and I know at Power 5 schools, there are staff members who are looking at all the junior All-Americans at the FCS level,” said new Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, who spent the last three seasons at Washington and the last 10 in the FBS. “They are putting their lists together and they are going to be able to contact those kids and get the word out. I don’t know if that’s a good thing for college football.
“At the same time, I’m a big believer in student-athlete rights and it’s very difficult for me to sit in front of a young man like Dakota Prukop and say, ‘You gave your four years to this institution, did a great job representing us, got your degree and now we aren’t going to allow you to go pursue something you want to pursue.’ I see both sides and I don’t see an easy solution.”
The trend of departing stars from the Big Sky to the Pac 12 is a point of contention among the league’s coaches. Now that Souers has an ultra-talented, academically oriented signal caller of his own, he is already planning to ward off potential suitors for the next few years.
“Someday started last fall,” Souers said with a half-hearted chuckle. “It’s the nature of the rules right now. Do I like that idea that all the FBS programs have one guy who is going through every program looking for that candidate? No. I don’t like the way it feels. It puts us in a farm club position to develop players. I don’t like giving an individual the opportunity to bolt on his teammates and the program that developed him. It doesn’t feel right to me.”
Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr. has taken his share of transfer players in six years at the helm for his alma mater. He is among those in the Big Sky that is baffled that schools like Oregon and Alabama are choosing to recruit the FCS ranks at all.
“For me, it’s unfathomable that a school like Oregon or Alabama have to go after that type of kid,” Collins said. “You are Alabama for Christ sake. You ought to have three or four quarterbacks in waiting to lead your team. But it also shows the job and the work that our guys are doing at our level. They are finding the gems.”
Collins and Souers are among the BSC head coaches who are opposed to the looting that is taking place. Most of the programs in the Power 5 conferences now have a specific staff member who specifically scouts the FCS for potential stars.
“All they do is monitor who are the All-Americans, where are they at academically, can we get a subliminal message around to them? It sucks for us, a coach like Beau (Baldwin), you groom a player to win you a national championship and you lose him,” Collins said. “But a kid has his degree, he can go on and go. I just don’t understand. It blows my mind that schools like that don’t ever have a quarterback ready.
“You are taking our superstar where we are taking a kid who wants to play. They are hurting our teams as opposed to the kid coming to us and it doesn’t hurt them at all.”
For years, athletes with a single season of eligibility remaining could “drop down” from the FBS to the FCS to play their final season. The NCAA changed the rule, forcing drop down players to have two years of eligibility remaining to transfer from the top subdivision to the FCS. But the graduate transfer rule still applies.
Montana will start transfers at all three levels of its defense, including preseason All-Big Sky safety Yamen Sanders on the back end. The Griz added eight transfers in the off-season, including a pair of graduate transfers from the Big Ten: wide receiver Lane Hovey from Nebraska and defensive back T.J. Reynard from Wisconsin.
“I think it can really help us at Montana to bring in a guy who can help you right away who has played at the FBS level,” UM second-year head coach Bob Stitt said. “He’s not going to run out in front of 26,000 and not be able to handle it. It was a huge help for us8.”
Montana has had success with transfers throughout the last 20 years, from quarterbacks like Drew Miller (BYU), Craig Ochs (Colorado) and Josh Swogger (Washington State) to skill players like running back Justin Green (San Diego) and wide receiver Joe Douglass (Oregon State). While the use of the Big Sky as a farm system is a point of contention among most of the league’s coaches, Stitt is not worried.
“I don’t think we will ever have a player who goes through three or four years at Montana and leave us,” Stitt said. “It’s not going to happen. Once the kids become a Griz, they are a Griz. On that end of it, the negative aspect, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen to our program. The other end of it, for a kid to come in and be a part of our program and experience Griz football, it’s going to be a priceless experience.”
The exodus out of the Big Sky is not limited to star quarterbacks. In the off-season Southern Utah added BYU transfer quarterback McCoy Hill to replace Olsen but the Thunderbirds lost a pair of starting offensive linemen — Keon Norman and Andrew Eide — up the road to BYU.
SUU first-year head coach DeMario Warren said the transfer of two starters “hurt us” but he said it also brought the defending Big Sky champs closer together “because our guys had to step up and fill that hole” during spring drills. Although head coaches around the league have a chance to capitalize on the rule, it seems like a loophole that does not benefit the Big Sky.
“Unless the guy truly wants to be a graduate student, I think it’s a joke,” eighth-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “I’m really disappointed in our conference in what’s happened with our marquee players leaving. Dakota Prukop, I get what his academic motivation was. But Vernon’s motivation was all about being at Oregon. I feel bad for Beau, I felt bad for Coach (Rob) Ash when you have worked so hard to recruit these guys and give them great opportunities to develop into great players and then you don’t get to see the finished product, there’s something wrong with the system in my opinion. I don’t ever want to see us become the farm league to the Pac 12.”
Cookus should continue to progress into an NFL prospect. Souers said the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder is still growing. Cookus has already shown a deft ability to master game plans, a sharp reaction time that helps him adjust to defenses on the fly and a soft touch on his deep throws. Cookus has expressed content with his situation in Flagstaff and he seems to have a clear understanding of the threat he possesses in wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, arguably the Big Sky’s top pro prospect. The Lumberjacks need to find a way to keep Cookus in Flagstaff.
“In the nature of the college experience for the student-athlete, the student-athlete should have every opportunity to enrich their lives,” Souers said. “I can see that point of view. But from a team standpoint what is left behind when they leave? I don’t like how that feels.”
Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.