2023 Heisman Trophy Finalists Show the Potential Upside of Adding A Transfer Quarterback

By Dan Hope on December 9, 2023 at 10:10 am
Jayden Daniels
Scott Clause/USA TODAY Network

You don’t have to look very far to see the potential upside of bringing in a transfer quarterback. Just watch Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Outside of Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., the other three finalists for this year’s Heisman are quarterbacks, and all three of them transferred to their current schools from other schools. Moreover, all three of them came to their current schools with multiple years of starting experience at other Power 5 programs, which certainly played a part in getting them to where they are now.

Jayden Daniels, the favorite to win this year’s Heisman, started 29 games in three years at Arizona State before transferring to LSU in 2022. Bo Nix was a three-year starter at Auburn before transferring to Oregon in 2022. Michael Penix Jr. started 17 games across four seasons at Indiana before transferring to Washington in 2022.

None of them were considered to be among college football’s best quarterbacks before they hit the transfer portal, but they ended up becoming college football’s three best quarterbacks this season.

Ohio State will hope to achieve similar results next season if it brings in a transfer quarterback of its own.

Much like LSU, Oregon and Washington did with Daniels, Nix and Penix, Ohio State will be taking a bit of a chance if it goes that route. None of the quarterbacks currently in the transfer portal are established stars to the extent that Ohio State would be adding a clear and obvious upgrade over the quarterbacks it already has on its roster.

But it’s not too big of a stretch to think that a quarterback like Washington State’s Cam Ward, Duke’s Riley Leonard or Kansas State’s Will Howard could make their own jump to becoming a Heisman contender with the advantage of the talent they’d have around them in Columbus or at another top program.

Ward, considered by many to be the top quarterback in the portal right now, already has four years of starting experience. Those first two years came at Incarnate Word, where he was one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS, while the last two came at Washington State, where he ranked fourth in the FBS this season in passing yards per game – behind only Penix, Nix and Daniels.

Leonard has started 20 games at Duke over the past two years and played well enough that he was projected by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL draft before his season was cut short by injury.

Howard led Kansas State to a Big 12 championship after taking over the Wildcats’ starting job midway through the 2022 season, then threw for 2,643 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first-year as a full-time starter this season. Like Ward and Leonard, he has the dual-threat skill set as a passer and runner that gives him the potential to emerge as a national star in the right offense.

This year’s Heisman finalists are far from the only transfer quarterbacks to achieve success in recent years. Four of the last six Heismans have won by transfer quarterbacks: Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma via Texas Tech) in 2017, Kyler Murray (Oklahoma via Texas A&M) in 2018, Joe Burrow (LSU via Ohio State) in 2019 and Caleb Williams (USC via Oklahoma) in 2022.

Ohio State has only brought in a starting quarterback via the transfer portal once, but that proved to be a fruitful move for the Buckeyes; Justin Fields was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in both of his two seasons at Ohio State as a transfer from Georgia, also earning a trip to the Heisman ceremony in 2019 and leading the Buckeyes to the national championship game in 2020.

Justin Fields
Justin Fields is one of 10 transfer quarterbacks since 2017 to be Heisman Trophy finalists.

Of course, Ohio State has also seen transfer quarterback success go the other way. Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, led LSU to a national championship and became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in his second season at LSU after transferring from Ohio State. Quinn Ewers led Texas to a College Football Playoff berth this year in his second season with the Longhorns after spending one year at Ohio State.

Kyle McCord certainly has the potential to achieve his own success in his second act after transferring from Ohio State. Unlike Burrow and Ewers, McCord was the starter at Ohio State before entering the portal, and he had a higher passer rating for the Buckeyes this season than any of Penix, Nix or Daniels did in any of their seasons before transferring.

While the success of Daniels, Nix and Penix this season speaks to the impact a transfer quarterback can make, it also speaks to how much a quarterback can improve with experience. If McCord was still at Ohio State, their success this year could have served as an argument for sticking with McCord and giving him the opportunity to improve even though his play fell short of expectations in his first year starting for the Buckeyes.

Alas, McCord made the decision to enter the transfer portal after Ohio State opted to reopen the quarterback competition for next season, which means the Buckeyes must now decide whether to bring in a transfer quarterback as his potential replacement or turn the keys over to Devin Brown, Lincoln Kienholz or Air Noland.

Ultimately, that might depend on whether Ohio State can actually land one of the top quarterbacks available in the portal. But if it does add a transfer quarterback with experience, the expectation will be no less than that quarterback becoming the next transfer QB to contend for the Heisman Trophy.

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