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Top quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts are changing the college recruiting game

Athletes realize that playing time at elite college programs translates into an NFL payday

Jalen Hurts is taking his talents to the University of Oklahoma. There, the former Alabama starting quarterback could replace Kyler Murray. Murray, a transfer from Texas A&M, replaced Baker Mayfield, who started his career at Texas Tech. Mayfield (2017) and Murray (2018) won the Heisman Trophy in consecutive seasons at Oklahoma, which has become the citadel of fast-break, big-time college football. It’s unprecedented for two quarterbacks at the same school to win back-to-back Heismans. Hurts could make it three.

Meanwhile, Brandon Wimbush, formerly at Notre Dame, and Kelly Bryant, formerly at Clemson, are taking their talents elsewhere too. Wimbush and Bryant began the 2017 regular season as starting quarterbacks. Wimbush is off to Central Florida and, barring injury, Bryant will play at the University of Missouri next season.

Hurts (Tua Tagovailoa), Wimbush (Ian Book) and Bryant (Trevor Lawrence) all lost their starting positions as their teams made it to the College Football Playoff (CFP) final four. Again, only Murray of the final four kept his job. And he won the Heisman.

But sophomore Jake Fromm did hold off Justin Fields, the all-everything freshman, as the starting quarterback at Georgia, which lost three games last season but went to the CFP final game with Fromm as the freshman starter after the 2017 season. Fromm, an excellent dropback passer, should begin his junior year a Georgia Bulldogs starter. Fields, a passer and runner, is transferring to Ohio State, whose 2018 starting quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, is entering the NFL draft.

Tate Martell, who’d been waiting his turn behind Haskins, is instead taking his talents to South Beach, where he’ll try to become the starter at the University of Miami. Reports are that the underclassman will seek a hardship waiver so he can play this upcoming season.

And Dwan Mathis, who appeared headed to Ohio State, will instead head south from Michigan to Georgia to back up Fromm.

It’s dizzying. And it all makes sense, at least from the perspective of elite programs and players: Each program seeks to put the players on the field who give the teams the greatest chance to win. The coaches make choices without regard for past glory or future compensation of individual players. There is too much money, millions and millions of dollars, in big-time college football for top programs to operate in any other way.

At the same time, all of the transferring quarterbacks are pre-pros: They seek to use college as a springboard to the NFL. And if they can’t do it from one college, they’ll do it at another, just as the coaches do. There is too much pro football money at stake for the players to remain at schools where they have lost their starting jobs. Hurts, Wimbush and Bryant all seek to be graduate transfers and play in the 2019 regular season. Fields, a sophomore, seeks a waiver that would allow him to play in 2019 too.

Furthermore, stars who do not play in one of the CFP championship games are opting out of lesser bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft. And if they are hurt, they are shutting their college seasons down, again to look to the NFL draft or their first season in the league.

Which is to say, the as yet undrafted NCAA stars at every position will look past the college football game, just as the schools look past incumbent players to their incoming recruits. They can’t afford to do otherwise.

In the coming months, those who are paid to talk about college football will look at Hurts, 26-2 as an Alabama starter, and discuss whether he and others made the right decisions.

And others, thrust into Hurts’ and others’ cleats, will prepare to do something similar in the 2020 regular season and beyond.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.