Welcome to transfer portal camp, a new frontier in the college football landscape - The Athletic

2022-06-28 11:50:01 By : Ms. Tracy Cui

LA MESA, Calif. — It is summer, but you wouldn’t know it if you showed up to Helix High School on this Saturday morning. The campus in this suburb of San Diego is teeming with weekend events. There’s freshman football sign-ups going on. Parents wait in line to talk to prospective coaches. Girls field hockey has its own welcome tent. And just past 9 a.m., members of the junior ROTC at Helix are running a timed mile around the track at Jim Arnaiz Field.

Out on the turf, 11 strangers have been pieced together in their pursuit to continue playing college football. On the same field that produced Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Alex Smith, this group accepted an invite to be part of a trial run of a concept conjured up by NFL agent Don Yee and his partners. It’s one he and his company, HUB Football, believe could change the way college football players in the NCAA transfer portal are able to move more freely and with better necessary connections.

“It’s sort of like LinkedIn for the football world,” Yee told The Athletic.

HUB has attempted to be at the forefront as an intermediary between players searching for their next move and teams on the prowl for specific needs. The company began with professional post-graduate free agent tryout camps and has helped land players on NFL practice rosters as well as rosters in the CFL, XFL, USFL and arena football. Yee, well known to the football world as Tom Brady’s agent, knew that one day seismic change would be coming for college football.

After working through the kinks of as many as 13 free agent camps in the last few years, the HUB team decided to venture into unknown territory, but a territory growing at a breakneck clip.

Since last August, more than 3,000 scholarship players and almost 2,200 FCS players have entered the portal, by far the largest number of transfers in a year — and that is only expected to grow. Life in the portal can seem intriguing, but it’s most often unforgiving. Close to 25 percent of FBS scholarship players still haven’t found a new home yet.

Of those estimated 5,000-plus players, former South Florida quarterback Brenden Cyr is not a name most college football fans nationwide would recognize. But he is currently part of that percentage of players who are not only eager for their next shot but fully cognizant of the fickle nature of life in the portal. The perception around entering the portal can still paint some players in a selfish light. Cyr’s situation is anything but.

Cyr left school on July 26, 2021, due to family financial circumstances. He took time off to help his parents finance the professional baseball dream of his younger brother, Blake, who is expected to be selected in July’s MLB Draft.

“I had to pick, I did, and now I’m here working out for the best,” Cyr said.

So as Brenden was at a high school in suburban San Diego wishing to extend his college football playing days, Blake, a star shortstop and University of Miami commit, was also in town for the 2022 MLB Combine at Petco Park. Cyr was one of four quarterbacks part of the initial HUB portal camp. It felt real to him again. Like he was on the cusp of actually getting back to football soon — in pads and cleats and a helmet rather than shorts, a T-shirt and a backward ballcap.

#HUB Transfer Portal | Diamond in the rough 💎 Former USF signal-caller Brenden Cyr (6-5/210) is a mobile dual-threat who throws with accuracy on the run and can sling it with best of them. Loved his work ethic, desire and leadership, has all the tools. Worked well w/ Norm Chow. pic.twitter.com/SSoialD7O0

— Ric Serritella (@RicSerritella) June 19, 2022

“It provides me the chance to put myself out there,” he said. “For guys like me, there aren’t many places to do that.”

For six months after leaving USF, Brenden worked on a ranch and took people on fishing boat expeditions around his hometown of Orlando. He has slept on an air mattress the last six months. In January, he started to get back into game shape. He had workouts at dawn at his uncle’s MMA gym and swam across alligator-infested ponds near his home.

A month later on Feb. 16, he entered the portal and started to seek out options. Cyr is ready to get back to school. He misses life as a student athlete, he said. He misses life on campus and classes and, most of all, football. Cyr, like all others in the portal, just wants to compete for a role somewhere new.

Cyr, a redshirt freshman who didn’t see any game time in his one full year at USF in 2020, said since he’s been in the portal he’s gone to a couple of regional showcases for players that are in the portal but nothing came of it.

“Humbly, I would like to say that I was expecting more from the other showcases,” he said. “I’m not just going to give up. I’ve already had it kind of tough. I just need to get myself out there.”

The camp allows players currently in the portal or at the junior college level to participate in an event put on by HUB coaches that is filmed and photographed and disseminated to programs nationwide. Players pay an entry fee and college programs, interested in either attending or viewing the film, must pay to access the information as well. Transfer portal showcases have been popping up around the nation this year, including some hosted by individuals such as Deon Glover, youth football coach and father of former five-star cornerback Tony Grimes, or camps held at schools like Louisiana-Monroe.

During the first portal camp at Helix, HUB coaches such as Norm Chow were coaching the four quarterbacks in attendance. The 76-year-old Chow, long known as one of the premier offensive minds in college football, believes the portal camp will benefit primarily Group of 5 schools and those at the FCS level who do not have the recruiting budget or resources as some of college football’s elite. Players in attendance came from FBS schools like USF and Troy, but mostly consisted of Division III and JC-level programs such as Hampton, Pomona, Erskine College, Santa Barbara City College and more.

These are the schools, Chow believes, that will have some diamonds in the rough for other programs to pounce on.

“It’s the Central Michigans and UTEPs that could really use this concept,” he said. “The successful programs are the ones that are willing to adapt. Everyone is so doggone old-fashioned. I think what’s going to happen is (the P5s) are going to have to use things like this.”

Yee said the cost-efficiency of either attending a portal camp in San Diego in person or subscribing for a stream of the day’s workouts and drills might lure in coaches from programs easier. (HUB didn’t share price points for the initial portal camp.) The main attraction for players, organizers said, will be being able to utilize HUB’s extensive network within the world of college football. That’s what you’re paying for.

“We’re just targeting anybody we think can help a college roster. It’s pretty wide open,” said Mike Williams, HUB’s general manager. “We don’t want to make it like a cattle call where we have 200 guys out there and we can’t give them the reps that they need or the exposure they need.”

Unlike every other major sport in America, football has still yet to figure out a sustainable alternative pathway for players to find their next steps. Organized baseball has the minor-league system and various independent leagues. Basketball has avenues like the G League and new ventures such as Overtime Elite, a league that allows players to get to the NBA without going to college.

“We do anticipate a high degree of skepticism at first,” Yee said. “Everything in the football world … things just move slowly.”

That hasn’t curtailed the optimism Yee and his group have for this experiment. When asked to potentially forecast what the portal camp looks like a year from now, he said ideally, the camp could grow to about 40-50 portal players that would allow for scrimmages to be put on for college coaches there to watch live or via digital subscription.

It remains to be seen if the introductory portal camp will evolve and grow at that rate. But the investments some players made were showing immediate results. Brandon Smith, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back from Santa Barbara City College, ran a 4.4 40-yard dash during the morning’s individual drills. One HUB staff member immediately fired off texts to assistant coaches at various levels across the country about Smith.

For under-the-radar players like Smith, the camp allowed him to take center stage opposed to other organized events that are flooded with too many players.

“The amount of players that were attending here, that’s a lot more exposure for me,” Smith said. “They’re going to be actually evaluating me, whereas at other camps, you might not get evaluated all that much or at all. You might get limited reps and people trying to just jump in front of you all the time.”

Once the portal camp ended before 11 a.m., Smith paced around the track at Helix High School in his sandals taking phone calls. One was his mom. He wanted to tell her how well he performed. Shortly after, Smith’s phone buzzed. According to a HUB staffer, Power 5 coaches reached out to Smith to introduce themselves.

(Photo: Scott Padgett / Time Stood Still Photography)