Spring football practice ended in April at Marshall University in West Virginia. Offensive lineman Alex Locklear, seeking a different experience for his last season of college eligibility, placed his name in the NCAA transfer portal and waited to see what would happen.
No dating app ever worked this efficiently. His phone started ringing right away.
“Utah actually hit me up before I was able to clean my locker out,” Locklear marveled this week, as he started practicing with the Utes. “They showed interest, like, literally the first minute.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham expressed concern after spring practice about his offensive line’s depth, and he did something about it. Within a month, the Utes landed Locklear and former Washington State lineman Noah Osur-Myers.
With his No. 1 kicker having given up football, Whittingham also invited UCLA graduate transfer Andrew Strauch to compete as a walk-on in August, with the promise of a scholarship if he earns the job. And in July, only three weeks before preseason camp, Utah added former Southern Methodist tight end Hunter Thedford.
Welcome to this “different world” of recruiting, as Whittingham described it last spring, when the Utes were losing transfers such as receiver Siaosi Mariner (who would sign with Utah State) and running back Armand Shyne (Texas Tech).
Utah's key football player transactions in 2019:
Incoming (former school)
Alex Locklear*, OL (Marshall).
Noah Osur-Myers*, OL (Washington State).
Cameron Rising, QB (Texas).
Nephi Sewell, DB (Nevada).
Andrew Strauch*, K (UCLA).
Hunter Thedford*, TE (SMU).
Outgoing (current school)
Jackson Cravens, DL (Boise State).
Chris Hart*, DE (Alcorn State).
Siaosi Mariner*, WR (Utah State).
Caleb Repp*, DE (Utah State).
Armand Shyne*, RB (Texas Tech).
Mo Unutoa, OL (BYU).
* Graduate transfer, immediately eligible to play.
Player movement is nothing new in college sports, and Utah is not exempt. Whittingham even lost his nephew, defensive lineman Jackson Cravens, who transferred to Boise State this summer. What’s different is the grad transfer phenomenon, with athletes able to play immediately at the next stop as a reward for completing their degrees.
So Whittingham and his staff began filling personnel needs with a modern method. Utah would have had at least one grad transfer in the 2019 starting lineup, but linebacker Manny Bowen retired from football this week. The other newcomers will try to create opportunities for themselves, with Thedford perhaps the most likely transfer to have a regular role as a blocker in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme.
As Locklear’s story suggests, Whittingham assigned a staff member to monitor the transfer portal, almost minute by minute.
“Absolutely, watches it every day. Every day,” Whittingham said. “And he reports to me. And the transfer portal is not really well organized. It's just kind of haphazardly put in there. … There's no real systematic approach to it. They just throw names in there. So it's a tedious job.”
Then comes the competition for players — although, as Whittingham pointed out, not every player finds a new destination. And his policy is that once a player enters the portal, he’s gone from Utah.
Locklear played in 35 games over three seasons at Marshall, a Group of Five program in Conference USA, but started only two games. He was not promised a starting job as a senior, according to The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, W.Va., although the newspaper credited him with good work in a 38-20 win over South Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl as the Thundering Herd rushed for 282 yards.
Locklear suddenly was in demand. “Almost immediately, I started getting phone contact from places all over the nation,” he said.
He chose Utah, with the opportunity to play for line coach Jim Harding in a Power Five program. Osur-Myers, who missed Washington State’s 2018 season with a shoulder injury, moved from one Pac-12 school to another in a similarly brief process.
“Life in the portal for me was pretty quick and painless,” Osur-Myers said. “So once Utah reached out, I kind of focused my energy on them. I landed here, and it’s a good fit.”
Thedford picked the Utes after studying Ludwig’s scheme at Vanderbilt, where a “12” personnel package (one running back and two tight ends) was a big component of the offense. He became a late addition, Whittingham said, after the staff determined “deficiencies based on what Andy wants to do, based on our personnel, what we lack.”
Thedford spent two months in the portal. “Summer was difficult,” he said. “It was a long process, finding a home. I knew I’d find a school to land at; the worst thing was not having a team to work out with. That’s what worried me the most. But I ended up where I ended up, so I’m fine.”
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Thedford is expected to function mainly as an extra blocker, having caught only three passes as an SMU junior. That job description may disguise him as a receiver. That happened last September, when he scored the winning two-point conversion in overtime against Navy — coached by Ken Niumatalolo, the father of Ute tight end Ali’i Niumatalolo.