Hope springs eternal in the offseason.
Every preseason publication will inevitably make mention of the "JUCO transfers" that schools have brought aboard to provide "immediate help" to their team. Need a starting guard or defensive back and all the players on campus at those positions are too inexperienced? Mine the JUCO ranks and find someone that can come in and compete immediately!
Bill Snyder's historic success with JUCO players at Kansas State really popularized the strategy of grabbing these players to provide programs with hungry upperclassmen that had already done their underclass developing on someone else's dime. Charlie Weis went all in with this approach at Kansas before getting fired, signing 18 JUCO players in 2013 in an attempt to infuse "immediate impact" talent into the program and build momentum. The strong JUCO leagues in Kansas make it a big time state for JUCO prospects so it was a reasonable strategy. Snyder generally does quite well with these players, but Weis did not.
But who are these JUCO players and how often do they actually provide an immediate boost to the depth chart or to a team with their play?
Profile of a JUCO
Junior college players are at a JUCO for a reason, and that reason isn't always a market inefficiency where the player was simply over looked by the bigger programs. There are several major profiles that you commonly see in JUCO transfers and some are more common, and more successful, than others.
The grades casualty
There are always the kids that have all the necessary talent to garner interest from major schools but lack the qualifying grades or scores to actually be accepted. Sometimes schools will intentionally "stash" these players at friendly JUCOs with the intention of letting them in after they make grades as freshman or sophomores.
These players often don't survive at the junior college though as the bad habits that saw them fail to pass high school courses still apply in a new environment. If they do, they can be valuable as transfers.
The character risk
Some kids have serious talent but the major programs avoid them because of off the field issues that could impact their eligibility or simply make them too risky to take a chance on. Jaylon Lane was one of the more sought after cornerbacks in Texas last recruiting cycle but after an arrest at his school he ended up at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi.
Sometimes these kids grow up with their second chance, sometimes they wash out when back under the spotlight.
The late bloomer
Not everyone is anywhere close to their athletic peak as a football player by age 16 or 17 when schools are making their choices and filling up scholarship spots. A classic example would be Aaron Rodgers, who despite his impressive stats was only 5'10" 165 pounds as a HS recruit and thus not particularly interesting to big schools.
After a year at a JUCO school in California that he led to a conference championship he was discovered on accident by Cal's legendary coach Jim Tedford. By then he was about 6'2" 195. Now of course, he's on track to claim the title of the greatest QB in the NFL but back in the day teams couldn't see past his small stature.
Late bloomers are often the true gems of the JUCO system.
The injured player
Much like the late bloomer, the injured player was mis-evaluated or saw all the schools close up shop before he could prove he was healthy or effective. If you are a QB who's not ready to start as a sophomore and injured as a junior, even a strong senior year won't guarantee that you can find a place to play.
These guys can also be gems with higher hit rates than the grade or character risks.
The "Rudy" over-achiever
Some guys lack ideal size, speed, or natural ability but they are just doggone football players. There are always players that defy the stereotypes coaches use to make efficient evaluations, prove themselves at the JUCO level, and then end up wrecking shop later after transferring into a bigger school.
Five foot-nine inch weakside linebacker Eddie Lackey is a classic example. After he got his chance at Baylor in 2013 he posted over 100 tackles in consecutive years with 23.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, seven interceptions, and three touchdowns.
Many of the "walk ons" that Kansas State has made hay with in recent seasons have actually been players that did some developing at Kansas JUCOs before walking on at Kansas State, sometimes as part of the "preferred" walk on program where specific players are asked/invited to walk on to the team. They are often Rudy over-achievers or late bloomers.
Of course, sometimes these guys flounder when they finally reach a level of play where their lack of size or ability finally catches up to them.
Some of these types are more prone than others to panning out, but many of the kids that actually end up as JUCO transfers at big schools fall into the "character/grades risk" types that the big programs already knew about based on their high school evaluations. While Snyder may have popularized the art of filling up on JUCO transfers, schools that sign them are often looking to grab known talent that is now eligible rather than taking chances on late bloomers and injured kids.
How often do JUCO players pan out?
For this article I took a look at every Big 12 and SEC JUCO transfer in 2014 and checked what kind of "immediate impact" they were able to bring to their new school. In terms of judging whether these players actually offered "immediate help" I checked which players actually ended up starting at least three games in their first season after transferring. Here were the results for the Big 12:
|School||Immediate starters||Incoming JUCO transfers|
It was generally the more desperate Big 12 schools that turned to the JUCO ranks in 2014 and they did not see that investment pay off in terms of immediate help in the starting lineup. Overall the Big 12 went 12 for 53, good for a 23% hit rate.
Now, many of these players redshirted as they adjusted to their new homes and schemes and may well have an impact down the road but in terms of matching typical media expectations for bringing immediate help...they largely failed to do so.
And now the SEC:
|School||Immediate starters||Incoming JUCO transfers|
The SEC was more choosy than their Big 12 brethren and had a higher overall hit rate with 12 of the 38 JUCOs starting three games or more, good for 31%.
Nevertheless, only about a quarter of the JUCOs signed by teams actually ended up fulfilling the offseason hopes that they'd become starters for their teams. Many of them redshirted or even failed to last long on campus. Auburn got solid production out of Derrick Moncrief only to see him immediately transfer again to Oklahoma State.
Junior college players have lots of talent and much of it is worth investing in for the big time programs. However, stocking up on JUCO players was not an efficient way to patch holes in the starting lineup for 2014 Big 12 or SEC programs. Be wary of offseason hopes, not all JUCOs are alike and only about a quarter of them are going to make a difference this year.
But who knows, maybe the ones that do will have quite the immediate impact.