Akeel Lynch went from starter to backup at Penn State last season as freshman Saquon Barkley emerged as one of the best running backs in the country.
Facing the prospect of spending most of his final season of college eligibility on the sideline, Lynch decided to take advantage of an NCAA rule that allows graduates to transfer and be immediately eligible to play.
“I felt like I served my time at Penn State. I helped them get through the sanctions. I realized that my football skills weren’t needed at Penn State and Nevada was one of those schools where I could use my skills,” said Lynch, who has been accepted to the Reno school’s master’s in educational leadership program.
The graduate transfer exception was created with the intent of providing educational opportunities for college athletes who have earned a degree and want to pursue a grad degree not offered by their current school. What it has turned into is pseudo-free agency for players looking for a better football situation.
“I just think it’s got a lot of phoniness to it,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who is also the chairman of the NCAA’s football oversight committee. “If it’s about going out and employing a hired gun to come in and be a player, then that’s one set of discussions. If it’s really about continuing to pursue education, the statistics indicate that’s not happening.”
According to NCAA research for football players who earned degrees in 2012 and 2013 and transferred to pursue a graduate degree, 24 percent had graduated, 7 percent remained enrolled and 68 percent had withdrawn by the summer of 2014.
The Associated Press, through news reports and a survey of FBS schools, identified 54 players who have used the graduate transfer exception since the end of last football season. That number will increase throughout the summer. An NCAA report on postgraduate athletes estimated an average of 66 grad transfers in Division I football per year from 2007-14. The NCAA also found that from 2007-14 the percentage of Division I football players competing as postgraduates rose from 2.0 percent to 3.8.
There are a few standouts on this year’s list of grad transfers, such as receiver Gehrig Dieter, who caught 94 passes for Bowling Green and is transferring to Alabama, and quarterback Dakota Prukop, who is moving from FCS Montana State to Oregon.
The vast majority, however, have been reserves and role players — at best.
Lynch’s solid resume would qualify as one of the more impressive among this year’s grad transfers. In three seasons playing for Penn State he ran for 1,318 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Had he stayed in Happy Valley he was in danger of not only being stuck behind Barkley, but also slipping behind other younger tailbacks.
At Nevada, Lynch joins a backfield that has almost no experience behind James Butler, who ran for 1,346 yards last season. Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian’s offense produced two 1,000-yard rushers last season.
“I felt like Nevada gave me the best chance to help the team win, but also gave me a chance to get more touches on the football field,” said Lynch, who majored in economics at Penn State.
Lynch is one of two graduate transfers to leave Penn State after last season, along with receiver Geno Lewis, now at Oklahoma. Last year, Penn State added a graduate transfer in Stanford offensive lineman Kevin Reihner.
Penn State coach James Franklin said he had no problem with either of his former players leaving. He said he sees the benefits of the graduate transfer rule for players and teams. He also understands why some are uneasy with the process.
“I think the thing that’s probably concerning to administrators, commissioners, school presidents is: What are we doing?” Franklin said. “Are we truly offering another educational opportunity somewhere else or is this strictly a football decision?”
In the Southeastern Conference, if a graduate transfer does not complete the graduate program, the player’s school cannot enroll another athlete under the exception for three years.
“That is a way to say to our universities, ‘Bring people in at the graduate level who are serious about going to school,'” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
Bowlsby suggested similar changes to the rule at the NCAA level. He said graduate transfers could count against a team’s graduation rate or Academic Progress Rating . Or, more drastically, a school could be forced to commit a scholarship for two years or until completion of degree, whichever comes first, to a graduate transfer.
“I think those two suggestions are utterly ridiculous,” Polian said. “What we all tell the players their job is when they arrive as freshman is to graduate with an undergraduate diploma.
“Akeel Lynch, he did right by Penn State. He didn’t cost them an APR point. He graduated. He did everything he’s supposed to do. And if at the end of four years he decides, what’s best for him is to play his fifth year somewhere else he has earned that right.”
Polian said many transfers are facilitated by coaches.
“That serves two purposes,” he said. “Let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say when that conversation occurs they are looking out for the kid’s best interest.
“They also have that conversation because they look at their depth chart and say: Boy, this guy is never going to be more than a role player here, but if we can get him out that’s going to give us another (scholarship) to go recruit a guy.
“So now we’re saying the coaches can have that power, but the players cannot — after they’ve graduated. Doesn’t make any sense.”
Polian expects to lose at least one fifth-year senior to graduate transfer by the start of the 2016 season.
Most graduate transfers are similar to Malachi Moore, a defensive end from New Jersey who is going to Rutgers after an injury-marred career at Boston College limited him to 22 tackles. Moore knows the NFL is a long shot, but he believes that shot is better at Rutgers, where a new coaching staff with needs along the defensive line gives him a clean slate.
“If I wasn’t given this opportunity? That’s a tough question,” Moore said. “I think I would have stayed at Boston College, but honestly I couldn’t tell you what would happen if I didn’t have this opportunity. I’m just grateful that I do.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed.
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