CECIL HURT: Transfer portal door swings both ways for Alabama football
The question to Nick Saban on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference was about quarterback Mac Jones. As he often does, the Alabama football coach gave an answer that, in retrospect, seemed to hint at something broader on his mind.
That became more clear on Wednesday night when reports began circulating that defensive lineman Ishmael Sopsher, highly recruited but lightly used in a season and a half, had entered the NCAA transfer portal. Individuals differ, circumstances differ and no one can logically begrudge Sopsher, a massive defensive lineman, for exploring his destination options. So read between the lines of Saban’s answer about Jones with caution, but also with a different perspective.
“We’ve obviously always had a tremendous amount of respect for Mac in terms of how he viewed his development as a player,”Saban said. “He never was ever discouraged or really ever talked about leaving or transferring. I think he had a different mentality that, ‘I’ve got to work hard to try to earn a spot here,’ and by doing that over several years improved pretty dramatically and used the opportunity to play behind good players to actually enhance his development, see how they did things.
“Consequently, I think when he got his opportunity after being here for several years (and) he’s playing pretty well. I think development is something that all players at every position, whether they go to college or when they go to the NFL, it’s something that they need to be focused on rather than just ‘how much am I gonna play immediately?’”
Sopsher, a massive defensive tackle who attracted widespread recruiting attention in 2019 as the subject of an Alabama-LSU battle, was always going to be a bit of a project. (Some analysts dropped him from a five-star to a four-star during his senior prep season in 2018.)
As the 2020 season progressed, Sopsher found it difficult to break into the defensive line rotation. Saban also spoke on Wednesday about the difficulty of finding low-risk playing time in a season with 10 SEC games instead of 12 with a non-conference breather or two along the way. The noticeable presence of true freshmen Jamil Burroughs and Tim Smith in the defensive line rotation in the Georgia game probably provided Sopsher with the last clue he needed. The upcoming game against Tennessee was likely to be the same.
Saban consistently preaches patience and perseverance, as he did on Wednesday, but he understands reality as well. Nine players have transferred out since the 2019 season ended. Because of coronavirus considerations, 2020 is a particularly conducive year to transfer because no eligibility is lost even if you leave at mid-season. Although Alabama is inevitably going to have an overall transfer deficit because it recruits at such a high level, there are transfers like offensive lineman Landon Dickerson and tight end Carl Tucker who are making contributions this season.
The days of a player seeking an easier path may not please Saban but they aren't something that provokes outrage. Plenty of Alabama fans will be pulling for Taulia Tagovailoa when he starts his first game for Maryland this weekend (one that will be quite busy in the Galu Tagovailoa household as Tua makes his Miami starting debut as well.) Sopsher still needs work, wherever he goes, but he is entitled to make his own way as all players are.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt