How past Alabama football transfers can provide insight for Henry To'o To'o, others in new transfer era
New Alabama linebacker Henry To’o To’o checks a few uncommon transfer boxes.
He’s an intraconference transfer from Tennessee, a rarity in the SEC in the past. He’s also someone who had an offer from the Crimson Tide in high school, decided to play somewhere else, then transferred to Alabama during college. There aren’t many of those either, in part because coach Nick Saban doesn’t whiff much in recruiting.
To’o To’o is a bit of a unicorn right now, but with new transfer rules, this type of transfer might become less of a unicorn and more of a quarter horse.
The NCAA’s new one-time transfer waiver that allows a player to switch schools without sitting out a year has already interrupted the status quo. The SEC agreeing to follow suit will also contribute to changes in trends. Alabama has already taken part in those changes, adding players such as To’o To’o and Ohio State receiver Jameson Williams this offseason. Both had offers from Alabama in high school, and both will be immediately eligible.
The rules have changed, but to understand what To’o To’o, Williams and any other future transfers to Tuscaloosa will go through, a look to the past provides a few insights for the future.
In the past, Alabama hasn't had countless transfers who joined the program and performed at a high level, but that's not because many underperformed. There just aren’t legions of players who have transferred into Alabama because many of the nation's best already hold starting spots there.
But there are a few. Offensive lineman Landon Dickerson is a prominent one from the 2020 national championship team. There are other examples, too, such as former Crimson Tide defensive back Chris Donnelly and former quarterback Jake Coker.
Donnelly transferred from Vanderbilt after two years as a starter in 1989-1990, one in which he made the SEC All-Freshman team. Then he joined Alabama, sat out in 1991, and started in 1992 and 1993.
After three years, one a redshirt, at Florida State, Coker transferred to Alabama ahead of the 2014 season. Because he graduated in three years, the Mobile native could play immediately. He backed up Blake Simms the first year then won the starting job in 2015.
“It made me learn about leadership and meeting new people and making things work,” Coker told The Tuscaloosa News. “Just kind of fighting through adversity. It really molded me, and I think made me a lot better person. That’s for sure. I enjoyed every bit of the process. But to say it wasn’t tough … it was a struggle at times.”
Donnelly said transferring was the hardest thing he had to go through in his time as an athlete. His first year in Tuscaloosa became a year of waiting, patience and anxiety. He left a starting role at Vanderbilt with no guarantees of playing time at Alabama. As he tried to acclimate to a new team and culture, he couldn’t really prove himself as a football player or contribute to the team’s success for a year because he was ineligible. He said he felt welcomed but not part of the team.
If To’o To’o also transferred from an SEC school under the rules Donnelly did, the junior linebacker would have to go through a similar experience. Instead, To’o To’o can jump right in.
“They’re going to look at him and say, ‘Hey, this guy is going to help us to achieve our goal’ which is to win a national championship,” Donnelly said. “Not in 13 months. Tomorrow. They’re going to be more open and more open arms to him. He’s going to be able to step in Day 1 and feel part of the team.”
To’o To’o won’t have to wait like Donnelly but he will continue to deal with outside noise like Coker. Many considered the Tennessee linebacker to be the top player in the transfer portal this offseason.
With abundant talk around the quarterback position as always, there was no shortage of attention on Coker back in 2014-15. Even without his own social media accounts then, Coker still heard the chatter.
“I probably should have just not listened to the outside noise as much,” Coker said. “It’s crazy how much you hear and try to escape it.”
Despite the challenges, including leaving old friends behind and having to build new relationships, Coker and Donnelly found ways to thrive.
Donnelly won a national championship with Alabama against Miami in 1992. Coker led Alabama to a national championship victory over Clemson in 2015.
Only time will tell if To’o To’o can join them.
Contact Nick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_NickKelly.