Zone Read: How the Portal Became Immortal

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Chill Will Unplugged

If you’ve read this column before, you know the “Zone Read’s” affinity for Will Shaffer.

The former Saguaro two-way star, now Arizona State linebacker, is about to enter his redshirt sophomore season with the Sun Devils, so we thought there would be no better time to catch up with Shaffer on a number of topics from his past, present, and future – both on and off the field.

Did the speed of college football catch you by surprise at all?

“Yes, definitely the first couple of practices I had to get the hang of how things worked at this level. Definitely everybody is a lot faster and [the game] is a lot faster jumping from high school football to the Power 5 level. At practice, you have to learn faster. Coaches have less patience with you. If they have to constantly tell you what to do over and over, they’ll just find [another player] to do it.” 

You played you’re true freshman season at 230 pounds and then bulked up to 235. Is that about what you want to play at this fall?

“Nah, I don’t know where that weight came from (laughing). I never was above 230, except maybe after a meal or something. Right now I’m at 220 or 225. I told [Arizona Staff staff], ‘Ya’ll got to change that. I’m not even close to 235.’ My weight fluctuates. One day I’ll be 221 and the next day I’ll be like 226. I try to stay in that range.”

Earlier this week was National Letter of Intent Day. Did you enjoy the recruitment process when you were at Saguaro?

“I loved it, to be honest. Coaches would text me during the day. They’d go to school to see me. I thought of it as, they’re taking time out of their day and showing the interest in me, the student-athlete. I always loved the process because it showed that [I] was wanted. Once you commit and sign everything, you have to be all in to that one school.”

You were blueshirted your first year at ASU. Explain what exactly that means.

“When I got to Arizona Sate, I was still on scholarship, still receiving the scholarship benefits. I don’t have to pay for school at all for four or five years. Technically, I’m a part of the class of 2021, as far as my scholarship goes, but my eligibility is still 2020 if that makes sense. That’s pretty much all it is.”

Is the transfer portal good or bad for college football?

“I kind of view it as free agency. Kids being able to go from one school to another but it could be good for that particular player…because everybody’s story is different. They’re trying to get out of a situation to benefit themselves. They’re still the ones that have to get up and go to school, go to practice everyday. The portal could definitely be a benefit for a lot of kids. At the same time, it’s probably takes scholarship opportunities away from [high school] kids who deserve it.”

Truth or Dare: The Transfer Portal

On Wednesday prep players from around Arizona signed national letters of intent to continue their academic and athletic careers at the next level.

Meanwhile, college football’s shuffling of the deck continued into early February with players jumping from one school to another like bar-hopping ASU students on Mill Avenue.

While the portal provides fresh opportunities for many it’s also, in many ways, stripping away high-level scholarship opportunities from players in our own back yard.

“We talk about this all the time,” Shaffer explained to the “Zone Read.” “The portal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also impacting the class of 2022, 2023 because coaches have to opportunity to get an experienced player, who has already played college ball at a different school. That’s already a positive asset to them, instead of maybe [signing] a junior or senior in high school. That’s how I see it through their eyes. But as a high school athlete, I would be discouraged and angry because, ‘Why are you not taking a chance on me instead of getting this guy from the portal who may have one or two years of eligibilty remaining?’ I see it from both sides.”  

That’s one reality.

The other is the trickle down effect of how future college players envision working the portal to their advantage. 

Last week, in this same column, Desert Edge quarterback and Kansas State signee Adryan Lara pulled no punches when asked how he would have manipulated the transfer portal if his Power 5 offers dried up before signing day.

“If I didn’t end up at one of those bigger schools, I could head to a [non-Power 5] program, play for a little bit, do my thing, and then enter the transfer portal and then go to a bigger school.”

Shaffer echoed Lara’s sentiments.

“I can definitely see that trend starting,” he said. “It will still be Division I, but it may just be a smaller school. Go get that experience and then if they’re lucky enough, go transfer to a Power 5 program or a bigger Division I school…you’re still receiving that education. It’s still free money, free school, and you’re getting that college experience.”

“Zone Read” has always preached: if you’re being recruited and a wonderful opportunity (IE: a committable offer) is presented to you, don’t wait. Simply commit – much like then under-recruited, and mostly unknown outside of Arizona, Kedon Slovis did to USC back in May of 2018.

With college head coaches and their staffs often moving on, the future of recruited players holds no promises. If you need the perfect example, ask Lara who committed to Washington State in mid-September, only to see Nick Rolovich get fired in October and the new staff cool on his commitment shortly thereafter.

Uh Oh, JUCO?

Maybe the biggest unknown of the transfer portal’s impact is at the junior college level.

The way “Zone Read” sees it, there are two trains of thought.

The positive, from the coaches I’ve spoken with, is college recruiters will be able to find plenty of talented, experienced players at the JUCO level because there is so much attention, and easily accessible players, in the portal. You will also see junior college coaches look for the same available players there, especially considering the high number (more than 5,000 had entered as of August 1st) who are looking for a fresh start.

Critics will argue the portal, in many ways, will severely hurt junior colleges – specifically when it comes to the academic aspect. 

If a student-athlete enrolls in a JC after attending a Division I school (a “bounce back” player), they’re required to get their associate degree before transferring back to a higher level program. Now, they can simply go into the portal and transfer, without that academic necessity. 

“I’ve heard some college coaches say they can find some real players at the junior colleges because they are being under recruited now,” one AZHS head coach told the “Zone Read.” “But have heard others say that they aren’t recruiting JCs anymore.”

The numbers skew towards Power 5 coaches no longer going the junior college route to bolster their roster.

In 2019, of the 272 total Pac-12 players signed, 34 were junior college transfers.

In this last recruiting cycle (Class of 2022), the Pac-12 signed only seven of the 187.

The nearly 100 less total signees over the four-year period shows how many schools are now using the transfer portal.

Junior colleges serve as tremendous pathways for young athletes looking to dispell character issues, get college film, and/or improve their academic standings after high school.

I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon (if ever), but if JUCO football would ever completely dissolve, some Division II or NAIA schools would serve as the only options for players with poor prep academic standing.

In 2018 the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) eliminated football at Pima Community College, Arizona Western College, Eastern Arizona College, and the Valley JC’s. Those schools were a part of the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference (ACCAC).

Shortly thereafter, the Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference was formed featuring the Maricopa Mustangs, Salt River Scorpions, Gila River Hawks, Papago Pumas and Sonoran Sidewinders. These players have to be enrolled full-time in a school but none of these teams offer scholarships and are not tied to actual schools, like the previously mentioned ACCAC schools .

Thus, there are fewer options for Arizona players to play JUCO football. California JC’s don’t offer scholarships and don’t have dorms. Some Arizona players, like Saguaro’s Raul Aguilar, have chosen the Kansas junior college route. 

Nobody knows exactly what the future holds for junior college football and, let’s be honest, who could have envisioned a transfer portal four years ago?