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Starting anew: UA football players among many taking advantage of NCAA transfer portal
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Starting anew: UA football players among many taking advantage of NCAA transfer portal

Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel is among the hundreds of players in the NCAA transfer portal and has indicated an interest in playing for Arizona.

The so-called NCAA transfer portal has become a source of fascination and amusement during this football offseason. Every day, it seems, another well-known player (or a set of lesser-known ones) enters the portal — and pundits revel in the sci-fi-like name for what is in actuality a computer database.

It’s no joke, though: The transfer portal, which was adopted last June and took effect in October, is a game-changer for student-athletes across all sports.

Student-athletes now have more control over their futures. As the NCAA explains it: “This new system allows a student to inform his or her current school of a desire to transfer, then requires that school to enter the student’s name into a national transfer database within two business days. Once the student-athlete’s name is in the database, other coaches are free to contact that individual.”

(In typical NCAA form, the Division I Council’s initial name for the process was the un-fun “notification of transfer.” The first reference to “portal” appears in an official NCAA document explaining the procedure.)

The upside for student-athletes: They no longer need permission from their current school to communicate with another school. In other words, transfers can’t be blocked — although there are still some restrictions within conferences.

The downside: Once a student-athlete enters the portal, his or her current school can reduce or cancel financial aid at the end of the academic term. The school also is under no obligation to reinstate your scholarship should you change your mind.

The benefits outweigh the potential costs as far as student-athletes are concerned. They don’t have quite the same level of freedom as coaches to move from one school to another, but the gap is smaller.

Football players are taking advantage of that newfound freedom in droves. In a Jan. 11 piece in The Athletic — humorously headlined “Journey to the Center of the NCAA Transfer Portal” — an anonymous recruiting coordinator for an FBS program said there are more than 1,000 players in the portal, including those from FCS schools.

The website has compiled its own version of the transfer portal — only the student-athletes and institutions have access to the real thing — and it’s sortable by school, position and eligibility. It includes 33 quarterbacks. Some have found transfer destinations. Others are still looking.

The latter group includes Texas A&M’s Nick Starkel, who has listed Arizona as a possible landing spot. Starkel began his college career playing for Kevin Sumlin, who’s now the Wildcats’ head coach.

Arizona, UCLA and USC each have between seven and nine players in the portal, the most among Pac-12 schools. This is not an unexpected development, given recent coaching changes and, in the case of the Trojans, upheaval within the program. All three also could be beneficiaries of the transfer portal in the coming months.

What follows is a look at how the portal has worked for two UA players who recently entered it — what led to their decisions to leave, how the school handled it and what the future might hold.

Sammy Morrison missed the 2016 season due to injuries but will be a big part of UA’s new-look defense this year.

‘Crazy ride’

Sammy Morrison feels as if he has some unfinished business with football. It’s perfectly understandable.

Morrison started the first two games of his Arizona career as a true freshman in 2015. The son of Darryl Morrison, a Desert Swarm-era defensive back for the Wildcats, Sammy seemed well on his way to establishing his own legacy as a UA corner.

But after playing 12 games in ’15, Morrison missed the following season because of leg injuries. After appearing in eight games in 2017 as a reserve, Morrison missed this past season because of shoulder issues.

Now, like every other player who has entered the transfer portal, Morrison is seeking a fresh start.

“It was a blessing coming to school here,” Morrison said. “It’s crazy how fast four years go by. We don’t have a lot of control over what happens. Obviously, I battled injuries and things like that. The goal has always been the same — to contribute and play for an awesome university.”

A handful of schools reached out to Morrison after his name popped up in the portal. He is set to graduate in May with a degree in arts, media and entertainment. As such, he will be immediately eligible in 2019. Because he missed two full seasons, Morrison also could petition for a sixth year if Year No. 5 goes well.

Wherever he lands, Morrison will arrive as a different person than the one who showed up in Tucson in June 2015.

“When you go away for college, you think you know it all,” said Morrison, who grew up near Washington, D.C. “It was just immaturity. When I started the first few games, I thought I was The Man. I made some poor relationship choices, got into some bad company at school.”

Morrison comes from a faith-based family — Darryl Morrison is a pastor in Phoenix — but said he drifted away from that part of his life during his first few years at the UA. In December 2017, Morrison reconnected with God.

“My life has never been more at peace,” he said. “There were frustrating times. As a football player, you want to do well. But God really taught me how to be happy for others’ successes.”

Morrison would like to attain a master’s in theology, which isn’t available at Arizona. If his next school offers it, great. If not, he always can pursue it a later date.

For now, Morrison is looking for an opportunity to play football for another year, maybe two. He appreciates the way Arizona’s coaches and administrators handled that request – and how easy it was to enter the transfer portal.

“My coaches were extremely supportive,” Morrison said. “What I love about coach Sumlin and his staff is it’s about the players. A great program revolves around the players.”

Morrison won’t be involved in Arizona’s anymore. He’s at peace with how it all worked out.

“It was a crazy ride,” Morrison said. “Heartbreak, triumphs — everything you could try to fill into a four-year span. I will always be indebted to the U of A for giving me those experiences.”

Arizona cornerback Antonio Parks/ left, tracks back on teammate while running drills on the first day of practice for Arizona’s spring season, Saturday, February 18, 2017, Tucson, Ariz. Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

New home

Antonio Parks already has made his move.

About a week after entering the portal, Parks announced he would be transferring to UTSA. Like fellow cornerback Morrison, Parks is on track to graduate in May, with a degree in education. He’ll be able to play immediately and will have two years of eligibility.

Parks came to Arizona from the New Orleans area, where he was a three-star recruit from East St. John High School. Parks held offers from Arizona State, Clemson, Iowa State and Purdue, among others, but never started a game in three seasons at the UA.

Parks doesn’t regret his decision to attend Arizona, but the experience left him frustrated at times — especially this past season, when the Wildcats were riddled with injuries at cornerback.

“All these corners going down, we’ve got corners leaving the team — I thought this was the perfect time to give me that shot,” Parks said. “It just felt like that was a slap in the face. I thought I would be given a chance, but I just wasn’t.”

Parks wants to make clear that he has no bitter feelings toward the current or previous UA coaching staff. (Parks had three position coaches in his three seasons at the UA.) He felt he performed well in practice. It just never translated to game days beyond special-teams and mop-up duty.

“I think this coaching staff is great,” Parks said. “There’s no hatred. It’s just business at the end of the day.”

Besides, Parks has dealt with adversity that far exceeds dissatisfaction over playing time.

One of Parks’ four brothers, Antone Henderson, was charged with attempted first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery last year. Henderson and another man allegedly were involved in the shooting of an employee at a Dollar General store in Reserve, Louisiana, in June. The case is still pending.

“I bottled all of that up — all that anger and frustration I had,” Parks said. “There were a few times mentally where I checked out. I just was defeated. That stuff can take a toll on a student-athlete.”

Or anyone. Before he committed to UTSA, Parks was asked whether he wanted to go to school closer to home.

“Home is kind of toxic,” he said. “My brother is going down for murder right now. I’m just out here trying to survive — just getting back into the groove of things and getting back to the player I believe I can be.”

Although he lacks the length Arizona has sought in recent cornerback recruits, the 5-10 Parks bills himself as a hard worker and a scrapper. He appreciates the professional manner in which the UA staff and administration processed his transfer request. The portal transported Parks from Tucson to San Antonio, where a new beginning awaits. He’s grateful for the opportunity.

“In my next destination, I just want to be wanted by the staff, where they’re comfortable throwing me out there in battle,” Parks said. “I want to go to a place where they trust you. That’s all I’m looking for.”

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