The graduate transfer market in college sports is similar in many respects to free agency in the professional ranks — with two glaring differences.
For one thing, the players available to college programs are often someone else’s castoffs rather than some of the best in the business, as they are in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.
And unlike those pro leagues, there are no long-term commitments in the college game. With only a few rare exceptions, graduate transfers are a one-year proposition.
That makes them especially attractive to teams viewing themselves as being one or two pieces away from championship contention. Those same players, however, can be little more than band aids for a struggling program choosing a quick fix over long-term solutions.
Coming off a 3-9 season in its first year under a rookie coach eager to make a positive impression, ECU could easily be lumped into the latter category during an offseason in which it has added three graduate transfers.
But in the Pirates’ case, the strategy of addressing shortcomings with stop-gap solutions isn’t as desperate as it might seem.
Coach Scottie Montgomery isn’t mortgaging the future by bringing in defensive end Gaelin Elmore from Minnesota and running back Tyshon Dye of Clemson, both of whom announced earlier this month decisions to attend ECU.
That news was preceded by an April announcement by former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk that he would play his final season of college ball for the Pirates.
Montgomery is doing what he can to protect the program’s future while at the same time giving his team at least a fighting chance at success in the present against a schedule USA Today has ranked as the nation’s toughest.
Having a veteran presence in positions of greatest need for improvement from last season means that Montgomery and his staff can nurture the young players they’ve recruited over the past two years and allow them to grow at their own pace without the pressure of having to contribute right away.
If youngsters such as quarterback Kingsley Ifedi, running back Hussein Howe and defensive end Taijh Alston prove themselves ready to step into prominent roles now, they’ll find their way onto the field. If not, they’ll have the luxury of watching and learning from older teammates that have already been there and done that at Power Five programs.
Dye, in particular, is an intriguing addition because his national championship experience could benefit the Pirates regardless of his ball carrying contribution.
Although the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Georgia native didn’t see much playing time at Clemson because of injuries that slowed him during his first two seasons and the subsequent emergence of Wayne Gallman as an All-ACC back, he has seen first-hand what it takes to compete at the highest level and could provide a major boost in Montgomery’s effort to create a winning culture.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a former four-star recruit who averaged 5.2 yards a carry while gaining 109 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts as a backup for the Tigers last season.
Elmore, a 6-6, 285-pound Wisconsin native, is the most experienced and accomplished new ECU addition, having played in 38 college games with nine starts in his three previous seasons of eligibility. Coming off a redshirt junior year in which he recorded 16 tackles, four tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks and three fumbles for the Gophers, his presence in the lineup immediately strengthens a defensive line that recorded only eight sacks in 12 games in 2016.
Like Dye, Elmore also adds an off-the-field element with his leadership and maturity. Those qualities were on full display last December when he became a central figure in the boycott staged by Minnesota’s players over the suspension of 10 teammates in the days prior to their Holiday Bowl game against Washington State.
Elmore and the others were upset that the accused players were punished before receiving due process in a sexual misconduct investigation conducted by their school. After refusing to practice for two days, their boycott succeeded in getting five of the suspended players reinstated while four faced expulsion and one received a one-year suspension.
Of the Pirates’ three graduate transfers, Sirk is by far the biggest wild card.
When healthy, he’s proven to be a clutch, effective dual-threat quarterback who is already familiar with Montgomery’s offensive scheme and terminology through their time together at Duke. The problem is that Sirk has been hurt almost as much if not more than he’s been healthy during his five college seasons.
He’s ruptured his Achilles tendons three times, causing him to miss two full seasons, including last year when he was supplanted as the Blue Devils’ leader by freshman Daniel Jones.
If all goes well, Sirk could be a skilled stop-gap under center until Ifedi or redshirt freshman Reid Herring are more ready to take over. At the very least, he’d provide a reliable insurance policy in the event semi-incumbent starter Gardner Minshew either gets hurt or is ineffective.
Even if Sirk doesn’t work out, the investment ECU had made in him isn’t so great that it will set the program or Montgomery’s building process back.
The same can be said for the other two veteran additions, as well. All three scholarships will be available again next year no matter how the players currently using them perform.
In that respect, the Pirates’ venture into college football’s version of the free agent market is hardly an act of desperation. Rather, it’s a gamble worth taking in an attempt to become more competitive as ECU looks to rebound from last year’s embarrassing campaign.