DURHAM, N.C. – During Evan Lisle's four seasons on the Ohio State roster, the Buckeyes posted a record of 49-6, played in two of the first three College Football Playoff events and won a national championship. Outside of Alabama and Clemson, nobody in the FBS has done it any better the past few years.
For his final season of collegiate eligibility, Lisle hopes to translate and apply all that he gleaned and gained from his Ohio State experience to a new environment — as a starter on the Duke offensive line.
Lisle arrived in Durham in early January just a couple of days removed from taking off his Buckeyes jersey for the final time following the school's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinals on New Year's Eve at the Fiesta Bowl. By the time Clemson had claimed the national title nine days later, Lisle was already getting to know his new Blue Devil teammates. And by the time spring break arrived, he seemed entrenched as Duke's No. 1 right tackle for the 2017 season.
Unlike traditional transfers, Lisle can play right away for coach David Cutcliffe without having to sit out the usual prerequisite year-in-residence. Because he graduated from Ohio State in December, Lisle benefits from the NCAA's graduate transfer rule, which allows immediate eligibility for football, basketball and baseball players who enroll in graduate school at their new institutions.
Depending on who you poll, the grad transfer rule is either the scourge of mid-major programs, the seed for a free agency apocalypse in college athletics, or one of the few athlete-friendly loopholes in an NCAA rulebook often characterized as unfairly restrictive.
The practice has become particularly noteworthy in college basketball, which has been dealing with a transfer epidemic in recent years. About 700 Division I players changed schools following the 2016 season, and about 125 of them were classified as grad transfers — an increase from 52 grad transfers in 2014 and only 15 in 2011 when the current rule went on the books.
Overall, the NCAA reports grad transfers tripling in men's sports and doubling in women's sports during the first five years of the rule, 2011-15 — although it's still a relatively small slice of a huge pie. According to the national association, only 365 out of 108,000 student-athletes in 2015 fit the grad transfer category.
That's no consolation to mid-major college coaches who recruit players passed over by the Power 5 schools, develop their talents for three or four years and then lose them to the higher-profile programs for their final seasons, missing out on their prime yield. The most oft-cited case in point is former Drexel basketball standout Damion Lee, who left the Dragons following the 2015 season to play immediately at Louisville, where he hoped to appear in the NCAA Tournament. Drexel, blindsided by his departure, stumbled to 6-25 in 2016 and coach Bruiser Flint was dismissed.
Of course, there are some grad transfers who leave their undergraduate school because of a coaching change. Or to pursue more playing time, face better competition or compile enough tape to attract the attention of professional scouts. Some even transfer for academic reasons. Canyon Barry moved from College of Charleston to Florida last year mainly because of Florida's master's program in nuclear engineering; he benefited off and on the court even though his playing time dipped. He was the Gators' sixth man during their Final Four season, after leading the Colonial Athletic Association in scoring the previous year.
So for every lament about the grad transfer rule engendering a free agency/hired gun mentality within college athletics, there are compelling counter stories of players removing themselves from situations that didn't work, improving their lot or generally taking control of their own careers for the better.
FROM BUCKEYE TO BLUE DEVIL
In the case of Duke's Lisle, the opportunity to pursue a more prominent role and a new experience prompted his decision to leave one of college football's powerhouses.
An Ohio native, Lisle was a four-star prospect, the top offensive lineman in the state and an ESPN 150 recruit coming out of high school. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2013, then sat out the 2014 season with an injury while the Buckeyes were going 14-1 and winning the first College Football Playoff with victories vs. Alabama (semifinals) and Oregon (national final).
Lisle got back on the field for bowl practice in 2014 and then served as a reserve offensive lineman in 2015 with 36 snaps from scrimmage and another 80 on special teams. He was a reserve again this past season, listed as the backup left tackle and right guard. He did appear in every game in 2015 and 2016 as the Buckeyes went 23-3.
Ohio State started the same five linemen in every game last season and all but one of them were slated to return next year. In fact, departing center Pat Elflein, a consensus first team All-America and the Rimington Award winner, was the only senior in the entire O-line two-deep in 2016.
With those numbers in mind, Lisle decided at midseason that he was interested in transferring. He talked about it with his Buckeye coaches and asked the school's compliance office to initiate the release process. He heard from several schools and the recruitment began. In sifting through the various options, Lisle was leaning toward Virginia — until he talked to Cutcliffe. He committed within a week of his conversation with the Blue Devil head coach.
“Coach (Marcus) Johnson came up to my house on campus and talked to me, and we communicated over the phone. Coach (Matt) Guerrieri came up and we went to the Skyline (a famous Ohio chili franchise) together. Everyone I met at Duke was an incredible person and I could tell they really cared about the players. They care about your development, not just as a football player but as a person. I just fell in love with Duke and I'm extremely happy with my decision to come here.”
Lisle graduated Dec. 18 with a degree in family resource management. He prepared for and played in the CFP contest with Clemson, then quickly shifted gears and headed to Duke to start a new chapter in his football and academic career. He says he was accepted immediately by his new teammates, particularly his fellow offensive linemen.
“The first day, he was able to fit in with the guys like he'd been here for three or four years,” said starting center Austin Davis. “He really fits in well with his personality. And I'm really amazed with what he can do on the field. He obviously has wonderful talent he has shown us out here each and every day.”
Lisle has been asked often about the inner machinations of the Ohio State program that reached college football's summit during his tenure.
“To be part of that, you got to see football at the highest stage. I knew the work that was put into that,” he explained. “At Ohio State they were constantly working, and the goal was to win the national championship. Go to the Big Ten championship, then after that go to the playoffs and win.
“What I learned from that was the focus that it required. Every day you had to be locked in on your goal. Every player was locked in on that same goal and if you let your goals relax for a day or two, there's another team out there working harder than you. That was really instilled in my mind for the four years I was there — that every day is a grind.”
Lisle added that he has also been impressed with the Duke football culture he joined, with everyone constantly working to get better. His opportunity to impact the program in his lone season figures to be significant, as the offensive line must replace its starting right side with the graduation of guard Tanner Stone and tackle Casey Blaser. During spring ball Lisle moved into the tackle spot that Blaser occupied for the past three years. With Davis back at center and Gabe Brandner back at left tackle, the Blue Devils could now have three fifth-year players and fourth-year junior Zach Harmon anchoring the front.
“Obviously at the quarterback position we've got a great player,” Lisle said. “I think Daniel (Jones) is going to be a really good quarterback. We've also got some great wideouts. All spring they're out there making plays and it's fun to watch. And we've got explosive running backs. As an offensive line I think we developed a lot in the spring so if we can protect and run block, I think there is a whole bunch of potential because I think there is talent on this team.”
Academically Lisle will spend next year in Duke's Master of Management Studies (MMS) program in the Fuqua School of Business. It's a one-year graduate degree program that dovetails perfectly with the needs of a growing population of fifth-year athletes who have completed their undergraduate degrees and need a meaningful course of study for their final semesters. Lisle will start MMS classes in July.
“Getting a graduate degree from Duke from the business program, that sets doors up for after football,” he said.
Lisle is Duke's first grad transfer in football since the current rule was adopted in 2011. That was the year quarterback Russell Wilson became the poster boy for a new trend by moving from NC State to Wisconsin, without having to sit out a year. He led his new team to the Big Ten championship as well as the Rose Bowl.
Many initially perceived the practice as primarily quarterback territory. Brandon Connette used the rule to move to Fresno State after he graduated from Duke in December 2013, so he could compete right away for the starting QB job vacated by Derek Carr's departure. A year later, FCS star passer Vernon Adams made an even bigger splash by moving from Eastern Washington to Oregon for his final season, hoping to prove himself against FBS competition and improve his NFL stock (though he went undrafted and now plays in Canada).
The trend has now expanded well beyond that perception. ESPN.com recently published a list of top grad transfers in college football for next season that included 30 names of players moving from one Power 5 school to another — a contrast to the so-called “poaching” of mid-major stars by the high majors in basketball. Many are former backups or rotation players looking for better opportunities to fit, play and shine. Lisle is one of several such newcomers in the ACC. North Carolina is bringing in four grad transfers, including former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, who will compete to replace the recently departed NFL draftee Mitch Trubisky.
Though this is a relatively new, chaotic, uncharted development in the college recruiting world, Lisle is an advocate for the grad transfer alternative.
“I think it gives you some leverage with coaches,” he said. “You can tell the coaches you're looking to transfer, and they have two options. They can fight it and say they don't want you to transfer, but as a player you can say, ‘Well, then you have to help me play and get on the field.' Or if they don't want you to stay, it gives you an option to go get a great degree, it gives you an option to get a lot of playing time and to give yourself a new experience. So I really like the rule because I think it keeps the coaches honest and helps the players as well.”
DUKE GRAD TRANSFERS
Lisle marks Duke's first football addition via the burgeoning grad transfer marketplace, but there have been a handful of Blue Devils who have left with their degrees and played a final year elsewhere since 2011. Connette may be the most notable, but two walk-on kicking specialists also followed that route. Punter Alex King moved to Texas for his grad year in 2012 and was No. 2 in the Big 12 with a 45.3-yard average; at Duke he would have been Will Monday's backup. Likewise, kickoff specialist Jack Willoughby went to Ohio State in 2015, the year after the national title, and wound up as the team's No. 2 scorer behind Ezekiel Elliott, going a perfect 45-for-45 on extra points.
Former Duke QB Thomas Sirk will be considered a grad transfer at East Carolina this fall, although his course is different than most in that he was granted a rare sixth year due to missing so much time on the injured list. He not only got his undergrad degree from Duke last May, but spent this past year in grad school.
Men's basketball has yet to utilize the grad transfer rule to bolster its roster, but departing transfer Sean Obi will be classified in that category at Maryland next season, after graduating from Duke this week with eligibility remaining. Rasheed Sulaimon was also a grad transfer at Maryland two years ago after he was dismissed from the Duke team. He graduated before departing so he could play immediately as a Terp.
The women's basketball team will bring in its first grad transfer next season in Bego Faz Davalos, a 6-foot-3 center who hails from Mexico. She is graduating from Fresno State this week after earning Mountain West defensive player of the year honors the past two seasons. She'll go into her final college season as the NCAA active leader in blocks (346) and rebounds (896). Davalos will be enrolled in the MMS program at Fuqua, along with two of her new teammates, fifth-year returnees Rebecca Greenwell and Lexie Brown.
Duke baseball has been impacted significantly by grad transfers. Coach Chris Pollard's top hitter in 2014 was outfielder Ryan Deitrich, who came from Penn, while two of last season's weekend starting pitchers were Kellen Urbon and Brian McAfee from Cornell. Pollard has picked up his grad transfers from the Ivy League, which prohibits fifth-year players. Two more Ivy pitchers are expected to join the Duke roster next year.
Pollard also lost a grad transfer in an unusual manner this year, when his senior catcher/designated hitter Cris Perez went through fall practice, graduated in December, then transferred to Southern Cal for the spring semester to play for the Trojans. Perez started 96 games the previous two seasons but many were as the DH. The chance to catch more regularly made USC appealing and he has turned in a solid final season. When USC upset No. 1 Oregon State recently, Perez had the game-winning two-run single in the top of the 10th inning. Perez did have to file a waiver for immediate eligibility at a new school in the same academic year, and the Trojans held him out of their game with Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in February.
Outside of baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey, transfers in other sports aren't required to sit out a year before becoming eligible, so grad transfers aren't significantly different from undergraduate transfers. Several Duke programs have gotten favorable results from tapping that sector of the market.
Men's soccer has utilized a grad transfer as its starting goalkeeper three of the past four seasons, with Robert Moewes coming in from Binghamton to handle the job this year. The 24-year-old German had an excellent fall and then was drafted by Toronto of Major League Soccer in January. At one point during the spring he was trying to balance the completion of his MMS program at Duke with launching a pro career.
The Duke wrestling team got a boost from grad transfer Cole Baumgartner, an engineering student from Missouri who made the Blue Devil lineup and posted an 18-12 record. Women's lacrosse used Columbia grad transfer Jessie Ambrose off the bench in the midfield this spring, while the field hockey program got major contributions from two international grad transfers, Chessie Ruffell (England) and Aisling Naughton (Ireland). Track & field has had its share of grad transfers over the past few years, highlighted this spring by decathlete Daniel Golubovic from UC-San Diego and middle distance runner Chase Peterson from USC. Golubovic recently won the ACC decathlon championship. Duke's new softball program will bring in a couple of grad transfers to add some experience to its first roster next spring.
One of the more interesting Duke-related grad transfer applications this year belongs to volleyball player Sasha Karelov. She completed a standout four-year career as the Blue Devils' libero back in the fall, when she earned first team All-ACC and ACC defensive player of the year honors. After graduating in December she then moved to Long Beach State as a grad student to play for that school's beach volleyball team. She'd already used all four years of her eligibility with indoor volleyball, but because beach is considered a different sport by the NCAA, she was able to play this spring and should be able to return next year as well. And her impact was immediate — she and her partner Kobi Pekich posted a 22-12 record, earned first team All-Big West honors and helped Long Beach to the No. 6 seed in the recent NCAA beach volleyball tournament. It's not often that you see an individual chosen first team all-conference in two leagues in the same academic year.
Academically there are at least two concerns with the current grad transfer rule. One is that some schools may start to slow down the academic progress of student-athletes so they don't graduate before their fifth year, thus depriving them of a chance to move to another school and play immediately. The other is that too many grad transfers are taking advantage of the rule solely for the athletic benefits. An NCAA study published in 2014 reported that only 24 percent of grad transfer football players and 32 percent of grad transfer men's basketball players actually earned their graduate degrees within two years, and that 40 percent of football players withdrew from school at the end of the fall semester when their eligibility expired. Another study showed a 51 percent graduation rate from grad school for grad transfers across all sports, compared to 62 percent for athletes who stayed at their undergrad school for postgrad studies.
At Duke the numbers are much more in line with the university's high undergraduate academic performance. From 2013 to 2016, all 17 of the grad transfers in men's soccer, baseball and track & field — the sports with most of the grad transfers — earned their graduate school degrees.