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Zerrick Cooper

 Jacksonville State's Zerrick Cooper is one of six FBS transfer starting quarterbacks that Eastern Illinois will face this season. Cooper, a former four-star recruit, began his career at Clemson.

A closer look at the AP Top 10 reveals a game of quarterback hopscotch.

No. 1 Clemson has two former backups starting for other FBS schools. No. 2 Alabama’s ex-starter is now No. 4’s starter. No. 3 Georgia’s old backup is now QB1 for No. 5 Ohio State. No. 6 LSU’s starter is No. 5’s former No. 2 man. No. 7 Michigan’s starter used to occupy that role for Ole Miss. No. 8 Notre Dame’s ex-starter now controls No. 17 UCF’s offense.

And that’s just in the top 10, where quarterback movement garners national relevance. The musical chairs at the game’s premium position doesn’t stop there. Former five-stars or top-300 recruits aren't alone in changing homes after failing to win the starting job at their original school. No, it’s not that dang transfer portal’s fault either.

The trend trickles down to the rest of the FBS, the FCS and the Ohio Valley Conference. It doesn’t get the same attention, though, unless it’s former four-star recruit Zerrick Cooper going from Clemson straight to FCS to Jacksonville State — an extreme outlier. Northern Illinois’ former backup dropping down to Southeast Missouri State, for example, occurs entirely off the college football radar, but moves like that often play a notable role in shaping the season in the OVC and the FCS overall. A team can go from having a major question at quarterback to finding a game-changer with one move, thanks to immediate eligibility for anyone who drops down a level.

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This season, six of the 11 FCS teams on Eastern Illinois’ schedule started an FBS transfer at quarterback Week 1. A month ago, that number was likely to be seven, but ex-Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft’s arrest and suspension from Tennessee State changed things. Then there’s EIU itself, which rolled out former Tulane signal-caller Johnathan Brantley for the first two-plus quarters of Thursday season-opening loss.

The six migratory men, with their former school in parentheses:

  • Nick Tiano, Chattanooga (Mississippi State)
  • Brady Davis, Illinois State (Memphis)
  • Ryan Boyle, Indiana State (Iowa)
  • Zerrick Cooper, JSU (Clemson)
  • Conor Blount, Eastern Kentucky (Oregon State)
  • Daniel Santacaterina, SEMO (Northern Illinois)

Represented in there are the presumed top three teams in the OVC, two preseason top-16 squads and a steady Southern Conference program.

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Calling this a trend that’s necessary to winning is premature, though. Coaches resist the idea that the only key to unlock strong quarterback play in the FCS is found in the transfer market. But it has frequently worked.

“We’re always going to recruit high school kids at every position,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said Tuesday. “We’ll do that at quarterback, and we’ve won off that as well. You have to evaluate position by position and really make sure you take the right kid on a transfer deal.”

Grass noted that Cooper is the first transfer quarterback that has started for the Gamecocks during his six-year tenure leading the program, which won 37 straight OVC games before losing to SEMO last year. At some point, though, that route becomes practical. Have to replace a multi-year starter with a bunch of guys who’ve never started? Want someone to push an incumbent starter? Transfers are a convenient solution.

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“Some people think about half our team is transfers, but really it’s about 15 percent of our team is transfers over the last six years,” Grass said. “But it is an active part of what we do, and quarterback recruiting is where you can find a guy (via transfer) if you hadn’t developed a guy.”

Developing one at the FCS level is difficult, to a degree. Tennessee Tech was the lone OVC team to deploy a full-time freshman starter in 2018. The Golden Eagles were a last-place team in the early stages of a rebuild, with less incentive to be overly concerned about a freshman starter at quarterback. It was a bright spot, as Bailey Fisher was the OVC Freshman of the Year.

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“Obviously it’s not easy, but I do think in this day, quarterbacks are more polished than they used to be with all the 7-on-7, the advent of 7-on-7,” Tennessee Tech coach Dewayne Alexander said. “These guys have the opportunity to play from an early age – middle school, high school, summer leagues.”

Here’s one detriment to finding freshman starters, though: Plenty of freshmen with, 1) enough ability to start in the FCS right away, and 2) who put in the time (and lots of money) into quarterback training will begin their careers at an FBS school. Those who don’t win a starting job or learn they aren’t cut out for the FBS make for intriguing bounce-back candidates at FCS schools.

Still, there’s one idea that lives on in the FCS but is rarer in the FBS: sticking around for a couple years and then competing to be the starting quarterback. Of those five EIU FCS opponents who don’t have a transfer starter, two of their current starters were a backup for at least two seasons.

There’s no one way to find a successful FCS quarterback. No one in the OVC is jumping headfirst to become “Transfer U.”

Dabbling, though, has largely proven fruitful.

Now onto this week’s OVC power rankings.

Power Rankings (Sept. 4):

1. JSU (Week 1: lost 35-14 at Southeastern Louisiana. Week 2: vs. Chattanooga)

2. SEMO (Week 1: won 44-26 vs. Southern Illinois. Week 2: at No. 13 Montana State)

3. EKU (Week 1: won 53-7 vs. Valparaiso. Week 2: at Louisville)

4. Austin Peay (Week 1: won 41-10 vs. North Carolina Central. Week 2: vs. No. 18 Central Arkansas)

5. Murray State (Week 1: won 59-20 vs. Pikeville. Week 2: at Georgia)

6. UT-Martin (Week 1: won 42-20 vs. Northwestern State. Week 2: at Florida)

7. EIU (Week 1: lost 24-10 at Chattanooga. Week 2: at Indiana)

8. Tenn. State (Week 1: won 26-20 vs. Mississippi Valley State. Week 2: at Middle Tennessee)

9. Tenn. Tech (Week 1: won 59-58 in 3 OT vs. Samford. Week 2: at Miami Ohio)

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Contact Patrick Engel at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_

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Sports writer

I cover Eastern Illinois football and basketball, as well as Mattoon/Charleston prep sports, for the JG-TC

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