How Texas mined Rice for its new star on the offensive line
All’s fair in love and the football graduate transfer market.
“Telling my teammates was extremely tough. I made a lot of good friends on that team,” Calvin Anderson told Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. “But they were happy for me. They can’t wait to see me play.”
Anderson, a three-year starter at left tackle for Rice, announced plans in January to graduate in May and play his final year of college football elsewhere. After a two-month recruitment, he committed on Saturday to transfer to Texas, where he’ll play just miles from his high school, Austin Westlake.
— Calvin Anderson (@THE_CONDA25) March 10, 2018
He’s taking advantage of the NCAA rule passed in 2006 that allows immediate eligibility for any player who earns his degree and transfers to another university, provided he pursues a degree in a major not offered at his current university.
New Owls coach Mike Bloomgren tried to keep the star of his offensive line, a likely NFL Draft pick next spring who could have heard his name called in 2018 if he’d put his name up for selection.
“He was fighting hard, but deep down I think he understands,” Anderson said. “Just him, if he was the selling point, I buy that 100 percent of the time. But there’s more to it, innate things that Rice can’t offer me, like better competition.”
Anderson slogged through a 1-11 season in 2017, capping a run of nine wins in three seasons that cost David Bailiff his job and brought Bloomgren to Houston from Stanford, where he’s served as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for the past five seasons and been on staff since 2011.
Anderson met with Bloomgren back in early December shortly after he was hired away from Stanford, but still felt it was time to move on.
As he explored the idea of entering this year’s draft, the most common criticism from voices at the next level was what almost any prospect at a smaller program hears.
“Yeah, but who did you do that against?”
“When I made the decision to transfer one last year, I was aware I was projected to be a fourth or fifth-round pick last year,” Anderson said. “I knew a school would be happy to get that player. The biggest knock to my draft stock was playing in C-USA.”
But if he wanted to take a year at a bigger program, the response was far different.
The market for a likely future NFL Draft pick at the most lucrative position on any offensive line was ripe. After announcing plans to transfer, Anderson fielded calls and in-person visits from coaches across the country within days. Herb Hand was the first coach to visit and contact him. Back then, he was at Auburn. A little more than a week into Hand’s pursuit, he’d flipped sides. Now, he was trying to talk Anderson into following him to Texas. Tennessee, Louisville, Arizona, Baylor, Louisville, Notre Dame, TCU, Tennessee, UCLA and West Virginia all offered Anderson a spot.
“It’s been hectic. It’s been exciting. It’s been crazy. It’s been nice to see interest. I knew I was a good player coming out. Coaches showing interest was confirmation of that,” Anderson said.
“It was cool to meet good players from these high-level programs. That was rewarding. The process has been helpful for me too. I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
It was all very new. When Anderson was a comically undersized, 6-3, 210-pound tackle in high school, Rice was the only school that seriously recruited him until he blossomed into a still-undersized 6-5, 240-pound tackle leaving high school. He waved off attention from bigger programs like Kansas State and Texas Tech late in his high school career out of loyalty to the program that pursued him first and earned a commitment.
“I was a late bloomer,” Anderson said. “But I told my coaches, ‘I’m not talking to anybody.'”
Now, for the first time, he was talking to everybody.
A little more than a month after announcing his plans to leave Rice, he’d narrowed his potential suitors to Auburn, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas, making visits to each campus.
The first three were likely fighting an uphill battle the whole way. Anderson’s stepmother is a graduate of Texas’ undergraduate and law programs, and is a current Longhorns season ticket holder.
“I know the expectation of being a Texas player. It’s not mediocre. They expect excellence,” Anderson said. “I like the expectations. If I’m going to come and be the left tackle, I better play to that level.”
The Longhorns just said goodbye to a Connor Williams, an All-American who might be a first-round draft pick next month. Anderson will be charged with replacing him, and fans are a lot more patient with a still-developing sophomore than a three-year starter at a C-USA program who’ll spend the rest of the offseason taking a spin in the hype machine.
On each campus visit, Anderson requested a sitdown with coaches to examine film. They’d break down schemes on the offensive line and explain how they’d be using him. In Hand’s case, he explained what he liked about Anderson’s game but how Hand’s pedigree as an offensive line coach could boost Anderson’s NFL stock.
After the season, Anderson sat down with his father and recognized their “unique opportunity.” He made a checklist of priorities:
1) Better competition to put on tape for NFL scouts
2) Pedigree of coaching staff
3) Opportunity to play immediately
Texas checked off each box. It also had the allure of coming home and the added exposure on the Longhorn Network, Anderson said.
No coach will explicitly guarantee playing time, but Hand and Texas coach Tom Herman didn’t require Anderson to do much parsing of their words in their pitch to him.
“They both said the expectation is for me to come play left tackle,” Anderson said. “That isn’t guaranteed. You have to earn everything you get in this life. There’s great players on this team. But that was their expectation.”
Since Anderson hasn’t officially signed paperwork with Texas, NCAA rules prohibit all coaches recruiting Anderson from public comment. But recently loosened rules surrounding social media use allowed them to judiciously celebrate what might be Texas’ biggest recruiting win of 2018.
— Coach Tom Herman (@CoachTomHerman) March 11, 2018
— Herb Hand (@CoachHand) March 11, 2018
It’s been a fairly transparent process, but Anderson is also a poster child for critics of the graduate transfer rule.
“This decision is solely a business decision for preparing for the next level,” he said.
It was passed over a decade ago to give athletes who are high achievers in the classroom an opportunity to pursue an alternate graduate degree, but in 2011, Russell Wilson’s move from NC State to Wisconsin spawned thought bubbles above the head of every player who could get a degree before his eligibility expired. The rule has become the closest thing in college sports to free agency. In 2011, only 17 college football players took advantage of the rule change. In 2016, that number was up to 117. Now, entire sites exist to track the practice. This year’s class of graduate transfers is still filling up. By now, nearly every program in the sport has experienced what it’s like to gain or lose a big talent via the rule change.
NCAA data also revealed that in 2012, only 24 percent of college football players earned the graduate degree they transferred to pursue. Just 32 percent of basketball players earned the degree.
Time will tell which rank Anderson joins, but the decision was based on an opportunity to spend a year auditioning for his next job. His response to critics of those who exploit the loophole is simple: Sorry, not sorry.
“This life is only once for everybody. And we all want to live. I went to school and did what I had to do. I gave everything I had to Rice. I started 36 games for them,” Anderson said. “I didn’t come and jack around. I came here. I got my degree. I realized I had an opportunity to move and play at a bigger level. This gives me the opportunity to chase my dream of the NFL and I think chasing your dream is what this life is about.”
Anderson will have to play catchup after not participating in spring practice at Rice or Texas, but plans on sprinting from Houston to Austin as soon as he finishes his academic requirements at Rice. And once that’s behind him, for Anderson, the next nine months will be all about two words.
“Hook ’em,” he said.