How one-time transfer rule changes the way Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Bruce Pearl manage teams

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Bryan Harsin has been a head coach for nine years. Bruce Pearl is entering his 27th. And both are managing their teams differently now than they ever have.

The reason for that is the one-time transfer rule the NCAA passed last month. Transfers have long been a part of team building, but the pool of immediately eligible players was limited mostly to graduates. Austin Golson and Darius James made impacts for Auburn football in recent seasons, as did Desean Murray and Samir Doughty for Auburn basketball, but they all had to sit out for a year first.

That’s no longer the case.

“I think it just adds another layer to the recruiting process that we already have,” Harsin said at an alumni event in Birmingham last week. “You're able to address some immediate needs with guys that can come in and play that you know can play.”

Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl (left) and football coach Bryan Harsin (right) during an alumni eventon May 12, 2021, in Nashville, TN.

The first-year Tigers coach hasn’t technically taken advantage of that yet. The four transfers he and his staff have brought in so far – Northwestern pass-rusher Eku Leota, West Virginia cornerback Dreshun Miller, UAB defensive tackle Tony Fair and Southeast Missouri State safety Bydarrius Knighten – are graduates, so they would have been eligible anyway.

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But those aren’t Auburn’s only targets. Other players in the portal who are seriously considering the Tigers – such as Vanderbilt safety Donovan Kaufman, Kansas defensive lineman Marcus Harris and LSU quarterback T.J. Finley, among others – are underclassmen.

The fact that any one of them could contribute immediately next season gives Harsin a chance to replenish a roster that lost 11 players to transfer following the December coaching change in a way that wasn’t possible previously.

That’s the positive of the new rule. But it comes with challenges, too. Signing top high school prospects remains “extremely important,” Harsin said, so teams will have to be careful about recruiting over them or stacking too many players at one position in the same class.

As we’ve seen this offseason, younger players such as quarterback Chayil Garnett, defensive tackle Jay Hardy and safety Chris Thompson Jr. – 2020 signees who entered the transfer portal this month – may not wait around as long to earn playing time when there are opportunities immediately available elsewhere.

Pearl learned that firsthand this offseason. In need of guard depth after a series of departures to both the transfer portal and NBA Draft, Auburn signed a pair of experienced seniors in Zep Jasper and Desi Sills. But adding them seemed to cost the Tigers a high four-star signee at the same position – top-15 2021 shooting guard Trey Alexander asked for his release days after Sills committed.

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Those transfers not only changed the roster, but they’re also changing the way Pearl plans to coach his team when it gets together this summer, too. Jasper and Sills are two of four incoming transfers, along with point guard Wendell Green Jr. and center Walker Kessler. Add in five-star freshman power forward Jabari Smith, and the Tigers have nearly as many newcomers (five) as they do returning players (six).

And they may not be done – another transfer target, sophomore Georgia guard K.D. Johnson, is set to announce his decision Wednesday.

“People ask me how good we’re gonna be, right? And I go, ‘Look, you’ve seen my guards on tape as much as I have,’” Pearl said. “I haven’t seen Jabari live in a year now. I haven’t seen Walker live since the state tournament a year and a half ago.”

So rather than immediately teaching them Auburn’s system when team practices begin, Pearl said he may instead watch them play pickup games just to get a better feel for their games. He feels he needs to learn his players before they start learning from him.

That’s not something Pearl has ever done. But he’s probably never had four (or more) immediately eligible transfers on the same team, either.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.