How Zach Charbonnet's focus made him a Cal high school star, a prized recruit, a transfer, and a Seahawk
From playing with Kayvon Thibodeaux to losing ground at Michigan and then bouncing back at UCLA, Charbonnet is committed to working harder than his competition: Joe-rigin Stories
Though it only happened two years ago, it feels like the impact of the NCAA’s monumental change to their transfer rules in 2021—allowing players to switch schools without needing permission or having to sit out for one year—will not be fully appreciated for a long time to come.
When the NCAA entered “free agency” as many have called it, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney called the transfer portal “really sad” and “total chaos” because of the “many adults manipulating young people.” Some may say that coaches like Swinney are just disappointed that they can lose some of their top players to the portal (Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick’s transfer to Georgia in 2021 was one of the top losses in the country) and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day stood with Swinney, calling the transfer portal “dangerous” and unsustainable; the Buckeyes had also just lost receiver Jameson Williams to Alabama in the transfer portal that year.
But that doesn’t even tell a fraction of one-percent of the story.
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We can pick out the success stories of transfers, including Zach Charbonnet, the subject of today’s Origin Story, and highlight how sometimes it really is in the best interest of all parties to separate without penalty. However, we don’t talk about the players getting pushed out of their roles, potentially even their scholarships, because of impatient coaches and opportunities to get immediate upgrades. We also don’t talk about the fact that over 80% of players in the transfer portal will not land anywhere.
One early estimate showed that of 13,000 Division-I student-athletes to enter the transfer portal in 2021, about 11,000 didn’t get picked up by a new team. Over 40% of FBS players to enter the portal in 2020 and 2021 (2,323 student-athletes) ended up at a non-NCAA school or ending their football careers.
It wasn’t long ago that being a transfer could crush your NFL Draft hopes. “If he didn’t work out at that school before, why will he work out in the NFL?” Now, it’s practically a right of passage. Consider that USC’s Caleb Williams, a huge favorite to be the number one pick in 2024, started his career at Oklahoma. Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers, another potential first round pick, started at Ohio State.
The first round of the 2023 NFL Draft featured a number of high-profile transfer athletes, including Tyree Wilson, Jahmyr Gibbs, Christian Gonzalez, and Jordan Addison. And the two most recent second round running backs picked by the Seattle Seahawks—Kenneth Walker III in 2022 and Charbonnet in 2023—dramatically improved their draft stock because of the new transfer rules.
In a list by 247Sports of the top-100 players to enter the 2021 transfer portal, Charbonnet ranked 16th and Walker ranked 79th. Charbonnet was slipping on Michigan’s depth chart when he decided to transfer to UCLA, Walker was unable to showcase his rushing talents in Wake Forest’s slow-mesh offense prior to transferring to Michigan State.
Other notable names on the 2021 list include Jameson Williams, Keion White, Jermaine Johnson, Bailey Zappe, and quarterback Joe Milton, another player currently being discussed as a fast-riser who could reach the top-10 of the 2024 NFL Draft.
But the vast majority of names on that list didn’t help their cause and may have given up on their programs too soon, or taken bad advice. It’s hard to even cite Williams or Ewers as good examples of how the transfer portal can be a smart decision for some quarterbacks: Williams was simply following head coach Lincoln Riley, while Ewers probably never intended to play at Ohio State, he just wanted to get a head start on his NIL (name-image-likeness) brand opportunities.
There will always be exceptions and good cases to be made for student-athletes who need to transfer without penalty, as well as a moral obligation to not force anybody to be somewhere that they don’t want to be anymore. However, that doesn’t mean that the transfer portal is generally good for student-athletes, generally good for college football, or even generally good for the NFL. Is “college free agency” making athletes more prepared or less prepared for the pros? I have a feeling that the relative lack of excitement for the 2022 and 2023 draft classes is somehow related to the transfer portal and NIL deals.
It doesn’t mean that making those changes was the wrong decision. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong. We can still point out the potentially negative fallout from those changes, without forgetting the positive outcomes.
People in the media, like me, will only dedicate articles and time to the success stories. What I won’t do is write 1,000 articles for every transfer portal decision, unlike Walker and Charbonnet, that didn’t work out in the player’s favor. Those cases are far more common.
However, today is Zach Charbonnet day, so in this bonus post I will write about what he did before he got to Michigan, why he chose the Wolverines, why he ultimately decided to transfer back to his home state team, and what the Seahawks can expect from their latest second round running back pick.
Seaside Joe readers voted for edge rusher Derick Hall over Charbonnet to be the next FREE Origin Story article, coming this week, so today I’ll be focusing on the running back for premium subscribers. Join the FREE newsletter to not miss the Hall article later in the week.
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