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NC State’s Ryan Finley and Russell Wilson lead graduate transfer trend

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NC State quarterback Ryan Finley says the Wolfpack isn't taking James Madison lightly as he discusses the Pack beginning its game-planning for its Sept. 1 season opener.
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NC State quarterback Ryan Finley says the Wolfpack isn't taking James Madison lightly as he discusses the Pack beginning its game-planning for its Sept. 1 season opener.

In addition to quarterbacking N.C. State football teams, Russell Wilson, who red-shirted with the Wolfpack in 2007 and played the 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons, and Ryan Finley, who is in his third year in Raleigh, have an NCAA rule in common.

Both are graduate transfers.

Wilson, after a difference of opinion with head coach Tom O’Brien about playing time in his final year of eligibility and after earning his undergraduate degree in communications, was a graduate transfer at Wisconsin for one season. He is now an NFL star with the Seattle Seahawks..

Finley, who graduated in three years from Boise State after red-shirting as a freshman in 2013, played very little as a reserve in 2014 and had an early season-ending injury in 2015, transferred to N.C. State in 2016 for his final three seasons of NCAA eligibility. He is a graduate transfer.

In Saturday’s commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin where he finished his college football career, Wilson retold the story, in new detail, of being pushed out of N.C. State by former football coach Tom O’Brien after the 2010 season.

Also, the two have earning advanced degrees in common: Wilson, a Masters in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from Wisconsin; and, Finley, who will have two Master’s degrees from N.C. State when he finishes his playing career, according to his profile on the school’s athletics website, GoPack.com.

Just because those two are known for their quarterbacking abilities and each has at least one advanced degree, do not be confused about being a graduate transfer. That designation means the student-athlete has earned his or her undergraduate degree, still has playing eligibility, and has transferred to another school to complete a college athletics career. It doesn’t mean additional degrees are the norm.

NCAA by-laws set up the graduate transfer rule to allow bachelor degree earners to transfer to another school and participate in college athletics without sitting out a year. This “graduate student” rule “was intended to assist academically high-achieving students in pursuing a degree of interest that may not be offered at their undergraduate college,” according to an NCAA report — Prevalence of Graduate Transfer in Division 1 — issued and updated annually.

It was an admirable idea which started small and has grown rapidly and exponentially.

In 2011, when Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, there were 17 graduate transfer football players in NCAA Division 1. In 2016, when Finley transferred to NC State, there were 117 graduate transfers in football. Last season, there were 211, according to the NCAA. Various websites, including The Graduate Transfer Tracker, report there will be as many or more this season.

In D1 men’s basketball, there were just 15 graduate transfers in 2011 and 104 in 2017. This year there are 143 projected graduate transfers within D1.

The News & Observer's Joe Giglio previews and predicts which game the Wolfpack will win and lose in the first half of the 2018 college football season.

The raw numbers look large, but in 2017 only 1 percent of all football players and 2.3 percent of all men’s basketball players were graduate transfers. What’s not accounted for is the impact graduate transfers have, such as Wilson’s at Wisconsin. He quarterbacked the Badgers to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. And, Finley is given beau coups of credit for the Wolfpack’s success the last two seasons and for high prospects this fall.

The NCAA sees a silver lining in the increased numbers of graduate transfers. From that “Prevalence” report: “Division 1 student-athletes are earning their undergraduate degrees in record numbers and doing it more quickly than ever due to enhanced NCAA academic progress-toward-degree standards, increased financial aid for summer coursework at many schools, and students arriving on campus with college credits from either dual enrollment or Advanced Placement coursework, among other factors. This has led to more student-athletes completing their undergraduate degree requirements before exhausting their athletics eligibility. Those students may continue to compete in NCAA sports if they enroll in graduate coursework or a second degree program.”

So, how do graduate transfers do academically at their new school?

According to a 2015 NCAA study, only 28 percent of football graduate transfers and 34 percent of men’s basketball transfers earned a graduate degree within two-years. About 10 percent continued their studies after two years; the others had left their academic program for various reasons after completing playing eligibility.

On the other hand, 50 percent of football and 43 percent of men’s basketball players who earn undergraduate degrees and stay at the same institution earn additional degrees after two years.

Transferring after graduate may have been at one time but now is not primarily for a curriculum offered at another college. It’s become a chance to compete on a different level or have a chance at more playing time or to play for a specific coach.

Wilson and Finley are smart academically. But Wilson chose Wisconsin to get to a different level of competition at a perceived more glamorous football program; and, Finley chose N.C. State because Boise State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz had transferred to the Wolfpack in 2016 in the same coaching position. Both could have stayed at their respective school for advanced academics.

N.C. State reserve quarterback Jalan McClendon, who played second fiddle to Finley last year, announced in May he would be a graduate transfer at Baylor this season, his last of eligibility. Baylor may be a fine academic institution, but playing time is the primary reason for his transfer, especially if McClendon has post-graduate football aspirations.

In basketball, N.C. State had two graduate transfers — Al Freeman (Baylor) and Sam Hunt (NC A&T) — on the 2017-18 roster; both made major contributions to the Wolfpack’s successful season. This year, N.C. State has two basketball graduate transfers: Eric Lockett (Florida International) and Wyatt Walker (Samford, 2 years of eligibility).

Maybe the NCAA should re-think the graduate transfer rule allowing immediate participation. Student-athletes who complete undergraduate academic requirements a year or two early should be applauded for juggling academics with a brutal athletics commitment. However, the reasons for being a graduate transfer have evolved from one of academic reward to reasons other than academics, placing athletics participation above college academics in a different sort of way.

So what else is new?

Jim Pomeranz is a Cary writer.

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