Home Sports Opportunity knocks: For every player opting out of a bowl game, another gets a chance

Opportunity knocks: For every player opting out of a bowl game, another gets a chance

Opportunity knocks: For every player opting out of a bowl game, another gets a chance

South Carolina tight end Jaheim Bell (0) dives for the end zone to score against Tennessee on Nov. 19 in Columbia, S.C. Bell, a Lake City resident, has entered the transfer portal and will not play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

  • The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl is Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m., at TIAA Bank Field
  • Notre Dame and South Carolina will play for the first time since 1984 and the first time ever in a bowl game
  • The Irish are in their first Gator Bowl since 2003; Gamecocks last played in 1987

The transfer portal and players opting out of bowls to begin preparing for the NFL Draft — and saving themselves from possible injury by playing one more college game — has been the talk of college football since bowl selection day. 

As of Wednesday, nearly 900 players had entered the portal, which usually means they’re not playing in their team’s bowl game. 

A smaller number have announced they are entering the NFL Draft, but it’s still a significant blow to a team. Players who believe they’re ready for the next step usually are impact starters. 

South Carolina and Notre Dame, the two teams who are meeting in the 78th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 (3:30 p.m., ESPN) have been affected — though not as much as teams such as the Florida Gators, who will play Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon State minus 20 players who are either in the portal or left because of the NFL Draft. 

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The Gamecocks currently have 12 rostered players who will not be in Jacksonville, eight who entered the portal (led by tight end Jaheim Bell of Lake City and running back MarShawn Lloyd), two because of the draft (defensive tackle Zaach Pickens and cornerback Cam Smith) and a tight end Traveon Kenion, who announced on social media that he is “stepping away from football.” 

Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said Wednesday that preparing for the bowl game given the opt-outs “is why we’re paid to coach.”

“It’s tough out there right now,” he said. “But we’re in a great situation here at Carolina. Other schools have close to 20 in the portal. You realize it’s part of it. We wish guys who aren’t here well but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the guys who aren’t here. We have a lot of special people in this program who are.”

The Irish are losing only six players, but three of them are huge: tight end Michael Mayer, the team’s leader in receptions, and edge rusher Isaiah Foskey, the sack leader, opted out because of the NFL draft and quarterback Drew Pyne entered the transfer portal when coach Marcus Freeman told him they would be mining that list for a transfer to compete with him next season. 

In other cases, players entering the portal were either injured, had not played or were walk-ons. Four of the South Carolina players entering the portal appeared in three games or less.

“We’ve had conversations, I gave them time to reflect and make decisions,” Freeman said of dealing with players in the portal and draft prospects. “I can’t predict the future but I don’t anticipate anyone else not playing on the bowl game.” 

Beamer is being left particularly high and dry at tight end, a crucial position in his offense. In addition to Bell, Austin Stogner, second on the team in receptions among tight ends, is entering the portal and the most recent departure of Kenion leaves Beamer with Nate Adkins, a graduate senior who transferred from East Tennessee State, and two walk-ons. 

The good news for the Gamecocks is junior quarterback Spencer Rattler announced before bowl selection day that he would play in whatever bowl his team earned, and he’s sticking to that vow. 

Unsung stars may emerge

Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said players leaving means others have opportunities, and likely will work hard to make the most of it. 

“Both teams have 85 scholarship players and more than 100 kids,” McGarity said. “Even walk-ons at programs such as Notre Dame and South Carolina are outstanding athletes and you can bet they’re ready for what opportunity they get. A lot of these kids have been practicing, going to meetings, working out, going through their summer programs — everything except playing. All they’re asking is the chance to get on the field and I think you’ll see them give an outstanding effort.” 

McGarity also pointed out that the type of player who may get an opportunity in a bowl game has been going against some pretty good competition since training camp. 

“Most of those kids practice against their first-team players,” he said. “They’ve been getting kicked around by some of the best football players in the country. Now they’ve got 15 bowl practices to prove themselves, then the chance to play on a national stage, against a great opponent. I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by some of the kids we see in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.” 

McGarity said his main concern is if players begin opting out of College Football Playoff games. With a 12-team system coming in 2024, the Holy Grail of a college national championship might not be enough to keep NFL-bound players around. 

Notre Dame edge rusher Isaiah Foskey (7) tackles Syracuse running back Sean Tucker in a game on Oct. 29 at Syracuse. Foskey is the latest Irish player to opt out of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba is passing on the Buckeyes Fiesta Bowl CFP game against TCU but he’s had a lingering hamstring injury all season and his chances to play were a long shot. 

“If you have an individual pulling out of a CFP semifinal, that will be very telling,” McGarity said. 

A new part of college football

Freeman said the portal and the NFL draft leading to post-season roster shake-ups is something that every coach will have to face. He also recommended that coaches talk to players honestly, and expect the same. 

“It’s a new part of college football and it’s going to be a part of roster enhancement,” he said. “With the portal, you have to be very honest and clear about expectations. What’s my role? I’m not going to make specific promises. If you start making promises you can’t fulfill, you lose that trust factor. You have to be as honest as you can. I love Drew Pyne, but part of that was to tell him we’re looking in the portal to take a quarterback. I could have lied, waited until after the [bowl] game but not what we’re built on. We’re built on real authentic relationships.” 

Notre Dame Position Opt-out reason
Michael Mayer TE NFL Draft
Isaiah Foskey Edge NFL Draft
Drew Pyne QB Transfer portal
Osita Ekwonu LB Transfer portal
South Carolina Position Opt-out reason
Jaheim Bell TE Transfer portal
Zaach Pickens DT NFL Draft
MarShawn Lloyd RB Transfer portal
Cam Smith CB NFL Draft
Notable opt-outs for Notre Dame, South Carolina for the TaxSlayer Bowl.

One of the more intriguing issues in the run-up to the game will be Notre Dame’s quarterback situation. Pynes, who took over in week three and led the Irish to eight victories in 10 games (losing two by a combined 13 points) by throwing for 2,021 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions, has entered the portal. 

The obvious choice for Freeman would be to turn to his opening-day starter, sophomore Tyler Buchner, who injured his shoulder in a loss to Marshall. Buchner is more mobile than Pyne and threw for 378 yards against the Thundering Herd and Ohio State. 

But he is 0-2 as a starter and while he was recovering from his injury, freshman Steve Angeli, a four-star from New Jersey, got most of the practice reps behind Pyne. 

“We haven’t defined exactly what the quarterback situation will be,” Freeman said. “Both guys have gotten reps with the 1s. Tyler hasn’t played football for a long time but he’s looked good in practice. Steve has done a pretty good job too. We have an identity — run the football and create easy completions. That won’t change, whoever is the quarterback.”

Beamer said he wanted to correct a misconception that the momentum the Gamecocks built by beating top-10 teams Tennessee and Clemson in the final two regular-season games has been interrupted by the departtures.

“Maybe outside the building there is a perception that the momentum has slipped,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. The excitement level from our recruits and our current team is at an all-time high. We’re taking this program to places it’s never been before. As you climb higher and higher, sometimes people get off that bus. Just make sure you have the right people on your wagon as you’re climbing the hill.”

Into the breach

Here are examples of players leaving Notre Dame and South Carolina and who fans at the TaxSlayer Bowl can watch for to take their places:

Notre Dame

Departing: Michael Mayer, among the NFL’s top tight-end prospects in the 2023 draft who led the Irish in receiving in 2022 with 67 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns.

The door opens for: Freshman Holden Staes of Atlanta, a four-star who was ranked seventh nationally among high school tight ends in his recruiting class by espn.com.

Departing: Isaiah Foskey, an edge rusher with 11 sacks, six quarterback hurries and two blocked kicks this season. He is leaving early to prepare for the NFL draft.

The door opens for: Junior Jordan Botelho, who led St. Louis High School to three consecutive Hawaii state championships and was a four-star and the top-ranked recruit from Hawaii in 2019. He had nine tackles in 12 games but 4.5 of them were sacks and he also blocked a kick on special teams.

Departing: Quarterback Drew Pyne, who started the last 10 games for the Irish, with an 8-2 record. He is entering the transfer portal.

The door opens for: Or should we say re-opens for sophomore Tyler Buchner of San Diego, who threw for 378 yards in two games before injuring his shoulder. He was ranked as the No. 7 pocket passer of the nation by espn.com at The Bishop’s School but he’s run for 398 yards and five touchdowns at Notre Dame.

South Carolina

Departing: Tight end/running back Jaheim Bell to the transfer portal. He was third in receiving for the Gamecocks with 25 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and second in rushing with 261 yards and three scores.

The door opens for: Nate Adkins, a graduate senior who transferred from East Tennessee State. He was a prolific pass-catcher on the FCS level with 73 receptions for 749 yards in 43 games. He was second-team All-SoCon as a junior when ETSU went 11-2. Adkins caught eight passes for 90 yards this season.

Departing: Running back MarShawn Lloyd, who went to the transfer portal, reportedly when offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield left for Nebraska. Lloyd led the Gamecocks in rushing with 573 yards and nine touchdowns, and caught 18 passes for 165 yards and two more scores.

The door opens for: Sophomore Juju McDowell of Bainbridge, Ga., who was third on the team in rushing with 191 yards and two TDs, and fourth in receiving with 21 receptions for 192 yards. He was on the SEC’s All-freshman team in 2021 as a returner and all-purpose back and was South Carolina’s male freshman athlete of the year. McDowell played running back, receiver, defensive back and returned kicks for Lee County (Ga.) High.

Departing: Defensive tackle Zaach Pickens, who played four years for the Gamecocks and could have used his COVID year. He is opting out to begin preparing for the NFL draft.

The door opens for: Sophomore Alex Huntley of Blythewood, S.C., one of the best all-around athletes on the team. He played football, lacrosse, basketball and track and field at Columbia Hammond High School, led his lacrosse team to a state championship and was the state shot put champion. Huntley, a two-time SEC All-Academic team member, was president of the student body at Hammond.


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