What’s it like to be in the transfer portal? ‘It’s a lot’

East Bay High alumnus K.J. Sails explains life inside college football’s biggest offseason story.
North Carolina's K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Miami's Jeff Thomas during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina's K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Miami's Jeff Thomas during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Published April 23
Updated April 23

When K.J. Sails decided he wanted to leave North Carolina, the East Bay High alumnus sat down with Tar Heels’ officials to walk through the process that has dominated college football’s offseason.

He was about to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal.

“Once you press accept,” Sails said, “then your name is in the portal.”

And once your name is in the portal … then what?

The focus of the database is usually on the destination —how it’s reenergizing Miami, fortifying Florida and USF and spicing up quarterback rooms at Florida State and UCF. But what the journey for the transfer himself?

What’s it like to be a player in the portal?

“It’s a lot,” Sails said.

It’s a lot because Sails is a talented prospect.

At East Bay, 247Sports called him a four-star recruit and one of the top 30 cornerbacks in the class of 2016. Although a season-ending injury limited him to four games last season, he started 14 career games for the Tar Heels and led them with 13 pass breakups as a sophomore.

Before he went to UNC, K.J. Sails (left) was one of Tampa Bay's top 20 area recruits as a cornerback at East Bay High. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)Before he went to UNC, K.J. Sails (left) was one of Tampa Bay's top 20 area recruits as a cornerback at East Bay High. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)

But after UNC’s coaching staff got fired and two family members died in February, Sails wanted a fresh start. He told new coach Mack Brown he intended to transfer on March 22, then met with the compliance department to make it official.

Not long after they pressed accept, he got an email confirmation. He was in the portal.

“My phone started ringing instantly, as soon as my name hit the portal,” Sails said.

That’s because schools are constantly checking to see which names have joined the database. UF, for example, dedicates one staffer to mining the hundreds of names in the portal, separating potential contributors from troublemakers and benchwarmers.

Sails said he heard from a dozen different schools on the first day. Another six or seven contacted him the day after.

Programs representing at least four of the Power Five conferences have reached out, and new Twitter followers included staffers at places ranging from USF and Temple to Eastern Kentucky and Missouri Southern State.

He already knew some of the coaches calling him from his first recruiting go-round. Others were new.

“They asked me what’s going on, what are you looking for?” Sails said.

A year ago, some of those conversations might never have happened.

The old NCAA rule required players to give their current school a list of programs they were considering. The school then granted (or denied) permission to contact each one.

The October debut of the transfer portal flipped that process. Instead of Sails pursuing his next destination, schools were pursuing him, with no middlemen.

“It’s like free agency, almost,” Sails said. “It’s like what you see in the NFL. You can choose where you want to go.”

North Carolina cornerback K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Georgia Tech wide receiver Ricky Jeune (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)North Carolina cornerback K.J. Sails (9) breaks up a pass intended for Georgia Tech wide receiver Ricky Jeune (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Sails said this recruiting process isn’t quite like the one he went through at East Bay.

He’s older, so he knows not to get pressured or scared into a decision. He’s experienced, so schools won’t have to guess how the 5-foot-11, 180-pound athlete will perform in college.

The timeline is different, too. There’s no signing day deadline or drama, but everything is condensed. The three dozen offers he collected in high school were spread out over a year, with months to build relationships with coaches. The three dozen calls he has fielded (and is still fielding) have been spread over four weeks. Sails hopes to decide from a handful of finalists before summer starts —about two months after he hit accept to enter the portal.

“It can get overwhelming, but at the same time it’s a good overwhelming to know that you’re wanted…” Sails said. “That’s definitely a blessing.

“Think about it: If you put your name in the portal and nobody hits you up, dang, how would you feel?”

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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