The Gators made a splash on Saturday afternoon when former Arizona State receiver Ricky Pearsall announced that he will continue his career at Florida.
Pearsall led the Sun Devils with 48 receptions for 580 yards and four touchdowns last season. He’s considered a solid route-runner with excellent hands who should bring some much-needed speed, quickness and versatility to the position.
Transfers will play a key role on Billy Napier’s first UF team this fall. The program welcomed former Louisiana offensive linemen O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites and running back Montrell Johnson this spring, along with former Ohio State quarterback Jack Miller and former Georgia cornerback Jalen Kimber. At least four of those six players should play key roles this fall.
Of course, this recent surge in transfers isn’t a phenomenon unique to UF. The transfer portal is playing an increasingly large role in roster construction at programs across the country. With the transfer portal providing an easy-to-access database of all available college players and the relatively new rule that allows athletes to transfer once without having to sit out a year, bringing in transfers is more attractive than ever before.
Plus, veteran college players are more of a sure thing than even the highest-rated of high school recruits. A coach can flip on the film and see exactly how a player like Pearsall performs against Power Five competition. With high school prospects, there’s quite a bit of projecting involved.
So, given Napier’s strong organizational skills and his desire to get out in front of things, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has someone on his staff whose job is to oversee the evaluation of players in the transfer portal.
Director of college personnel Bird Sherrill serves that role on Napier’s staff. He spent the last six years with the Detroit Lions, the last four of them as a scout. Prior to that, he worked in the recruiting department at Alabama as a student from 2013-16.
“I think [the transfer portal] just gives everybody a new avenue from the player standpoint and from the team standpoint to add talent,” Sherrill said. “Transfer was almost taboo when I was in school and even before that. It was like, ‘Oh, that guy’s transferring.’ Now, it’s pretty regular, so it gives guys second chances, and there’s a lot of guys who have had success that way. So, yeah, it kind of just opens new opportunities for everybody.”
On the surface, Sherrill’s job might seem rather simple. Napier tells him the specifics of what he’s looking for at every position, and Sherrill watches film and does research to find players in the portal that meet those criteria.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. Talented players can (and often do) enter the portal at any time of year and at any time of day. Sherrill has to be ready to drop everything and turn on some film at a moment’s notice. Players sometimes don’t stay in the portal for long before they make a decision on their next school, so it’s paramount that the Gators are proactive in their evaluations.
“You kind of have to sleep fast, work fast because you just never know when these guys are going to come in,” he said. “So, you have to keep your eyes peeled on Twitter and be ready to go.”
And just because someone has the size, speed and strength that Napier wants doesn’t mean that they’ll be a fit at UF.
Every player that is in the portal is in there for a reason. Players don’t generally leave a school if they’re a starter who’s producing at a high level and getting along great with their coaches. There’s a reason why they’re looking for a fresh start, and it’s Sherrill’s job to figure out what that reason is and if it’s something that UF’s coaches can live with.
Is a player in the portal simply because they want more playing time or the chance to play at a higher level than they were playing at before? Or are there serious attitude, disciplinary or academic issues that led to their falling-outs at their previous stops?
Sherrill evaluates the players’ minds as much as he does their physical abilities.
“I think every case is individual,” he said. “And, sometimes, you’re able to learn that, and, sometimes, you aren’t. Sometimes, you even just have to ask the guy directly, ‘Hey, what’s your situation? What’s going on?’ and try and piece it together as best you can.”
Sherrill’s job is also very important from a time management standpoint. Napier and the 10 assistant coaches have a ton of responsibilities, such as developing their players in the film room and on the practice field and calling, texting and visiting high school recruits.
So, Sherrill takes something off of their plates by handling the evaluations. If someone doesn’t meet the predetermined criteria that Napier has established, they won’t even end up on the coaches’ radar for consideration. He kind of does the weeding out process that can be very time-consuming.
Sherrill said that his time working for Alabama and the Lions helped him grow as a talent evaluator. Obviously, Alabama has been the most dominant college football program over the last 13 years, and they show no signs of slowing down. The Lions are an NFL team that have a bunch of experienced scouts and front-office personnel that he learned from. He’s gotten an up-close-and-personal lesson on what world-class caliber football looks like.
“When I was at Alabama, I basically got my foundation, but I think in Detroit is really where I learned the evaluation process because, again, I was just happy to be there, be in the door,” Sherrill said. “Those things that we learned [at Alabama], reading Coach [Nick] Saban’s reports, talking to other coaches, you definitely learned what to look for and what not to look for, what kept a guy from being great, or what made a guy great, but I think probably more of my development truly evaluating the tape more and thoroughly was in Detroit.”
It’s important to note, however, that Sherrill isn’t a recruiter, as he doesn’t believe that he has the big personality that it takes to work on that side of things. Instead, he lets the coaches know which portal players fit what they’re looking for, and the coaches then go out and try to get them.
While players can enter the transfer portal at any time, by far the two busiest times of the year are just after the end of the regular season and following spring practice. So, during the fall when the portal has calmed down a little bit, Sherrill will shift his focus to junior college prospects, which is a process that more closely resembles high school recruiting than the NCAA transfer market just because of the timeline.
Sherrill doesn’t have the pedigree that you might expect for somebody working in the personnel department at an elite college football program. As he described it, he didn’t come from a “football family,” and he had to practically beg NFL teams to hire him after he graduated from Alabama. He sent three emails to every NFL team and only received six responses, and four of them were rejections.
Ironically, Sherrill’s status as an unknown outsider is what has made him feel at home at Florida so far.
“Coach Napier has found a niche for people who have an underdog story,” Sherrill said. “If you look at their resumes, a lot of them are like me: humble beginnings, really hungry, and they kept that mentality as they got better. I feel kind of like I fit in here.”
The early transfer portal results certainly agree with him.