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Across the country, high school football players on Wednesday will sit at tables in packed gymnasiums, show off a hoodie or hat of their college choice and put pen to paper on their national letter of intent.

Increasingly, though, the start of college football's early signing period isn't only for the 18-year-olds. Coaches are turning to the transfer portal — a database in which players can declare their intentions to switch schools — to augment and even remake their rosters.

"It's part of the deal. Get used to it,'' coach P.J. Fleck told fans during the Gophers' Coaches Caravan last spring. "Transfer doesn't mean bad. We've benefited from it, but we've also had to give some.''

The NCAA in April 2021 implemented the one-time transfer rule in which players no longer must sit out a season before playing at their new school. A second seismic shift came three months later, when the NCAA allowed athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). Those NIL deals, organized by a third party but mainly encouraged by schools, often play a key role in recruiting.

While the bulk of the Gophers' 2023 recruiting class will be high school players — 20 of the 25 players expected to sign Wednesday are preps — older, more developed transfer players can bring an immediate influx of talent to a roster.

Need a linebacker? The Gophers did in 2021, and Abilene Christian's Jack Gibbens immediately became their leading tackler. Want to upgrade the wide receiver corps? Fleck landed all-conference wideouts in UNC Charlotte's Elijah Spencer and Western Michigan's Corey Crooms over the past few days, hoping they'll be plug-and-play performers in 2023.

Gone, in large part, is the stigma that a transfer athlete is a disgruntled player who is a risk to cause problems. Often, the transfer is merely looking for a chance to play. "These days, kids aren't willing to sit behind somebody,'' Fleck said. "It's a way of life.''

A busy December

More than 1,500 players were in the transfer portal as of Tuesday, according to 247Sports, and the activity picked up on Dec. 5, when the first of two windows to change teams for 2022-23 opened. That's made for a mad dash as coaches try to manage their rosters, recruit and prepare for bowl games all at once.

"For colleges, there is a lot more work because they have to track and evaluate portal kids and then get those players up for visits and recruit them just like they were high school players,'' said Allen Trieu, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. "This is all now happening together in December.''

The Gophers landed four transfers and two prep players in a frenetic finish beginning Sunday, but the bulk of their high school class was assembled by summer. Included in that were running back Darius Taylor and quarterback Drew Viotto, an intriguing pair from Walled Lake, Mich., a northwest suburb of Detroit.

Taylor is a four-star recruit who put up jaw-dropping stats for Walled Lake Western High School this season. A converted receiver, Taylor rushed for 2,450 yards and 36 touchdowns in 11 games. He delivered one 438-yard rushing game and three games in which he scored six TDs.

"There were some of our lopsided games that he only played a half, and he would know that was going to happen, so he decided to score four touchdowns,'' said Kory Cioroch, his high school coach.

With workhorse running back Mohamed Ibrahim leaving after the season, the Gophers will have carries available in the backfield. Would Taylor be ready to step in as a freshman against Big Ten competition? "I know that he is,'' Cioroch promised.

Viotto, a three-star recruit, is a pro-style passer who completed 110 of 165 passes for 1,875 yards and 16 TDs and led Walled Lake Western to a 9-2 record. He originally committed to Eastern Michigan but jumped at a Gophers offer when offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca saw the QB while scouting Taylor.

"One thing I've improved on from last year was just my escape ability, my athleticism,'' said Viotto, who like Taylor will enroll at Minnesota in January. "Being able to extend plays, too. Being in the Big Ten, you've got to be able to do that.''

There's no guarantee

The immediate availability of transfers has helped some teams rebuild quickly. When coach Lincoln Riley left USC for Oklahoma at the end of the 2021 season, he lured Caleb Williams away from the Sooners, and the quarterback went on to win the Heisman Trophy for the 11-2 Trojans.

Iowa, which added only one transfer for the 2022 season, has been aggressive in the portal recently, landing high-profile transfers from Michigan in quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All.

There are flip sides, though. Michigan State brought in 15 transfers in 2021 and went 11-2. This year, the Spartans slumped to 5-7 as their transfers didn't make the desired impact.

The portal, along with NIL, has its critics. Washington State coach Jake Dickert took aim at those breaking the rules.

"There's more tampering going on than you could ever imagine,'' Dickert told reporters last week. "We've had guys contact our players' parents. We had a coach from another school contact one of our players and offer him NIL."

The Gophers have seen how the transfer portal can give and take. Gibbens and defensive linemen Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway were highly productive, but freshman running backs Mar'Keise Irving and Ky Thomas transferred after Ibrahim decided to play a sixth season. Irving leads Oregon with 906 rushing yards, while Thomas has 151 yards in eight games for Kansas.

"It's just part of college football these days,'' Fleck said. "Fans in college football, especially here in Minnesota, need to wrap our heads around it a little bit that the game has changed, recruiting's changed, transferring's changed.''