On Dec. 5, one of the nation’s leading passers entered the transfer portal and became a hot commodity.

Austin Reed, a former Division II player who quarterbacked West Florida to a national championship, had succeeded in his first FBS season, leading Western Kentucky to eight regular-season wins while throwing for 4,247 yards. Now Power 5 schools wanted him.

“If these schools are interested, they’ll find a way for you to know that they’re interested,” Reed said. “But they said they wouldn’t talk until I was in the transfer portal. So I just felt it’d be a disservice to myself if I didn’t enter and listen to what people had to say.”

While in the portal, Reed talked with numerous schools. As one of the best quarterbacks available, big money offers were thrown his way. This is the modern college football marketplace at work.

But a week after entering the portal, Reed announced he would return to WKU. He signed an NIL deal with a local real estate company through a WKU third-party collective. Within the next week, WKU’s top linebacker JaQues Evans also entered and withdrew from the portal, and top wide receiver Malachi Corley announced he would stay.

“It’s almost like getting an awesome recruit when you keep your own,” athletic director Todd Stewart said.

The combination of NIL and the transfer portal has caused concern that Power 5 programs will annually raid the Group of 5 schools for their best players. It’s true that Group of 5 and lower-level teams have lost players to bigger programs. But this transfer cycle has been a reminder that those schools can hold on to players and the portal is a two-way street.

WKU is a model. It added Bailey Zappe, Jerreth Sterns and other players from FCS Houston Christian in 2021, and Zappe set the single-season FBS passing record. Reed continued WKU’s transfer success in 2022 before the portal opened again. The Hilltoppers did lose five players to Power 5 schools in this cycle, but keeping Reed and others shows there is a path forward. It’s not always just a bidding war.

“You can win some of those battles,” head coach Tyson Helton said, “by being open and honest and coming out to players with a pure heart.”