Transformation portal: How Jared Verse went from an FCS project to a Power 5 defensive end

FLORIDA STATE DEFENSIVE end Jared Verse owes his future to the transfer portal.

It is a simple but truthful statement, one that helps illustrate the positive impact the portal can have for players.

“Honestly,” Verse said during a recent phone conversation, “it was life changing.”

Verse is not exaggerating. In three short years, he went from being an undersized high school tight end with zero FBS scholarship offers, to going through a position switch as a freshman at FCS Albany, to being one of the most coveted players in the transfer portal this winter, with more than 30 offers from many of the biggest programs in the country.

His story is both improbable and inspiring, begging the question, “How did he do it?”

IT ALL STARTED with Albany offensive line coach Nate Byham, the school’s lead recruiter in the Pennsylvania area, where Verse played in high school. Byham texted Albany defensive line coach Bill Nesselt a video of the 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior and wrote, “Bill, I’m telling you, there’s something about this guy.”

“We were looking for long, athletic guys that we could mold into pass-rushers,” Nesselt said in a phone conversation. “He fit that to a T.”

Verse, who was part of the state champion 4×400 relay team in addition to playing football, had no scholarship offers, so the Albany coaching staff figured they had stumbled onto a hidden gem. Headed into the 2019 season, Nesselt said the coaches wanted to change how the Great Danes played up front, opting for faster, more agile playmakers across the line. The staff thought if Verse put on some weight, he could develop into a force on the defensive line.

The Albany coaching staff presented Verse with the plan as part of their recruiting pitch, and he agreed to it. Year 1 would be a redshirt season. Verse learned behind a veteran group that included Eli Mencer, another player the Albany staff helped transform into a dominant defensive end. Mencer began his career as a running back, but in his senior season — as Verse watched from the sidelines — Mencer set the school record with 14.5 sacks.

“I think Jared could see the writing on the wall in the sense that he wasn’t going to be the first one to do this,” Nesselt said. “He knew that we had the ability, and if and when he bought in, he could get it done, too.”

Meanwhile, Nesselt saw Verse dominate on the scout team, early glimpses that the coaches’ belief in his potential was deserving.

“We couldn’t block him,” Nesselt said.

Verse had slowly started to gain weight that redshirt freshman year. But his transformation truly began in 2020 during the COVID-19 shutdown. Returning home that March, Verse got serious about his training, and his father bought weights and set up a weight room at their house.

Both parents made him home-cooked meals every day to help him gain weight. Verse said he had between 4,000 and 5,000 calories daily. Big breakfasts included bacon, eggs, toast, cereal and oatmeal; dinners included tuna casserole, meatloaf, steaks and burgers. In between meals, Verse drank protein shakes.

Verse said he gained 40 pounds during his time at home, putting him at about 255 once he returned to Albany in January 2021. Nesselt said Verse “took advantage of that time probably the best of anybody I’ve seen.”

“My parents pushed me. They made sure I knew what I could do if I worked hard,” Verse said. “Working so hard, you build a confidence. So I was like, ‘I worked so hard for this, I can’t let anyone get in my way.'”

Still, Verse had never played a collegiate down at defensive end. When players returned to campus, Verse worked long hours with roommate Jon Moore, an offensive lineman. To push himself harder, he would tell Moore the move he was going to attempt “so he could get a jump on me,” Verse said. “We pushed each other a lot.”

He also studied players on video to learn their techniques, including Myles Garrett, Randy Gregory, Olivier Vernon, Maxx Crosby and Jadeveon Clowney. Verse also watched Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, even though he played a different position, just to get a feel for what makes Donald so dominant.

“I wanted to become good at the things that they’re great at, and then become great at the things that they’re great at, so I could put myself the same level as them,” Verse said.

Albany’s 2020 season was delayed to spring 2021 because of the pandemic, and while Verse did not start the opener against New Hampshire, Nesselt recalls he made an immediate impression.

“His first pass rush, he literally lifted the offensive tackle off the ground,” Nesselt said. “He didn’t get a pressure, really didn’t make much of an impact on the play. But I think in his head, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do this.'”

In the abbreviated spring season, Albany played only four games but Verse made them count. Ten of his 22 total tackles went for a loss, and he was selected Colonial Athletic Association defensive rookie of the year. Verse considered entering the transfer portal then but decided he wanted to have a full year at Albany to show what he could do.

With the start of the 2021 season only months away, he pushed himself even harder, not only in terms of his fitness but with his fundamentals and technique. When he hit the field, what stood out on tape went beyond his strength and agility.

As Florida State prepared to play Syracuse last October, Seminoles defensive coordinator Adam Fuller remembers watching tape from the Orange’s game against Albany in Week 3 and wanting to learn more about Verse.

“He was, I thought, the best player that I saw playing against Syracuse as an edge rusher. He played so hard, and was so aggressive. It was like, ‘Wow, who’s that kid, and how did he end up there?'” Fuller said. “He plays with such great effort and was so impactful.”

Verse ended up as a first-team all-conference selection and FCS freshman All-American, with 53 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one pass breakup — all while working through the inconsistencies that come with being a full-time starter but also a novice at his position. By the time the season ended in November, Nesselt and the rest of the Albany staff had an idea what was to come. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Verse told Nesselt he had decided to transfer.

Therein lies the flip side of the portal. While it helped Verse catapult to a prominent Power 5 program, the school that discovered and helped develop him had no choice but to watch him leave.

Nesselt said there are no hard feelings.

“He did everything the right way,” Nesselt said. “Obviously, we would have loved for him to stay because you don’t want your program guys to leave, but at the end of the day, it’s good for him. I believe it’s good for our program. We’re proud of him.”

ON NOV. 30, Verse announced on Twitter he was entering the transfer portal with three years of eligibility remaining. It wasn’t long before Verse was flooded with nonstop calls and texts, setting up videoconferences with teams from around the country. While Verse said it all “got hectic pretty quickly,” he added, “it’s an amazing opportunity to have.”

He tweeted every time he got an offer, and they quickly started piling up. Schools on every FBS level were interested, from UConn and Buffalo to West Virginia, Nebraska, LSU, Florida, Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma and USC. Verse took four visits in one week in December: to Syracuse, Houston, Florida State and Tennessee, essentially the recruiting courtship he did not have in high school — only on supersonic overdrive because he had to squeeze them all in over such a short period of time.

“The fact that so many schools across the country were all coming at me, trying to get me to join their program and be a part of their team, it was definitely humbling,” Verse said.

As soon as Fuller saw Verse’s name in the portal, he recalled the Albany-Syracuse game and pulled out additional tape to make sure that game was not an aberration.

He started with the 2021 opener against North Dakota State, the eventual FCS national champion. Verse had eight total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

“It wasn’t like he was a finished product,” Fuller said. “But you definitely saw all the traits of the physicality, the speed, the aggressiveness, the acceleration, the ability to rush the passer. It all showed up. I quickly watched the film, I got him on the phone, and immediately we offered him because he just fit us.”

Fuller and his defensive staff had just had great success with two defensive ends who arrived via the portal. Jermaine Johnson II, who transferred from Georgia, had 70 tackles and led the ACC with 18 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He was selected the conference defensive player of the year and is projected as a first-round pick in Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft. Keir Thomas, a transfer from South Carolina, had 42 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.

With both players leaving, defensive end was a key area of need for the Seminoles. That hole on their depth chart and the success Johnson and Thomas had as transfers were selling points in the first conversation Florida State had with Verse.

During his visit to Tallahassee, Verse spent time with Johnson and had lengthy discussions with him about his own experiences as a transfer and how the Florida State coaching staff helped him become an elite defensive end.

“He wasn’t trying to sell me a pitch or anything like that,” Verse said. “He was trying to really give me a full picture of how the school was here, the things he liked, the things he didn’t like. But he was thinking I could do the same thing he just did.”

When it came time to make a decision on what school he would attend, Verse put his phone on silent and thought about all his options before settling on the Seminoles.

“I disappeared. I went off on my own because this was a big decision,” he said. “I got my family’s input, my brothers, my sisters, a couple really close friends, my parents. I did end up coming to a decision myself, so I just went downstairs, told my parents and they were excited.”

BUT THE JOURNEY is far from over. Verse wants to work on his explosiveness and decision-making, while adding a few more moves to supplement what he has learned so far.

“I have no problems with Albany,” Verse said. “It was just the level of football that people were playing, I feel like I can go against a little higher competition, and that’s what Florida State can bring me. Being able to go into the transfer portal and have an opportunity to elevate my game is something that I’m forever grateful for.”

Fuller stressed that nobody on the Seminoles’ staff expects Verse to come in and completely duplicate the performances of Johnson and Thomas. They came to Florida State as veteran players with SEC experience; Verse remains a work in progress.

“In my mind, it’s easy to see what others might say — well, they brought in two transfers last year, they had 20-plus sacks between the two and now they just brought in another one, so that’s what he is going to do,” Fuller said. “It’s not that simple, but he fit everything we were looking for. I’ve got the utmost confidence that we’re going to get great results from him.”

Fuller pointed to Verse’s work ethic, focus and demeanor, which have pushed him this far. He also noted Verse’s leadership qualities. Before he arrived at Florida State, Verse asked to talk to the other defensive linemen on the team to make sure they knew he was not coming in to take their jobs, and he hoped they could push one another to collective success.

Still, Verse knows what Johnson did at Florida State, and he wants to keep working in hopes that one day, he’ll hear his name being mentioned among the best defensive ends available in the NFL draft.

That goal might never have been more than a fantasy without the transfer portal.