Sam Hartman [608x342]
Sam Hartman [608x342] (Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Budapest to host 26 Champions League final

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sam Hartman was bound for the NFL, until a case of mistaken identity started to shift his thinking.

At the end of his fifth collegiate season in December 2022, the Wake Forest quarterback -- and ACC's all-time leader in touchdown passes -- was ready to take the next step in his football journey when he got a phone call from his agent. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson had just declared for the NFL draft, and rumors were swirling that the Gators had already targeted his replacement after eagle-eyed social media users spotted Hartman on campus and posted photos online.

The only problem? It wasn't Hartman -- at least not the college football player.

Instead, it was Joe Hartman, Sam's older brother and similarly bearded doppelganger, who was attending the University of Florida's College of Medicine at the time.

"My agent was like, 'Hey, are you in Gainesville, Florida? I'm getting calls from their people that you're looking -- that you're down there,'" Hartman told ESPN. "And I'm like, 'Dude, I'm sitting in my team meeting room.' He's like, 'Well, they're interested. They want to know if you want to go.' And I'm like, 'No, I've been in college for five years. I want to get out.'"

But his agent, Brian McLaughlin of VaynerSports, wasn't as sure that was Hartman's best path after gathering feedback on his client from NFL talent evaluators, and the chance sighting of the older Hartman started the conversation.

"It was one of those things that was just because of social media, because my brother's down in med school, it sparked the idea," Hartman said. "And we're like, 'Well, it's not a terrible idea to maybe try and go play another year.'"

Despite shattering school and conference records in a fruitful college career, Hartman's professional trajectory was unclear because Wake Forest's offensive system differed greatly from what he'd be asked to do in the NFL. Seeking clarity in his evaluation and to improve his draft stock, Hartman ultimately entered the transfer portal. He and McLaughlin prioritized finding a program with an offense that more closely resembled what he'd be asked to do in the NFL, landing at Notre Dame.

It's the type of move that could set a precedent for quarterbacks seeking to improve their standing with NFL talent evaluators, a path made more possible because of laws enacted in 2021 that allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness and help eliminate the financial pressure to turn pro early. A significant change to the college football landscape came that same year when the NCAA ruled that athletes can transfer and have immediate eligibility following their first transfer. Since then, the NCAA has approved exceptions that grant immediate eligibility to some multi-time transfers (and could change further later this month).

"If you're not going to be an early draft pick, and you can go back to school, whether that's the current program you're at, or maybe there's a better situation for development and fit to consider," McLaughlin said, "Quarterbacks can make six figures -- some guys now even creeping into the seven figures between their collective and marketing deals -- it's like, why not go do that? Try to significantly raise your draft stock.

"It's something where you get one shot at it, and you want to make sure you're fully prepared and ready to make the jump to the NFL. And if you're not currently an early draft pick, you might want to go back and try to get yourself into an early pick...exhaust your eligibility."

For Hartman, who had a sixth year of eligibility because of the NCAA's one-year COVID-19 extension, it made sense.

Playing in Wake Forest's slow mesh offense, Hartman often operated out of the shotgun and ran a version of an RPO scheme that featured elongated handoffs to the running back while he read the defense before making the decision to either hand the ball off or throw it. It was an effective system for the Demon Deacons, helping them to an 8-0 start in 2021 en route to winning the ACC's Atlantic Division for the first time since 2006. Hartman, too, found success in the offense, throwing for 77 touchdowns and nearly 8,000 yards in his final two seasons, despite missing time with a blood clot that required surgery to remove a rib.

Scouts struggled to evaluate Hartman because of the unconventional, complex offense, one so far from the under-center schemes run in the NFL. Could he rattle off playcalls with complicated verbiage in the huddle? Could he process a defense on multiple levels and make quick, smart decisions with the football? How would he manage a pocket from under center?

The feedback suggested staying at Wake Forest wasn't going to help Hartman's draft stock.

"Wake developed me so much -- for five years, they stood by me," Hartman said, explaining the process at the NFL combine in February. "Got the opportunity with COVID and the redshirt to explore and see what was out there. And it gave me an idea -- hey maybe there's something out there I could go do, part of that was the pro-style offense.

"Having two offenses under my [belt], getting under center, getting in and out of the huddle, playing with guys like [offensive lineman] Joe Alt, it just kind of set the tone. Working an NFL cadence and everything in between was incredible."

Hartman's detour to the NFL through Notre Dame better positioned him to enter a league that increasingly seeks instant gratification after drafting a rookie quarterback.

"Anytime you can do things at the college level that you're going to be asked to do in the NFL, it just makes it easier for them," said Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl and former longtime NFL scout. "Quarterbacks are being rushed on the field more than probably ever, certainly more than 10, 15 years ago. You don't have that developmental time ... It's just hard when you take a guy that when you watch him and you're not seeing him do a lot of concepts and making pro throws and pro plays and reads. That's when you're like, 'OK, this is going to take a little bit.'"

In flattening that learning curve with a year in Notre Dame's pro-style system, Hartman's draft stock has risen from a projected late-round pick or priority undrafted free agent to a fourth- or fifth-round selection, according to some league talent evaluators.

"To go up two rounds, it might not sound like a lot to somebody outside of football, but that's a big jump," Nagy said. "If you could move two rounds in a year by just going somewhere else, that's a really big jump."

Hartman's once-unorthodox path could be something more quarterbacks follow in the coming years as they maximize both their opportunities for development and earning potential thanks to the transfer portal and NIL deals. Florida State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who also works with VaynerSports for NIL representation, has transferred twice after beginning his collegiate career at Clemson. Like Hartman, a primary factor in changing schools is seeking offenses that will better position him for an NFL career.

"It's happening across college football: money talks right now," Nagy said. "These quarterbacks are getting paid a lot of money. For some positions it doesn't make much sense because just going through this year's cycle, I talked to a bunch of position players other than quarterbacks that were trying to be lured back for another college season for $150,000, $200,000. At that point, I'm like, just go turn pro. You're going to make a lot more money being a rookie in the NFL than making $150,000 on your college campus next year.

"But some of these [quarterbacks] are making, we're talking like two, three, four, five, six million dollars. That's probably more than they would if they're a Day 3 quarterback if you're a fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round draft pick. ... Probably makes more sense financially to stay in college."

For Hartman, the financial implications of entering the portal and selecting Notre Dame were secondary to the football decisions, but going to a program with a national brand did present a major platform and lucrative NIL deals with companies including Google, Under Armour, Beats by Dre, Dove, Dollar Shave Club and Mizzen+Main.

Hartman, though, cautioned college football players to be shrewd in making decisions about their future in an NIL era.

"I think it's a slippery slope," Hartman said. "There's certain circumstances where it's used really well, and then sometimes I think it's just misconstrued for guys to kind of jump ship and say, 'Hey, there's a little bit of money getting flashed at me right here. I'm going to go do this.' And then that money's not as much as some people might think it might be."

The full impact of Hartman's extra collegiate season won't be known for several years as he navigates the NFL ecosystem, but he's already seeing early returns from his time in South Bend. Hartman earned a Senior Bowl invitation following a 24-touchdown, 8-interception, 2689-yard season at Notre Dame, something that would've been more difficult to secure with a lower draft projection. Hartman was also one of five quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl -- of six total -- who transferred at least once in their collegiate career.

"What it did for the NFL was it kind of cleaned some things up," Nagy said of Hartman's transfer. "It just made for a cleaner evaluation of him, a little more apples to apples, if you will, seeing him in more of a pro-style system. So just getting under center and some of the play action stuff and dropback stuff was good for them to see."

Not only did the week of practice in Mobile, Alabama, put him in front of NFL brass, but he also showcased his talent in the Senior Bowl game with significant playing time.

During that week in Mobile, Hartman ran into Gerad Parker, his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and now the head coach at Troy. Parker smiled as the two caught up, marveling at how far Hartman had come in a year.

"Just imagine had you not done some of the things you're doing right now, how that felt," Parker said to him. "It was a well-played decision for him to put himself in a position of, 'All right, I do want to play in the NFL, what can I do to help myself?' He wanted to come and win and be a part of Notre Dame, but there was a piece of that that was about getting him better prepared

"It put him in a position to have a better chance, and that's all we're all trying to do."