The story of a transfer portal-era unicorn

Colby Sorsdal could have transferred to any number of big-time schools, but instead chose to finish the job he started at William & Mary.

A little more than a year ago, Colby Sorsdal had a decision to make.

The 6-6, 300 pounder had developed into one of the best offensive lineman in college football while playing at William & Mary, a FCS program located in Williamsburg, Virginia. Once a zero-star recruit out of Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh, he was now a bonafide NFL prospect.

Sorsdal was set to graduate from William & Mary with a degree in kinesiology, yet still had one year of NCAA eligibility. He was free to transfer to any program in the country and as long as he enrolled in grad school.

Linemen with his size and his talent are always coveted transfers and there was enough buzz around him that he knew famous Power 5 conference schools wanted him. The allure of big stadiums, national television and top-line competition to showcase himself to the NFL was there.

ACC? SEC? Big Ten? What (and where) did he want?

“I thought about it,” Sorsdal said Wednesday, “but it didn’t take long to realize I wanted to stay.”

Rather than transfer he recommitted to a grad year at William & Mary, known far more for its elite academics than its athletic prowess.

It was a rarity these days, where the transfer portal never stops spinning. Yet even as everyone else was looking for greener grass, Sorsdal, with every reason to leave, decided his side of the fence — on a bucolic, Colonial-era campus, no less — was green enough.

Part of it was a belief he could develop just as well at FCS, where he contends there is still plenty of great competition. “There’s some dogs here,” he said. The bigger part, though, was seeing through a program rebuild. He and his recruiting class signed with a two-win team. Four years later, they felt they were on the cusp of FCS title contention. How do you walk away?

“I wanted to help build a legacy,” he said.

Consider the legacy built. Sorsdal anchored the offensive line on an 11-2 team that reached the FCS quarterfinals, the program’s best season in over a decade.

As for the NFL, well, he was good enough for Detroit to pick him in the fifth round as the 152nd overall selection.

“A dream come true,” Sorsdal said.

William & Mary offensive lineman Colby Sorsdal (65) during an NCAA college football game in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Virginia defeated William & Mary 51-17. (AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff)
Colby Sorsdal arrived at William & Mary in 2018, started every game from his freshman year to his fifth — 46 games in all. (AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff)

It turned out turning down the big time to help make his own team as big time as it could be was enough.

Did staying loyal to William & Mary rather than jump to a high major program for a year hurt him?

“I think it helped,” Sorsdal said. “Every NFL team asked me why I stayed. Every single one. What I told them was, ‘I wanted to finish the job.’ I’ve always had the sense of loyalty that, ‘Hey, these guys gave me a chance. They gave me a scholarship. I owe it to them.’ ”

And the response?

“They loved it,” Sorsdal said. “I think Coach Campbell (in particular).”

That’d be Coach Dan Campbell, the Lions energetic, knee-biting head coach and former NFL tight end. Really though, who wouldn’t love the story of someone who valued being a team captain and bringing victory to his school?

“Colby is that kind of guy,” said William & Mary coach Mike London. “He’s humble but loyal. You try to create a culture and he and some great teammates created it. They thought they had unfinished business.”

Sorsdal wouldn’t have been wrong had he transferred up a level. That’s one path, both for his own college football experience and preparing for the pros. And it’s a good one. It’s just that sticking things out should be considered a good path as well.

“I want to show there is more than one way to do it,” he said.

London is headed into his 15th season as a college head coach. He won a FCS national title at Richmond. He spent six years leading the University of Virginia in the ACC. He’s coached and coached against NFL players. He had no doubt that Sorsdal could attract NFL attention (indeed, an impressive 23 teams would attend W&M's pro day).

“The NFL will find you,” London said. “If you can play, they will find you.”

To help the process Sorsdal spent the summer in Williamsburg, or more specifically in the William & Mary football offices. While working out every day, he learned about the analytics the program uses, studied blocking concepts with the offensive staff and, in turn, secrets to how the defensive line is coached.

“His football IQ is off the charts,” London said. “I talk a lot about the best of both worlds here, because William & Mary is one the best academic schools in the country. Colby represents that.”

Sorsdal’s goal now is to make the Lions roster. He was the only offensive lineman Detroit selected. It assures nothing but suggests a path forward at a position where depth is critical. He knows it’s not about where you get drafted, it’s what you do when you get there. It’s on him now.

“I’m pumped for the chance,” Sorsdal said. “I’m going to bust my ass and try to learn how to become a Detroit Lion.”

We’ll see if he has the talent. It’s already clear he has the loyalty.