Why Fresno State QB Jake Haener returned to the Bulldogs after considering his options in the transfer portal

For eight days it felt like Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener held the college football world in his hands. After finishing the regular season top-10 in the country in total passing yards (3,812), yards per game (317.6) and passing touchdowns (32), the redshirt senior shocked many by announcing he was entering the transfer portal following his four-touchdown win in the Bulldogs’ regular season finale over San Jose State Nov. 30.

An experienced, proven top-10 quarterback who might be instantly available to put a program over the top? You better believe there were plenty of programs interested.

“Right when I got into the transfer portal, my phone just was blowing up left and right,” Haener said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “The whole thing was crazy.”

Still, after a wild eight days as a college football free agent, Haener came out the same way he went in: as a Fresno State Bulldog. So why would Haener enter the transfer portal just to stay at Fresno State? 

History and Connections at Washington

When he first entered the transfer portal, Haener initially considered schools like Nebraska, Oregon and Texas, among others. But another school in the mix seemed like the frontrunner. 

Haener hit the portal one day after Fresno State’s head coach, Kalen DeBoer, announced that he was leaving to become the next head coach at the University of Washington. DeBoer was the coach who took Haener under his teaching and believed in him. And Washington just happened to be where Haener started his college football career.

Haener committed to the Huskies and was in the program for two seasons. After redshirting his first season, he backed up Jake Browning in 2018. Then Washington brought in Jacob Eason to start the following year. He then had to accept the harsh reality that if he wanted to be a starting quarterback, it wasn’t going to be at Washington.

“My goal when I first came out of high school was to be the starting quarterback at the University of Washington,” Haener said. “I remember how excited I was when I first signed. My mom went there and my grandfather went there, and my mom has all this family up there. I just remember all the times we had where it was having the opportunity to be the starting quarterback there, just with all the lineage they've had and all the history that's up there and just that setting, too, being able to play there, just have the opportunity to be in that city. It's a special place.

“[When I entered the transfer portal] I kept thinking about it, and yeah it was really tempting, and it sounded really cool.”

Washington was Haener’s first dream school. Throw in the fact that the coach who oversaw his most successful season just took the job there, and it all seemed to spell out an inevitable return to Washington.

When Haener entered the portal it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he was leaving Fresno State. Though the door was open for him to leave, the move was really more to allow him to weigh all of his options, including the one at Washington.

Once DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who was DeBoer’s OC at Fresno State, left for Washington, they couldn’t speak to Haener due to NCAA rules. The only way Haener could continue that dialogue was if he entered the portal.

Transfer Timeline Issues

Once he entered the transfer portal to weigh all his options, a few other challenges appeared. The first was instant eligibility. When Haener transferred in 2019, the new transfer rule was not in place allowing players to transfer once and become eligible right away. Since he sat out a year at Fresno State, Haener pushed for the NCAA to allow this next transfer to be the one where he could play immediately, but the NCAA told him that would not be the case. That meant if Haener wasn’t transferring as a graduate transfer, he would again have to sit out an entire season — likely not worth it at that point.

But grad transferring also came with its obstacles.

“I had to talk to these three schools and be like OK, I haven't graduated yet because when I transferred from Washington, all my credits didn't go with me,’” Haener said. “I was trying to catch up and re-take classes out of the CSU system because it’s on semesters and Washington was quarters. At the time, I wanted to go somewhere in January and be there for spring ball.

“So, right when I called Washington, I was talking to them about everything. They were like, ‘Yeah, you're not gonna be able to get here until July.’ And I was like, ‘July is way too late for me. I'm not doing July.’ I needed to be somewhere in January if I was gonna go somewhere. Nebraska said we can get you here at the end of January, and I was like, “I just don't know how that correlates.”

As if that wasn’t enough, a potential NFL jump wasn’t out of the question anymore.

“I was also trying to decide, at that time, if I should just go to the draft because I got a Reese's Senior Bowl invite,” Haener said. “Not a lot of people knew that I was still trying to contemplate between the Senior Bowl, going to Washington or staying [at Fresno]. I almost was like, ‘Let's just go to the NFL and stop worrying about all this stuff.’ But something in my heart told me that I just wanted to play one more year of college football, develop one more year.”

With the NFL on hold, it was back to the decision board: Where would Haener suit up for his final year of development? By that time, Haener was down to his final two: Fresno and Washington.

Tedford Returns, Haener Stays

For some extra clarity on what felt like a pivotal moment in his football career and his life in general, Haener did what many do when facing a decision of similar magnitude: call up people whose opinions you trust the most, open up a good bottle of wine, and talk it out.

“At one point I was like, screw it,” Haener said. “I called DeBoer. I was like, “I’m just going to Washington. I don't care if I have to get there in July. It is what it is. I just want this to be done, let’s move on and go from there.”

But just over one week into Haener’s time in the transfer portal, a major domino fell that made all the difference in the world when it came to his decision. On Dec. 8, Fresno State announced that Jeff Tedford would once again be the head coach of the Bulldogs. This was monumental in Haener’s decision — Tedford was the coach he actually committed to as a transfer player back in 2019. But Haener never had the chance to play under Tedford, as the former coach stepped away for health reasons.

It felt like if Fresno hired any other coach other than Tedford, Haener would have transferred. 

“I had a change of heart when Tedford called me,” Haener said. “He said, ‘Listen, we can just kind of put all this down to the side. I want you to stay here.’ I was just like, ‘You know what, I came here for Jeff. I'm not missing any time. I'll get to play in the bowl game and do all that.’ So I ended up just staying here, playing in the bowl game and the rest is kind of history.”

After all that, Haener walked out of the tunnel on Dec. 18 for Fresno State’s bowl game, threw for 286 yards and a touchdown and ended the season the right way — on a win. 

Now, he’s more than at peace with the decision – he’s more motivated than ever.

“At the end of the day, I’ve got my dudes here,” Haener said. “I’ve got my playmakers. I’ve got Coach Teddy back, the guy who I came here for. Kirby’s still here. There's just a lot that I had here.”

On the day he removed his name from the transfer portal, Haener posted a message on Instagram to Fresno State fans. He wasn’t naive — he knew that by considering another program just when the getting was good, he fractured some of the trust and the love between them. Though Haener knew he was simply being as thorough as possible with his life and career, he knew others wouldn’t see it that way — or that they couldn’t from their point of view. So he wanted to be transparent. He wanted to be honest.

“I just wanted to be transparent and open about what my thought process was,” Haener said. “I want my name to have a legacy there and I want people to see me as one of the best quarterbacks to ever go through that place. We just wanted to be open, talk to them about my decision. Let them see what my timeline was and my timeframe of trying to make a decision. We literally just turned the camera on and that was the whole thing you saw. That was the first take. That was what just came to my mind organically.”

“These fans of Fresno have been really good to me and they love me for who I am, what I've done and what I'm going to continue to do,” Haener said. “I just thought about it and was like you know what? They might be a little angry at me right now, but after I go out there and it's September and start chucking the ball around, everything's going to be fine again.”

By opening himself up in such a way, Haener assured anyone and 

everyone at Fresno State — and around the college football world — that being a great Fresno State quarterback is the legacy he wants to leave.

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