SEC benefits from early exodus of NFL talent
It is one of the hazards of success. The better you play, the more of your players who want to move on to the NFL as quickly as possible.
So far this winter, 31 SEC juniors have declared themselves eligible for the NFL draft, a staggering number by anyone’s count, but one that's even more astonishing when noting the following: Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kentucky had zero defections.
In fact, when you add the total number of juniors waving goodbye to their college careers with seniors who have already played their final downs, it's the equivalent of an entire team vanishing from the conference.
Even so, very few of the announcements came as a surprise. Eddie Lacy, Dee Milliner and D.J. Fluker, three junior starters from Alabama, had the full support of coach Nick Saban when announcing their draft eligibility.
"I appreciate what they’ve done for the University of Alabama, but we also acknowledge the fact that from a business standpoint, these guys are making good decisions about their future and what they can do," Saban said last week.
Fluker, a mammoth offensive tackle, will be a first-round pick. Lacy and Milliner are borderline second-rounders.
"We don’t have a lot of years to play this position, so you have to go while you can," Lacy said. "I would love to come back. (Alabama) is a great place. We have the best fans, but I really didn’t want to risk coming back and not having such a good year or maybe even risking injury. I’ve had my share of injuries this year. I feel like you’ve got to get out while you can."
A lot of players seem to share Lacy’s Get out while you can attitude, even though they all profess love and affection for the schools they're leaving behind.
Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore said in a statement, "Today is a sad moment and a happy moment. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL, but I've loved my time representing the 12th Man and (being) with my teammates at Texas A&M. Wherever I go, I will always be an Aggie at heart."
The Aggies also lost offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, but it is Moore who will be most sorely missed by Coach Kevin Sumlin. A smaller version of Jadeveon Clowney, Moore kept opposing quarterbacks off balance all season, accounting for 57 solo tackles, including 21 for negative yardage, and 12.5 sacks. Still, the coach couldn’t be happier.
"(Damontre) has been a great representative of Texas A&M University, as a student and a football player, and I know he will continue to be an ambassador for the university in everything he does in the future," Sumlin said in a statement.
All the coaches said wonderful things about their players, although some took more wistful tones than others. Saban could afford to be magnanimous toward his guys, especially Lacy, because he has a T.J. Yeldon ready to step in at tailback and another bumper crop of recruits waiting to sign on the dotted line.
Mark Richt, on the other hand, will need to scramble as Georgia lost junior linebackers Jarvis Jones (a probable high first-round pick) and Alec Ogletree, and nose tackle Kwame Geathers, who announced his draft intentions late.
"I think I did everything at Georgia that I wanted to do,” Geathers told the website Dawgs247. “I felt like it was time to get a jump on the next step in my career."
Tennessee’s new head coach Butch Jones has his hands full with quarterback Tyler Bray, receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore coming out early.
Florida will also take a hit. Three of its top defenders are leaving early -- safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jelani Jenkins -- along with tight end Jordan Reed.
But the biggest evacuation, not just in the conference but in the country, came in Baton Rouge where LSU had a whopping 10 juniors hang up the purple and call it a career. Among them were two of the best defensive ends in the conference, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, along with linebacker Kevin Minter, cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Eric Reid. Throw in defensive tackle Bennie Logan and this constitutes the bulk of Les Miles’ defense.
"I like the fact that we send guys to the NFL early and recruit guys with the potential to go to the NFL early," Miles said once it became obvious that LSU would lead the nation in early departures.
"I want every guy that I recruit to have the opportunity to play a long, extended career in the NFL. I'd like to develop them…That’s one of the things that happens when you recruit talented players."
Not every choice is a wise one -- NFL experts differ on whether several of this year’s crop could have benefited from another year in college -- but one fact should come as no surprise:
When it comes to underclassmen entering the draft early, the conference that has dominated college football for the better part of a decade continues to lead the way.