Monday, January 18, 2010

I've got the early-entry blues

Almost exactly a year ago, I titled a post "Mass exodus" when it became clear that just about every relevant draft-eligible underclassman was headed to the NFL. This obviously was written before Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow all decided to return, which led to the easiest decision ever for the guys who decide which players to put on the covers of college football preview magazines.

In all, 46 underclassmen declared, including four of the top 10 rushers and six of the top 14 receivers (statistically) as well as guys like Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Knowshon Moreno and Percy Harvin.

This year isn't really any worse numerically -- 53 underclassmen declared by Friday's deadline -- but I guess it seems a lot worse because of what's left (or, more specifically, what isn't left). Unless I'm missing somebody, Mark Ingram is pretty much the only truly elite player returning next year -- and that's probably because he's a sophomore, so he doesn't have a choice. The only other first-team AFCA All-American coming back is Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, who's very good but not exactly Ray Lewis. After that is ... ummm ... Kellen Moore? Jake Locker? Terrelle Pryor? Case Keenum? Jacquizz Rodgers? All are good players, obviously, but none are dominant. The 2010 season won't be anything like the 2009 one, where there were several top teams loaded with upperclassman talent.

So which teams lost the most? Off the top of my head: Oklahoma, Florida, Notre Dame, USC and Georgia Tech (in no particular order).

Oklahoma is the team we never knew (at least on offense), and now Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and Gerald McCoy -- all probable first-round picks -- are off to the NFL, as is cornerback Dominique Franks. The one positive: Since Bradford and Gresham both missed basically the entire season, the offense has been preparing for life without them for a while. For all intents and purposes, they were gone a year ago. Oklahoma should be fine going forward with Landry Jones, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Broyles. The defense also got some good news with the return of defensive tackle Adrian Taylor and linebacker Travis Lewis.

In terms of volume, Florida was hit harder than anybody: Tight end Aaron Hernandez, center Maurkice Pouncey, cornerback Joe Haden, safety Major Wright and defensive end Carlos Dunlap are all headed for greener pastures (literally). None of those losses individually is as devastating as Tim Tebow's graduation, but that's FIVE potential All-Americans who would have been the core of next year's team minus Tebow, Brandon Spikes and a bunch of other senior starters. I guess a lot of turnover is inevitable the year after you return 21 of 22 starters, but yikes.

Notre Dame ... obviously. Passing was the only thing ND did well last year (and they did it very well), but that'll be a little harder without Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate. Seeing as how Brian Kelly can turn fourth-stringers like Tony Pike into Heisman candidates, he probably could have done OK with Clausen. Tate's a big loss too, but Michael Floyd's a hell of a fill-in. Keep in mind that he had 13 catches for 358 yards and five touchdowns in the first two and a half games this year before breaking his collarbone; he might be better next year than Tate was last year.

USC is kind of in a similar situation to Florida: Each of the guys leaving early -- Joe McKnight, Damian Williams and Everson Griffen -- could be replaced individually, but the overall effect is pretty devastating when combined with the departing seniors such as Taylor Mays, Jeff Byers, Anthony McCoy and Josh Pinkard. And remember all those prep All-American running backs USC accumulated? McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable ... the only guy left now is Gable, who's been surpassed on the depth chart by Allen Bradford. Next year's USC team is gonna be just as inexperienced as last year's was, so maybe Pete Carroll was smart to get out when he did.

Georgia Tech's losses have gone a little under the radar, but they really got hit hard. Jonathan Dwyer is a beast of a running back and had almost 1,500 yards rushing this season, and for a team that really only plays one receiver, Demaryius Thomas and his 46 catches (38 more than anyone else on the roster) will be missed. Oh, and then there's Derrick Morgan, who led the ACC with 12.5 sacks and will likely go in the top 10 overall, and safety Morgan Burnett, a second-team All-ACC pick. If Georgia Tech goes back to the Orange Bowl next year, Paul Johnson should be given a lifetime contract extension.

Other thoughts on guys entering the draft:

* Jevan Snead probably should have stuck around at Ole Miss another year. I can't blame him for leaving since he had already earned his degree, but he had a terrible year (54.4% passing, 20 TDs and 20 interceptions) and is no better than the fourth- or fifth-best QB coming out. A good senior season would have put him in competition with Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett to be the first quarterback drafted in 2011.

* Jake Locker, on the other hand, made the right call. He probably would have gone in the top half of the first round (Todd McShay was in love with him) because of his arm strength and athleticism, but he's got a lot to learn in the passing game. Another year under Steve Sarkisian with a not-that-terrible team should help a lot and give him a good shot at being the No. 1 overall pick next year.

* Toby Gerhart -- and any other power running back, for that matter -- absolutely had to leave school. You can't run with that sort of violent style and not expect to get hurt occasionally. And after racking up 341 carries this year, every similar season in college would just be taking away a season in the NFL. I guess we'll find out how good Andrew Luck really is next year; I know he's talented, but there's a big difference between being a complementary piece to a star running back and being THE guy.

* You'll hear a lot about how Arrelious Benn was a disappointment as a junior, but anyone who watched Illinois will tell you that if Juice Williams had any connections between his arm and his brain, Benn would have put up about 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. That's why I was a little surprised when Benn declared; he easily could have had a huge senior year with pocket passer Jacob Charest taking over at QB, pushing him into the top 10 or 15 overall. Still, he's an absolute physical freak who should be an immediate starter in the NFL.

* Dez Bryant, Jahvid Best, Eric Berry and Rolando McClain had easy decisions. When you're a sure-fire first-round pick (especially this year, with a lockout and rookie salary cap looming on the horizon), you've gotta consider everything that could go wrong and strike while the iron's hot. I can't blame any of those guys for jumping at the money ... it just sucks for us fans to know that we're missing out on a year of awesomeness.

Here's the full list of underclassmen leaving early:

Kevin Basped, DE Nevada
Arrelious Benn, WR Illinois
Eric Berry, S Tennessee
Jahvid Best, RB California
Navarro Bowman, LB Penn State
Sam Bradford, QB Oklahoma
Dezmon Briscoe, WR Kansas
Antonio Brown, WR Central Michigan
Dez Bryant, WR Oklahoma State
Bryan Bulaga, OT Iowa
Morgan Burnett, S Georgia Tech
Bruce Campbell, OT Maryland
Jimmy Clausen, QB Notre Dame
Rennie Curran, LB Georgia
Anthony Davis, OT Rutgers
Carlos Dunlap, DE Florida
Jonathan Dwyer, RB Georgia Tech
Dominique Franks, CB Oklahoma
Clifton Geathers, DE South Carolina
Thaddeus Gibson, OLB Ohio State
Jermaine Gresham, TE Oklahoma
Everson Griffen, DE USC
Rob Gronkowski, TE Arizona
Joe Haden, CB Florida
Aaron Hernandez, TE Florida
Kareem Jackson, CB Alabama
Chad Jones, S LSU
Reshad Jones, S Georgia
Linval Joseph, DT East Carolina
Darius Marshall, RB Marshall
Ryan Mathews, RB Fresno State
Rolando McClain, LB Alabama
Gerald McCoy, DT Oklahoma
Joe McKnight, RB USC
Shawnbrey McNeal, RB SMU
Carlton Mitchell, WR South Florida
Joshua Moore, DB Kansas State
Derrick Morgan, DE Georgia Tech
Jerell Norton, DB Arkansas
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE South Florida
Maurkice Pouncey, C Florida
Brian Price, DT UCLA
Dennis Rogan, DB Tennessee
Jevan Snead, QB Ole Miss
Amari Spievey, CB Iowa
Golden Tate, WR Notre Dame
Demaryius Thomas, WR Georgia Tech
Earl Thomas, S Texas
Donovan Warren, CB Michigan
Damian Williams, WR USC
Mike Williams, WR Syracuse
Jason Worilds, DE Virginia Tech
Major Wright, S Florida

Not included on that list are the following players who had a redshirt year available but chose not to pursue it (these guys aren't considered early entries by the NFL):

Toney Baker, RB NC State
Toby Gerhart, RB Stanford
Abe Koroma, DT Western Illinois
Blaze Soares, LB Hawaii

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