WESTWOOD, Calif. – UCLA Coach Jim Mora strolled over to his post practice media scrum on Tuesday morning and told reporters to get out their smart phones. He had some big news coming.
Mora waited patiently for the tweeters to open their apps and then relayed a surprising development—star junior linebacker Myles Jack has withdrawn from school and will be declaring for the NFL Draft.
Frantic typing followed, prompting Mora to crack a smile: “This world,” he said, “has changed.” Mora was speaking about the evolution of the media. But his joke doubled as a commentary on the hurry-up cycle of a new era of college football players. Jack’s jump to the NFL from UCLA after just two years and three games reinforces that players who come to campus as highly regarded recruits and live up to their billing appear to be fleeing college earlier than ever.
Jack’s situation is unique because he tore his meniscus in a UCLA practice on Sept. 22 and is out for the season. The purpose of his withdrawal from school is to focus on rehab, as there’s a four-to-six month recovery for the injury. Mora said he expects Jack to be ready for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February. While Mora made it clear Tuesday morning that he adores Jack and thinks he’ll be a solid NFL player, Mora also called Jack’s decision “very risky.”
“I think he’ll get drafted pretty high,” Mora told SI.com later on Tuesday morning. “I don’t know how high. But I know how general managers and coaches are. If there’s a question on a guy and you’re about to spend a lot of money on him, you let the next guy take him.”
There are myriad factors that go into a decision like Jack’s—medical, generational, monetary and certainly personal. His choice could be interpreted as a sign of changing times, too. There were a record 98 early entrants in the 2014 NFL Draft, 37 of which went undrafted. That number shrunk to 74 last year. But after 52 players declared in 2006, the number of early entrants increased six straight years.
The life span of a college football star is evolving to match the attention span of millennials, morphing into more of a Snapchat.
Mora said Jack came to him on Sunday with the news. While Mora said he supports Jack, who he’s known since age 12, he also made clear that he’s concerned with how NFL teams will view his limited sample size of film. Jack started 11 games at linebacker as a freshman, 13 games as a sophomore and moonlighted as a tailback in both seasons. He won the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the year in 2013, was a second-team All-Pac-12 player last year at linebacker and entered this season as a Sports Illustrated first-team All-America.
“I hope he’s put enough out there where they can get a true evaluation,” Mora said. “If they can’t get a true evaluation of you, they’re not going to take you. They’re just not. They don’t take on speculation. Not in the first round at least. Maybe in later rounds they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ll take a flyer.’ There’s no such thing as an NFL GM who’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ll take a flyer on a first rounder.’ I’ve never heard that.”
There’s one reasonable comparison to Jack’s short stint in college. The NFL scouts who spoke with SI.com on Tuesday pointed to tight end Rob Gronkowski at Arizona. Gronkowski missed his entire true junior season at Arizona in 2009 with a back injury and still declared for the 2010 Draft. The Patriots took a calculated risk by selecting him in the second round that year, one of the great personnel moves of this generation. But this type of decision is nonetheless rare. As one scout said of Jack’s decision, “Wow, that’s early.”
Physically, there were few questions about Jack before the injury, as he was No. 10 on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s Big Board published Sept. 10. Jack is 6’1” and 245 pounds, athletic enough to play on both sides of the ball and should be coveted by NFL teams for his ability to cover opposing slot receivers. Mora conceded that Jack is a special enough talent that he expected Jack to declare for the NFL Draft if he played a full season for the Bruins. But Mora is unsure if this is the right decision, given there are only three games of film on Jack as a junior.
“That’s all the tape they have on you your junior year,” Mora said. “I’ve been in 25 draft rooms, and I’ve never seen a guy taken off of that. Never. I worry about that for him. I have a very personal relationship with Myles and his family. I obviously want to the best for him.”
Jack wasn’t available for comment on Tuesday. UCLA officials said he’s made it clear to them that he’d like to come back during the summers and continue toward his degree in anthropology. Jack and his family have clearly thought ahead. Yahoo Sports reported in April of 2014 that Jack took out a disability insurance policy in excess of $5 million. He's believed to be the true first sophomore to do this.
It will be interesting to see if Jack, and others who’ve perpetuated the early entry trend in recent years, mention the greater risk now associated with head injuries as a reason for their departures. Football players have a limited shelf life and there’s been overwhelming evidence of the risk now associated with the game. Could the new attitude be, “If you’re going to risk your brain, you may as well get paid to do it”?
Mora was asked about dazzling LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, whose next few months will likely be filled with speculation and chatter that he should skip his junior season to preserve his body for the NFL. “He’s not going to do that,” Mora said of Fournette. “It didn’t seem to hurt Jadeveon Clowney.”
Mora added about Jack: “It’s just a matter of do the scouts have enough game film to go off of. They may, they may not. I just know that I’ve never seen it. It’s kind of a new world for me.” And for college football, Jack’s departure can be taken as the sign of a changing world. As this generation’s attention spans shrink, college football careers appear to be following in line.