Johnny Vy/AP

Why an underclassmen scouting combine could help players make more informed draft decisions

By Andy Staples
February 22, 2016

A day before his team played for the national title in Glendale, Ariz., Alabama coach Nick Saban remained fired up about the same topic he had harped on six months earlier at SEC Media Days. After Clemson coach Dabo Swinney answered a reporter's question about some of the Tigers' best underclassmen mulling whether to stay in college or to enter the 2016 NFL draft, Saban chimed in with his own take.

"Could I make a comment about that? Because I'm going to call Dabo after the game, and last year after our game against Ohio State I tried to develop a little energy from college coaches who had players that are in this situation you just asked about, and the NFL moved the draft back. I wish they'd move the declare date back," Saban said. "I wish they'd make a rule that says you can't even give a player what his draft status is from the NFL [draft advisory] committee until they've finished their competition as a college player, so that you don't put them and their family in this situation where there's a big timing issue relative to competition.

"Now, if you finished your season on Dec. 6, you can make a decision. If you're finishing it on Jan. 11, then you get the information after that, but you have a significant amount of time to make that decision when you finish playing so you can stay focused on what you need to do to play well. Because it benefits all these players to play well in the game."

Saban's idea had merit last year, and it still does. If the NFL is going to hold the draft in late April, there is no reason to force college underclassmen to decide whether they want to renounce their NCAA eligibility by mid-January. As former college players head to Indianapolis for this week's NFL scouting combine, let's examine some potentially better ways to handle this decision-making process.

The simplest answer would be for the NFL to take Saban's suggestion, which wouldn't really harm anyone and wouldn't require any rule change on the NCAA side. Move the declaration date until the end of January. Most players would decide well before then, but players whose teams are in the national championship could focus on that game without the pressure of making a final decision a day or two afterward.

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Still, while that system would be fine, it wouldn't help college players make more informed decisions. An underclassman who is projected as a first- or second-rounder should likely leave early unless he has a chance to jump into the first half of the first round with a strong final season on campus. Players who have already obtained degrees and probably can't raise their draft stock because they've hit their physical ceiling should also leave. Meanwhile, the players who could stand to make more NFL money by staying should consider another year in college. Players who project at the low end of a draft and who could earn a degree before they enter the NFL's sign-cut-sign spin cycle should also consider staying so they have a fallback option in case their pro careers are short or nonexistent.

The current evaluation process for underclassmen doesn't get this specific. A player receives a grade of first round, second round or stay in school.

However, there is no good reason why underclassmen can't receive a more thorough evaluation before they renounce their eligibility. The NCAA is now allowing basketball players to work out for NBA teams and attend the pre-draft combine and still come back to school so long as they don't accept money and don't sign with an agent. It would be relatively simple to pass a similar rule in football if the NFL were willing to relax its date about when underclassmen could enter the draft. That way, a player on the fence could work out at the NFL combine and see how he truly stacks up. If he isn't invited to the combine that would send a fairly clear message that NFL evaluators don't consider him ready.

Of course, there are problems with this solution, too. Currently, draft prospects go through combine-specific training programs to prepare them for the exact drills they will see in Indianapolis. These programs are not cheap. They can cost between $50,000 and $100,000, and players' agents foot the bill and get reimbursed when the player signs his contract. NCAA rules wouldn't allow an underclassman who is considering a return to receive something of that value from an agent. So, the player or his family would have to choose between paying for the training or working out with his college team and hoping for the best at the combine. Also, that process would extend past National Signing Day. Though it wouldn't be tough at every school, coaches at a program such as Clemson—which had seven players leave early this year—could have no idea how many free scholarships they would actually have for the next season.

Alex Hammond, West Virginia's associate athletic director for football operations, has an idea that would allow players to make informed decisions in a more timely fashion for all parties. It would require cooperation from the NCAA and NFL, but it might be best for everyone involved. Hammond's idea is for the NFL to hold an invite-only, underclassmen-only combine the week after the national title game. Hammond, who lived in Indianapolis from 2009 to '11 while working as an NCAA associate director of amateurism, suggested the city that currently hosts the combine. I'd suggest New Orleans, where scouts would be thrilled to eat, drink and evaluate. Or put it in Atlanta or Dallas, so everyone could take a direct flight. Or hold it in Mobile, Ala., before Senior Bowl practices begin. Every NFL team already has scouts in town; what would be the harm in a one- or two-day meat market that allows teams to put underclassmen through drills and interview them?

"The most powerful entity in all this is the NFL," Hammond said. "The information coming directly from the NFL holds so much more value than coming from me or the coaching staff or via a piece of paper. The way it is now, there are biases, and kids know there are biases. The one entity that is going to tell them the true, accurate representation of where they are is going to be the NFL." Unlike agents or college coaches, NFL teams have no incentive to sugarcoat their evaluations or make them exceedingly harsh. They will to fill 53 roster spots per team no matter who enters the draft.

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Why would the NFL agree to something like this? Teams want this information. During a given season, NFL scouts routinely quiz college coaches about their seniors, but the scouts and coaches don't discuss juniors unless the coaches volunteer to discuss them. And most won't discuss all of their juniors if they think some aren't locks to go pro but could help their program the following year. NFL teams analyze potential draft picks endlessly; they would probably be willing to add a day or two to the scouting calendar to get an up-close look at the nation's best juniors.

If Hammond's idea were implemented, the underclassmen would compete only against one another and not against players whose agents have paid big bucks for combine training. After the underclassmen combine, NFL teams could anonymously submit grades for players to the league. The league could then pass these findings back to the players. The ones who score low might realize there is some benefit to returning to school. The ones who score high could be confident in their choice to leave school early. Meanwhile, NFL teams would have a head start on scouting the players who choose to plunge into the draft pool.

Hammond isn't suggesting a combine open to all underclassmen who want an evaluation. In his thinking, NFL teams would choose the underclassmen they want to see. Those who aren't chosen would hopefully take the hint and remain in college. A player who was not invited to the underclassmen combine or who received a harsh evaluation at it wouldn't be likely to believe an agent who tells him he might be a second-rounder. "It would be a very easy sell for a school," Hammond said.

Like most people who work in college football, Hammond simply wants players to have the most accurate information before they make a decision. College coaches aren't going to try to prevent first-rounders from leaving; a first-rounder is an excellent advertisement to recruits. It's the players who are deciding whether to be a seventh-rounder or a seventh-rounder with a degree who the coaches would like to bring back. With a better evaluation system for juniors and a better timetable to make the decision, such a player would have the best chance to make the most informed choice.

A random ranking

Thirty years ago, two songs off the Rocky IV soundtrack (James Brown's "Living In America" and Survivor's "Burning Heart") were still tearing up the charts. Today, we'll rank the songs from the soundtrack of the film that ended the Cold War.

1. "Training Montage" — Vince DiCola. Young Andy had this synth-heavy masterpiece on the mixtape he threw in his Walkman for training runs. In the movie, it plays as Rocky trains in the snow and Drago trains in a state-of-the-art gym.

2. "Eye of the Tiger" — Survivor. Sure, this was on the Rocky III soundtrack. But when you've got a winner, you beat it into the ground. This, by the way, is also the motto of the Rocky franchise.

3. "Living in America" — James Brown. Musically speaking, this is the best song on the soundtrack. But some of us remain traumatized because of what happened to Apollo Creed after it played.

4. "Burning Heart" — Survivor. It plays as Rocky arrives in the Soviet Union and is led to the sparse cabin he requested. Paulie is not amused.

5. "War" — Vince DiCola. This instrumental plays during the Rocky-Drago match. Just as Rocky defeats the stand-in for Communism who would go on to play He-Man two years later, the song brings back Rocky's theme from the original movie. If he can change, and they can change, we all can change.

6. "No Easy Way Out" — Robert Tepper. There are no easy ways out. Nor are there any shortcuts home.

7. "Double or Nothing" — Kenny Loggins and Gladys Knight. A little-known federal law was passed in 1985 that all movie soundtracks must contain A) one Kenny Loggins song and B) one duet. The filmmakers were nothing if not legally compliant.

8. "One Way Street" — Go West. These guys hadn't hit their soundtrack stride yet. Five years later, they would get a call. The voice on the line would say, "We need a song that makes a sequence featuring only Richard Gere driving seem cool." And "King of Wishful Thinking" was born.

9. "Man Against The World" — Survivor. Hey, they can't all be "Eye of the Tiger."

10. "The Sweetest Victory" — Touch. On a soundtrack that falls into every '80s musical trap, this song manages to be the most '80s of them all.

11. "Hearts on Fire" — John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Peter Cetera wrote "Glory of Love" for Rocky IV. The studio turned it down in favor of this. Some sins are unforgivable.

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1. The post-National Signing Day coaching carousel had mostly come to a halt last week when the behind-the-scenes staff carousel began spinning. Some critical cogs in their schools' recruiting operations changed addresses.

The biggest move was Austin Thomas leaving LSU to become the assistant athletic director for football at USC. Thomas served as personnel director at LSU. That title means different things at different places, but in this case it meant organizing the Tigers' recruiting operation from Baton Rouge while the coaching staff handled things on the road. That highly rated class LSU just signed even though some in power tried to fire coach Les Miles in November? Thomas played a huge role in bringing it class home. He even got a chance to hit the road when Miles shifted him to one of LSU's nine assistant spots following the departure of running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, who became the head coach at UT-San Antonio.

Patrick Suddes, Arizona State's assistant athletic director for recruiting, left to become the player personnel director at Auburn. Suddes worked inside the recruiting machine at Alabama for seven years before leaving in 2013 to go to Texas. He left for Arizona State not long after Mack Brown stepped down and Charlie Strong was hired. He probably won't need long to get back up to speed in the SEC.

So, what exactly do these guys do? The best description is they act like the college version of NFL general managers. They don't have the power of NFL GMs, since head coaches retain final approval on scholarship allocation. But they organize the scouting and recruiting of prospects by the coaches. This might seem odd because NCAA rules limit the evaluation of recruits to just the head coach and his nine assistants. However, those rules are only enforceable from an in-person standpoint. The NCAA can't ban people from having an opinion of a clip they watched on Hudl, and it can't enforce a ban on those people sharing that opinion with their coworkers (the coaches). How could the NCAA prove a player personnel director's recommendation led to a scholarship offer? It can't. That's why the top programs all have someone who doesn't own a whistle but plays a major role in how the roster is built.

2. NCAA president Mark Emmert was asked about the Michigan football team's spring break plans. "There's a difference between not being prohibited and being O.K.," Emmert told Josh Kendall of The State newspaper during the former's visit to Columbia, S.C.

In other words, expect the Wolverines to proceed with their plan to hold several practices at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Then expect schools to pass a rule at some point over the next 12 months to prohibit it moving forward. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likely won't be able to rally enough support from programs that want to copy him to keep such a rule from getting passed.

That probably isn't the case with satellite camps (when a school's coaches leave campus to work someone else's summer camp in a recruit-rich environment). While the ACC and SEC, which have rules against coaches working camps more than 50 miles from their own campus, oppose the practice, they likely don't have the votes nationwide to get it banned. SEC coaches voted last year to drop their rule if their efforts to pass a national rule failed.

3. Here's the best argument for not caring whether Michigan holds practices in Florida this spring.

4. In other Harbaugh news, he will bring Baylor's Art Briles to campus as the keynote speaker at the Wolverines' coaching clinic next month. Jim's brother, John, will also bring the entire Baltimore Ravens staff. Former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer will speak as well.

5. Tennessee, already facing a federal lawsuit regarding how the school and athletic department handled accusations of rape against former football players, took more legal hits. Former Volunteers center Mack Crowder, who finished his career last season, was arrested last week in a sting operation and accused of attempting to solicit sex in online conversations with an officer posing as a 14-year-old girl.

On Wednesday, juco transfer defensive tackle Alexis Johnson was charged with one count of aggravated assault and one count of false imprisonment after a woman accused him of choking her. A witness told police it appeared Johnson was punching the woman. Johnson is indefinitely suspended from the team.

6. Missouri interim chancellor Hank Foley told a state joint committee on education last week that "there will be a very different response" if the football team attempts another boycott like the one it threatened in November. The implication is that players will lose their scholarships in such a case, but Foley must not realize that would be a colossally stupid move for the school if the group includes A) the entire team or B) all of its best players.

After a Missouri lawmaker proposed a hilariously naive bill in the wake of the boycott threat, I explained how the NCAA's scholarship limits—which were created by the schools—combined with the NCAA legal defense in antitrust suits would make it impossible from a practical standpoint for any school to strip a large group of players of their scholarships all at once. If Foley or an administrator at some other school wants to turn his football team into the Texas State Fighting Armadillos from Necessary Roughness, then he can go ahead. But Scott Bakula and Sinbad aren't walking through that door. That's why the players at any school shouldn't be scared of the administration. If enough players participate in a boycott, there is nothing the administration can do that won't also negatively affect said administrators.

Even if the players lost their scholarships, most of them would get scholarships to play for other schools. The NCAA and the schools unwittingly handed the players this power, and the people in charge can't do much in the short term to shift the balance back.

Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades seems to understand this. In that same Columbia Tribune story linked above, Rhoades mentioned that Mizzou's players are expected to practice, play and "be responsible socially." But he softened the rhetoric with this: "For us, this is about creating an environment where our student-athletes never feel that they have to go to that measure," Rhoades said, according to the paper.

Simply put: Rhoades grasps that the administration has to keep the players happy, because he would only have two options if they get mad enough to boycott. He could back down and be rendered toothless, or he could yank their scholarships and doom the football program to years of lopsided losses—which would ultimately get Rhoades fired. He wouldn't be able to win, and he knows it.

7. Gehrig Dieter, the prolific receiver who will transfer to Alabama after graduating from Bowling Green, will wear No. 2 for the Crimson Tide. The last guy who wore that number did O.K. for himself.

8. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill will play one more season in Provo. The fifth-year senior has had three of the last four seasons cut short by injury. Hopefully, he'll get a chance to finish healthy.

9. Devon Gales, the Southern receiver who was paralyzed during a game at Georgia in September, will leave an Atlanta rehab facility this week and head home to Baton Rouge, Seth Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week. Before Gales leaves Georgia, he will go back to Athens to thank the hospital workers who helped him after his injury. He will also visit with Georgia athletes, who have welcomed Gales as one of their own. Bulldogs trainer Ron Courson has been visiting Gales in Atlanta about once a week. "He's a part of our family," Courson told Emerson. "We want to keep him supported."

10. What does the USC drumline do when there are no halftime shows? It plays with Questlove on The Tonight Show.

What's eating Andy?

Some people just want to watch the world burn.

What's Andy eating?

I parked behind Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa and considered the red flags—starting with that name.

It's too precious. Barbecue joints are supposed to have simple names. Not one-word hipster restaurant names like Grease or Swine or Cattle. Utilitarian names that might honor the pitmaster or a close relative. Pig Floyd's is in the Mills 50 district of Orlando. It's about 20 minutes from where a teenaged Andy devoured ribs, pork and chicken at a place called Uncle Jones BBQ. That's a barbecue joint name, and it has followed its cooks from a truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant to—according to recent reports—a Chevron station. This new place's name had so much going on. So did the menu. Butter chicken tacos? Barbecue Bahn Mi? Were the proprietors dressing up their meat in the culinary garb of other cultures to hide some inadequacy?

But Pig Floyd's has stationed something behind the restaurant to calm any such fears. It has a wood pile.

Smoking with real wood instead of charcoal, gas or pellets doesn't guarantee great barbecue—it's basically the price of admission in Texas and the Carolinas—but it does signal that the owners care deeply about the meat. Dress it up however you like, but nothing can save a place with lousy meat.

So, before I tried any of the internationally inspired dishes, I ate a half rack of ribs. Pig Floyd's uses ribs trimmed St. Louis-style. These can be confused for babyback ribs, but they're spare ribs—meatier and more marbled than babyback—that have had the sternum and flap removed. Those pieces probably became rib tips at another restaurant. Pig Floyd's sauces the ribs before serving, but not in the way I have decried in this space before. Instead of drowning the meat in sauce after it's cooked like terrible barbecue restaurants do, Pig Floyd's applies a thin layer of sauce in the final stages of the cook to create what amounts to a candied glaze. This would still be too much for a true barbecue purist, but it produces a sweet-savory combo that doesn't overpower the meat.

Andy Staples

The meat, meanwhile, was perfect. It pulled clean off the bone with a gentle tug. It was moist and smoky. Any qualms I had before tasting those ribs dissolved and were replaced by excitement. At a place like this, the meat is the equivalent of a football team's offensive line. If it's terrible, it doesn't matter how good the skill players are. They're going nowhere. But if the line is great, it elevates everyone else. Those ribs suggested Pig Floyd's had the equivalent of the 2011 Alabama offensive line blowing open holes for the other dishes.

The place fuses that meat with various Vietnamese (Bahn Mi), Indian (butter chicken) or Argentinian (the Matahambre sandwich features chimichurri) flavors. I've written before that my dream lunch spot would be a Cuban barbecue joint. Pig Floyd's has the maduros (fried ripe plantains) and yuca fries as sides. All it's missing is the pulled pork Cuban sandwich, but the idea of sending good barbecue on a world tour laps my far less ambitious idea.

I've never eaten butter chicken in India, so I can't guarantee the authenticity of the butter chicken in the butter chicken taco. What I can guarantee, though, is that Pig Floyd's version is delicious. The depth of the butter cuts the bite of the spices, and it melds wonderfully with the smoky chicken. I've also never eaten pork belly in southeast Asia, but I recommend the flavor of the pork belly taco and its lively citrus peanut slaw.

I have, however, eaten good barbecue across this country. And I'm quite comfortable vouching for the authenticity of the meat at Pig Floyd's. While most of those places are content to get the meat right, Pig Floyd's uses it as the foundation for a round-the-world vacation.

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