Jackson's injury shows risk of returning for senior year

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) There's not always a right-or-wrong answer to the question of whether they should stay or go, even with hindsight.

Just ask Alabama senior safety Eddie Jackson, the Crimson Tide's All-American safety who elected to bypass the NFL draft following last season and return for his senior year - only to have that season cut short by a broken left leg last week.

''He's done a fantastic job for us, and I'm just sick for him and his family,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''I hate it that it's one of the things about sports, all sports, and that we have to deal with sometimes as injuries.''

Across the Southeastern Conference and the nation, players like Jackson weigh the benefits and risks of leaving school early.

For some, the decision is largely a result of an immediate need for financial stability, for themselves and their families. Others see a potentially greater payday if they wait one more season before turning pro, with possibly 13 games - as many as 15, in the case of Alabama last season - to prove themselves on the collegiate level.

Jackson's gamble ended with a season-ending injury. It was a heartbreaking moment for one of the SEC's best, but the truth is it wasn't a worst-case scenario.

Jackson still has the chance to recover from leg surgery and prove himself to NFL scouts, and he has eight games as a senior, filled with highlights for talent evaluators to study.

The situation was much different for former Arkansas offensive lineman Denver Kirkland, who was a junior when he left the Razorbacks and declared for the NFL following last season - only to go undrafted.

While Kirkland has since recovered from his disappointment, signing with Oakland and being promoted to the Raiders active roster late last month, his decision was one Arkansas coach Bret Bielema lamented following the draft.

So much so that Bielema discussed the possibility of a rules change last spring , one that would allow undrafted underclassmen to return to college without losing their playing eligibility.

''If (an underclassman) could sit down with NFL people or personnel people that are making the decisions firsthand, I think it could be a great resource,'' Bielema said. ''And you know what? It works out better for everybody. Graduation rates to go up. Success rates go up. Failure rates go down. Kids are in school longer. Kids are in preparation to be in the NFL to play longer.''

While Jackson's injury will serve as a cautionary tale to underclassmen considering a jump to the NFL, it's worth noting several other SEC standouts have benefited greatly from returning for their senior seasons this year.

Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and O.J. Howard have each played well for the No. 1 Crimson Tide, while Auburn defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson have been at the forefront of the Tigers' resurgence. Also, Florida seniors Marcus Maye and Jarrad Davis returned after considering the NFL - and are two of the top three tacklers on the SEC's top-ranked defense.

Maye, who has emerged from the shadow of former teammates and first-round NFL draft picks Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal to become a stabilizing force for the Gators secondary, called Jackson's injury ''saddening'' and said he felt badly for the Alabama safety.

''You know, you want to come back, but you don't want to take the chance of getting hurt,'' Maye said. ''.So, a lot of things play a part in making the decision to come back.''

For Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, the decision whether to stay or go is a clear-cut one - even following the Jackson injury. He believes ''you stay in college unless you're sure you're a first rounder.''

''It's just to me, it's worth it to stay,'' Freeze said. ''He could get hurt in his first game in the league also. I don't know - to me you stay and get your degree unless you're a sure first rounder.''

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AP Sports Writers Mark Long, John Zenor, David Brandt, Brett Martel and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

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