To stay or not to stay? That is the question.
Many talented juniors in college football faced that conundrum as the 2013 season drew to a close. A record 96 big-time underclassmen opted to forgo their final year in college for an early shot at the NFL, blowing away the previous high of 73, set last year.
How did those decisions affect the landscape of college football? We break down the early NFL departures of several top teams across the country.
It’s never easy to lose a Heisman Trophy winner, but to lose his top receiving target, as well? That’s the situation facing the Aggies, who must replace electric quarterback Johnny Manziel and stud wideout Mike Evans on their offense. Manziel rolled up 4,873 yards of total offense and had a hand in 48 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore. Evans hauled in 1,394 receiving yards and had two games in which he had at least 279 receiving yards.
Now’s the chance for Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin to show what he can do in the SEC in the post-Manziel era. The good news for the Aggies is on the recruiting trail, where Sumlin’s latest class currently ranks fifth in the country, according to Rivals.com. Could five-star quarterback Kyle Allen and four-star wideout Speedy Noil provide a spark in 2014?
If it seems like we’ve seen this movie before in Baton Rouge, it’s because we have. The Tigers famously lost 11 underclassmen to the NFL after the 2012 season. Of course, all they did in '13 was win 10 games with a reloaded roster. Coach Les Miles’ team will have to do much the same next fall thanks to another big group of early departures.
LSU loses its top two receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.), its leading rusher (Jeremy Hill) and one of its best offensive linemen (Trai Turner). The bleeding doesn’t stop on defense, either, where the Tigers must replace defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.
Along with the departure of senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the roster should look very different next fall. At least LSU can look forward to the arrival of freshman tailback Leonard Fournette, the country’s top running back recruit.
The Crimson Tide won’t look the same on offense with the departure of senior quarterback AJ McCarron, and the list of exiting underclassmen is also noteworthy. Alabama will have to break in a new passer without vaunted offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
Still, it is the Tide's defense -- the best in the SEC last season -- that is losing the biggest chunk of underclass talent on the roster. Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri have all opted to leave Tusacloosa early.
The five early departures are the most in the Nick Saban era at Alabama; the Crimson Tide had never lost more than three underclassmen in a season under the coach. There’s always talent on the bench, but there could be a learning curve for a defense that gave up 79 points in Alabama's last two games of 2013, both losses.
Quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson played huge roles on offense in the Knights' BCS season. Their early departures means that their roles will have to be filled by new blood in 2014. Bortles has been pegged as a first-round pick, and he could even be the top quarterback on many NFL teams’ draft boards after a season in which he threw for 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. Coupled with Johnson’s 1,139 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, it's a lot of offense to replace.
The rebuilding task could be even more difficult considering UCF’s youth: Backup quarterbacks Justin Holman and Pete DiNovo and reserve tailback William Stanback are all freshmen.
The Fighting Irish can take heart in the knowledge that quarterback Everett Golson will return to the roster this spring after a one-year hiatus, but there will be other holes to fill. Running back George Atkinson III, second on the team with 93 rushes for 555 yards, and tight end Troy Niklas, third in receiving yards with 498, both decided to leave South Bend early.
On defense, the line will be without end Stephon Tuitt, who led Notre Dame in sacks and tackles for loss. Big nose guard Louis Nix III also decided to turn pro. The mass exodus is unusual for coach Brian Kelly’s tenure with the Irish. In his previous three seasons with the team, only one underclassman -- tight end Kyle Rudolph -- declared early for the NFL draft.
Marcus Mariota was a top-10 pick in most NFL mock drafts. But that fact apparently didn’t sway the redshirt sophomore, who decided to come back to school for another year. The return of Mariota and his 4,380 yards of offense and 40 combined touchdowns should lessen the blow of losing running back De’Anthony Thomas. Mariota will also have talented center Hroniss Grasu reprising his role up front.
On defense, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu also chose to return to Eugene for his senior season. The Ducks will likely be a major threat in the Pac-12 in 2014.
The Seminoles will lose several big names from their BCS championship roster. Yet more than a few of Florida State’s key players opted to return to Tallahassee in 2014. The Seminoles' losses are admittedly important ones: Defensive end Timmy Jernigan, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder. But the bulk of the offensive line will be back, with tackle Cameron Erving and guards Josue Matias and Tre Jackson staying to protect Heisman winner Jameis Winston.
Along with the returns of wideout Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary, this Florida State offense could look a lot like the 2013 version. In terms of departures, the Seminoles made out easy compared to last season, when an team record 11 players were drafted.
Bruins fans already had plenty to be excited about with the news that Jim Mora, who was rumored to be in the running for jobs at Washington and Texas, would remain the coach. But the return of Brett Hundley, their leading passer and rusher, might be even better news.
In Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton, UCLA will return two of its top three receivers, something that should help offset the loss of leading pass-catcher Shaq Evans. Meanwhile, four starters on the offensive line should also be back. Hundley, as a third-year starter, could be in the running for the Heisman if he improves on his 3,819 yards of offense and 35 total touchdowns from 2013.
A top-20 recruiting class could be joining the quarterback in Westwood next fall, as well. If an experienced offense can help make up for the loss of linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, the Bruins could be special.
One of the country’s most prolific offenses will lose at least one important underclassman in 2014. Junior running back Lache Seastrunk (1,177 yards, 11 touchdowns) is leaving school early. Senior wideout Tevin Reese will also be a big name to replace.
But the Bears do bring back quarterback Bryce Petty, who threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns, with only three picks. Tailback Shock Linwood showed flashes of Seastrunk’s ability this year and could become even more dangerous next season.
The Buckeyes’ painful end to the 2013 season took a positive turn with the news that quarterback Braxton Miller would remain in Columbus in '14. If not for a knee injury that kept him out of nearly three full games, Miller would likely have been among the six Heisman finalists invited to New York in December. His return is good news for the offense, but the defense still loses junior linebacker Ryan Shazier and junior cornerback Bradley Roby.
A few more notable departures
- USC wide receiver Marqise Lee (57 catches, 791 yards, 4 TDs)
- Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey (349 rushes, 1,885 yards, 19 TDs)
- Auburn running back Tre Mason (317 rushes, 1,816 yards, 23 TDs)
- Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (3,970 yards, 31 TDs)
- South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (40 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 3 sacks)
A few more notable returnees
- Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (206 rushes, 1,609 yards, 12 TDs)
- LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins
- Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley (13 sacks, 23 TFLs)
- Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (106 tackles, 8.5 TFLs)
- Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha (13 sacks)