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Should Underclassmen Who Go Undrafted Be Allowed to Return to School?

What would it take from coaches and administrators if underclassmen who went undrafted had the option to return to school? Plus, would Urban Meyer come out of retirement and coach USC after taking a year off?

The NFL draft is in the books. It didn’t go the way some former college football stars thought it would, and you have questions…

From Rick in Winston Salem (via text): Do you see college football ever adapting the same rule as college basketball, that if you don’t sign with an agent and don’t get drafted you can return?

This year, 49 of 144 early entries to the NFL draft went unselected. I’d love to see a change that would allow those players to make more informed decisions and have an avenue to return to college. But it would require either a separate rule change independent of the draft rule and/or the willingness of college football coaches to manage their recruiting so that they leave roster spots open for players potentially returning to school.

Rick's description of the college basketball rule in the question isn’t quite correct, and that’s understandable because the new iteration of the rule is a little confusing. The new version actually allows players to sign with an agent—and have that agent pay for travel to meet with NBA teams—and still be able to withdraw from the draft and return to school. But they can’t actually go through the draft—they have to pull their names by May 29, a little more than three weeks before the first name is called.

There are a few reasons why this might be trickier in football, but the challenge is not insurmountable. And allowing players to come back would harm absolutely no one, so this should be an easy idea to get behind.

How might it work? Before, I’ve suggested creating a combine for underclassmen that runs a day or two before Senior Bowl practices begin. It would allow those players to meet with NFL scouts, coaches and executives to get honest appraisals of their draft stock. That might be too complicated. So let’s simplify it: I would suggest creating a deadline a month after the NFL combine. This would allow players to either go through the combine or, possibly, take the hint when they don’t get invited to the combine. And even if they choose to stay in after getting snubbed for the combine—because it is possible to get drafted without being invited to the combine—they can go through their on-campus pro day and get exposed to NFL teams.

The key here is for these players to get honest appraisals. Agents might be disingenuous and suggest their players will get drafted much higher than they actually will. College coaches also have a stake in whether their players return or leave, so what they say also should be taken with a grain of salt. NFL teams, however, have no incentive to mislead players about their (relative) draft position. They aren’t going to tell a sixth-rounder that he might be a first-rounder. This information is what many of the basketball players entering the draft this year are seeking. Why shouldn’t football players be allowed to do the same*?

*It’s important to remember that not all players who leave early do so because they think they’ll be drafted high. Some want the chance to make money now and may (correctly or incorrectly) believe that another year in college won’t help them. Others may be ineligible for some reason and are leaving so that particular bad news never leaks. Others may face a reduction in their role. Georgia tailback Elijah Holyfield, who went undrafted, could be an example of this. The Bulldogs’ tailback depth chart suggests Holyfield might not have played as big a role as he did last year.

The players might have to train for the draft differently. The biggest cost outlay agents make for football players is usually six weeks at a specialized training facility such as Exos. It’s difficult to imagine an NCAA rule that forgives that outlay, nor is it easy to imagine agents being willing to spend that money on players who might return to school. But the good news is that most players are welcome to continue training at their college facilities, and most Power Five facilities are just as well equipped as the ones draft hopefuls and their agents pay for. Staying on campus also would provide another necessary benefit. The players could keep attending classes and remain academically eligible should they decide to return.

For reasons both altruistic and selfish, college coaches don’t want their players to leave early and not get drafted. Most coaches want the best for their players, and most coaches would prefer to get a veteran starter back rather than break in a new player at that position. 

But coaches also need to know what their scholarship count will be come August, and if they have players hanging out there in March—after both football signing days—unsure about whether they’ll return, then they could get caught in a crunch. The NCAA allows 85 scholarship players on an FBS team, and programs must be at or below the limit when practice begins. So a coach would have to leave scholarships open while signing his recruiting class with the idea that a spot or two could be filled by a player who removes his name from the draft.

What’s interesting is there is a recent development that could incentivize leaving those spots open in December and February. Now that players don’t need their school’s permission to transfer to another school on scholarship, there could be ample options available in the transfer portal in April and May. So coaches whose players decide to stay in the draft don’t have to be shorthanded. They could grab a graduate transfer or two and roll into the season with a full roster. 

It’s not an impossible riddle to solve. But coaches and administrators have to want to solve it.

From @pmcy: Excluding USC, what school(s) are most likely to kick the tires on Urban Meyer after the upcoming season?

Reggie Bush’s comments to the Los Angeles Times about trying to recruit Meyer to USC should the Trojans’ season go poorly were made in good fun, but let’s be honest: The moment Meyer announced his retirement from Ohio State, we all began joking about the possibility of him coaching at USC after taking a year to recharge. Meyer took a year off after resigning at Florida and landed at Ohio State, so why couldn’t history repeat?

The easiest answer is that current USC coach Clay Helton does enough to keep his job, though when famous—albeit banned because of NCAA sanctions—alums are openly discussing your replacement, the bar for retention feels pretty high. None of this is fair to Helton. But as he often says, it comes with the territory. 

USC would make sense for Meyer, who has taken over two different programs in recruit-rich areas and led them to national titles quickly. But USC also brings with it the same set of pressures and circumstances that cut short his tenures in Gainesville and Columbus. The same goes for any program that expects to compete for national titles.

As for which other programs might try to court Meyer, there aren’t many at the should-be-competing-for-national-titles level that look as if they’d need a new coach in 2020. Other top-tier jobs seem fairly stable at the moment. As the 2017 season taught us, that’s always subject to change. But remember, any courtship of Meyer also would bring more questions about how he handled former receivers coach Zach Smith at Ohio State. That got him suspended for three games last season, and any decision to coach again would require Meyer to be comfortable with ripping those scabs open during the vetting and hiring processes. It also would require the school to be comfortable answering some hard questions about the hire.

But if things don’t go well for USC this season, expect Bush and Matt Leinart to recruit Meyer in stereo on the set of Fox’s new college football pregame show. Heck, it might become a weekly segment.