LEAP OF FAITH SINCE BARRY SANDERS LED THE WAY SIX YEARS AGO, 224 UNDERCLASSMEN HAVE JUMPED AT THE CHANCE TO GO PRO, BUT TOO FEW HAVE LANDED IN THE NFL

August 27, 1995

By draft day standards, the gathering was intimate: four people
and one television set in a small apartment in Waco, Texas. No
agents, no teammates, no reporters, no satellite trucks.
Brandell Jackson, a 5'9", 221-pound running back from Brenham,
Texas, had given up his final year of eligibility at Baylor to
enter this year's NFL draft, and now he sat with his mother,
brother Ray and girlfriend and watched as ESPN queued up its
marathon weekend coverage. "Fifth round or later, that's what I
was told,'' Jackson would recall.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue walked to the microphone and
announced that the Cincinnati Bengals had selected Ki-Jana
Carter of Penn State with the first pick of the draft. Another
underclassman, another running back, Jackson thought. This is
exciting, this is good.

The rounds passed, Saturday became Sunday. The Oakland Raiders
and the Dallas Cowboys had called Jackson the previous week to
ask where he would be during the draft. Give us the phone
number, they said. But the draft ended, and the phone hadn't
rung. Says Jackson, "By the end it was killing me."

Three years earlier Jackson had been a coveted high school star.
As a sophomore at Baylor in 1993 he had led the team with 899
rushing yards, but last fall Jackson sprained both ankles and
plunged on the depth chart. In the first week of January he
talked to his 39-year-old brother, Michael, who lives in
Carthage, N.C. "I figured Brandell needed to take a shot at the
draft," says Michael. "When he didn't get picked, it was one of
the worst moments of my life. The whole draft was like some kind
of bad sickness."

In the winter of 1989, 25 underclassmen entered the draft under
a special hardship exemption granted by Tagliabue. The next year
the draft was opened to any player who was at least three years
out of high school. In all, 225 underclassmen have declared
themselves eligible for the NFL draft. Of those, however, only
149 (66%) have been drafted, and just 28 have been among the
first 10 selected in the first round. Indeed, those who have
entered the draft early have proved to be a fabulously
unreliable lot, rich with Hall of Fame material at the very top
but bloated with misguided hopes through the ranks. Barry
Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Drew Bledsoe came out early. So
did Major Harris, Mazio Royster and Shannon Clavelle.

In theory the early-departure option is nothing more than an
opportunity for the best college players to bypass their third
or fourth year for a rich pro contract. In practice it is far
more complicated. First, early departures, along with
scholarship reductions, have changed the manner in which teams
are built and programs maintained. They have made recruiting
more insidious, with coaches promising swift riches to
teenagers. "Coaches talk it," says Auburn coach Terry Bowden.
"They don't mean it, but they talk it: 'Son, you sign with us,
and if you look at the history of the school, then in three
years the next time you sign something it will be for millions
of dollars.'"

For many players, early entry into the draft is not an
opportunity but an escape hatch. Unhappy with the coach? Declare
for the draft. Flunking out of school? Declare. An inflated view
of their own talent has convinced some players that they're the
next Sanders or Faulk when, in fact, they could use another year
of college football and, presumably, college itself.

Ohio State has been among the schools hurt most by the early
departure rule. Buckeye coach John Cooper ran down his list of
losses. "Alonzo Spellman, Roger Harper, Robert Smith, Big Daddy
[Dan Wilkinson] ... and three more this year," he said. "We've
probably lost more good players early than any program in the
country. So no, I don't like the rule."

College football used to play to an easy rhythm for the fan, the
coach, the player. Redshirt a year, sit a year, play three,
leave. That rhythm has given way to new rules.

Rule No. 1: Good players do not redshirt. "If you recruit a good
player, you have to think seriously about not redshirting him,"
says Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. "He probably won't be here
four years, and forget about five years."

Rule No. 2: Play for this year, not for the future. Coaches
can't build their programs and point toward a specific year when
all their young players will mature together, because their
stars will likely be gone after two or three seasons. In 1988
Tennessee coach Johnny Majors redshirted highly regarded
recruits Chuck Webb and Carl Pickens and opened the season 0-6.
Neither Webb nor Pickens played four years. By contrast, last
fall Volunteer coach Phillip Fulmer played quarterbacks Peyton
Manning and Branndon Stewart, both of whom were true freshmen,
in the season opener after an injury to senior starter Jerry
Colquitt. In July, Fulmer said that Manning probably will not
stay four years, in no small part to publicly assure potential
quarterback recruits that the position will most likely be open
in three years, not four. One thing about coaches: They adjust
quickly.

They also are left to consider what might have been. In 1990
Southern Cal went 8-4-1 without Junior Seau and Mark Carrier,
both All-Americas who entered the draft as underclassmen the
previous spring. "We went 8-4-1 and lost to Notre Dame by four
points without [Seau and Carrier]," says former Trojan assistant
Gary Bernardi, who's now at UCLA. "What could we have done with
them?"

Ohio State's pain runs even deeper. Smith, the controversial and
gifted tailback, left in the spring of 1993 with two years'
eligibility remaining; Wilkinson was the No. 1 overall pick in
the draft a year later. Both would have been on last season's
team, which went 9-4 and lost to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. The
Buckeyes were stung again in January when offensive tackle Korey
Stringer and linebackers Craig Powell and Lorenzo Styles
declared for the draft. Similarly, Florida State looks to be
loaded this year, but how much better would the Seminoles be if
they hadn't lost Derrick Alexander and Devin Bush, both
first-round choices in last spring's draft?

Early departure, however, can be more damaging to a player than
to a team. "If they're good players, they think they can play in
the NFL," says Atlanta Falcon vice president for personnel Ken
Herock. Many can't. The result is a generation of disillusioned
wannabes, left without eligibility, often without a degree, and
full of misguided certainty that somebody in the NFL made a big
mistake.

Brian Robinson was a junior All-America safety last fall for
10-1-1 Auburn, but he baffled his coaches, with whom he had a
poor relationship, and NFL personnel directors by coming out
early. He ran a hideous 4.9 40-yard dash for scouts, tested
positive for marijuana and was neither drafted nor signed as a
free agent.

What makes the system merciless is that a player who submits his
name to the NFL before the draft relinquishes his NCAA
eligibility, with no hope of reversal. With the loss of
eligibility goes the loss of the athletic scholarship, and few
players have the resources to pay for school. The concept is
contradictory to the NCAA's recent commitment to higher academic
standards and provides no safety net for those who make a poor
decision. Says Bowden, "I hate to have a guy who has spent that
much time in school and is so close to getting a degree just
jump out where he may or may not make it."

The obvious solution is to institute an option that duplicates
the arrangement between the NCAA and the NBA. A college
basketball player who declares himself eligible for the NBA
draft is given 30 days following the draft to regain his
eligibility. If he was drafted, the team that drafted him
retains his rights for one year, up to the next draft.

In '93 wide receiver Russell Copeland of Memphis came out early
and was taken in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills. "I
really put myself out on a limb; I was very disappointed," says
Copeland, who thought he would be drafted much higher. "I should
have gone back to school for another year." Copeland is now
entering his third NFL season and is projected as a starter for
the Bills.

Will the NCAA amend the current rule? "Are you kidding," says
Tom Boisture, director of player personnel for the New York
Giants.

Adds Baylor coach Chuck Reedy, "That would mess up everything."
Translation: One NFL draft pick lost or one scholarship placed
in limbo is more important than an athlete's future.

Agents, college coaches and draft specialists can give an
athlete a ballpark idea of where he will be selected, but
predraft information is unreliable. The NFL has an advisory
board and a telephone number for underclassmen to call. Brigham
Young junior quarterback John Walsh dialed the number last year
and was told that he would be a first- or second-round pick. He
was chosen in the seventh round by the Bengals. An NBA-type rule
would have been a godsend for him. "We're just young men," says
Walsh. "We make mistakes."

The days are all the same for Brandell Jackson. He lifts weights
at a health club in Brenham, runs and catches passes in the
afternoon and sleeps under his mother's roof. He is 32 credits
short of his degree, but without a scholarship, he can't afford
to return to Baylor. "My brother is going to play football
again; you'll see his name in one of those leagues," says
Michael Jackson. "He'll play, if it takes everything I've got."

Over in Waco, the Baylor football team is grinding through
two-a-days. Other running backs are taking the reps Jackson
would have taken had he stayed in school. "I kind of hate to
miss it," says Jackson. "I wish I had the chance to go back."

The phone is quiet, the future in doubt.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The flight of players like Sanders to the pros has had a major impact on college coaching and recruiting. [Barry Sanders]
COLOR PHOTO: PAM FRANCIS Jackson, who gave up his final year of eligibility at Baylor, has no job and a lot of downtime. [Brandell Jackson] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Bledsoe and Wilkinson (above) were the top picks in '93 and '94, respectively. [Dan Wilkinson] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [see caption above--Drew Bledsoe]

SUDDEN IMPACT

Here are the five teams that have been hurt most by players
entering the NFL draft early:

Team Comment

1. Ohio State Has lost nine players, four in the
last two years, three of whom were
first-round picks.

2. Florida State Has had 10 underclassmen declare for
the draft, more than any other school.

3. USC How good would the 8-4-1 Trojans
have been in 1990 with Junior Seau and
Mark Carrier?

4. Washington State The Cougars finished 9-3 with Drew
Bledsoe in '92; a year later they
were 5-6.

5. Georgia The Dawgs dropped from 10-2 to 5-6
after Garrison Hearst and Andre Hastings
departed in '93.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)