Three and Out

College football's best players are still bolting early for the NFL, but now they're taking their diplomas with them
November 14, 2016

CLEMSON QUARTERBACK Deshaun Watson walks to class wearing headphones, sweats and a sweatshirt, looking like a typical campus jock. He's not.

In his third season as Clemson's starter, Watson is projected as a top five pick in the 2017 draft, but unlike most of the NFL's early entries, Watson will arrive in the league with a degree in hand. A true junior, he enrolled at Clemson in January of what would have been his senior year at Gainesville (Ga.) High, and he'll graduate with a degree in communications studies in December—just three years later. "It's very special," he says of graduating. "It's good for me and my whole family, setting an example for my little brother and little sister."

To finish so quickly, Watson took 18 credits in the fall of 2015, 19 last spring and 20 over the summer. His decision to accelerate his studies coincided with how long he expected to be in college, which could signal the beginning of a trend in which some top players tailor their academic careers to shorter stays on campus.

LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, a true junior who did not enroll early, is on track to graduate in spring or summer of 2017, according to LSU officials. UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, is on track to graduate in three years after enrolling early. Watson's teammate and close friend, receiver Artavis Scott, is also graduating in three years. "They are definitely three-and-done," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says of Watson and Scott. "That was their plan. I support that."

Watson won't be the first player to leave for the NFL with a degree after three years—Utah's Alex Smith and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater did it—but it's still rare. Officials at Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas, UCLA and USC could not recall any players who spent three years on campus and graduated before declaring early for the draft. Watson and Scott will be the first Clemson players to do it. "I'm really proud of those guys," Swinney says. "It's hard to do."

Watson's early graduation reflects a trend of sped-up expectations—some might say impatience—among top players. The days of redshirting and learning while waiting for a chance to play are increasingly unusual. If stud recruits don't see the field early, they're more likely to transfer. Just this season, five-star quarterback Blake Barnett of Corona, Calif., spent all of four games at Alabama (playing in three) before leaving the team to transfer—he had lost the starting job to fellow freshman Jalen Hurts.

The rush to leave campus is also evident among players with NFL expectations. In January 2015, Riverside, Calif., four-star defensive back Ykili Ross announced that he would play at USC for "the next three years." Why not? Last year 96 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. That's more than double the number of 2009 (46) and triple the entries from 2000 (26). (Those numbers include fourth-year juniors who entered school early.) "Until college athletes get paid, you are going to consistently see guys taking the money while they can," says Rosen. "Especially in a violent sport like football. Your career is not going to last."

Rosen's plan to graduate in three years emerged during his freshman season, after he realized how much of an academic head start he'd gotten by enrolling early. He had also seen former teammates defensive tackle Kenny Clark and receiver Jordan Payton miss time in the pros because of an NFL rule that doesn't allow rookies to report to their teams until the academic year at their school is complete. UCLA's quarter system ends in mid-June, later than most. "One huge factor is the rookie minicamp thing," Rosen says. "I've had friends that have had to sit out OTAs, which is not good."

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, a rookie with the Cowboys, will walk with his graduating class in the spring. When NFL scouts began drooling over him after his freshman season, Smith designed his schedule to cram in as many credits as possible. If he had enrolled early, he'd have been able to leave with his degree in three years. Still, for Smith, that wouldn't have been fast enough. He tore his left ACL and MCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl—at the end of his junior season. The injury dropped him from a potential top five pick to the second round. "With a lot of athletes, you don't need three years," he says. "Think about Leonard Fournette now and me last year. As a sophomore I would have gone in the first round."

It's unlikely the NFL will alter its rule to allow earlier entry. The last players who tried to force a change—Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and USC receiver Mike Williams, both in 2004—had their bid shot down by the Supreme Court. That may leave top athletes attempting to follow Watson's lead.

Watson admits his time is not his own. He had three tests during the week the Tigers played rival Florida State last season (a 23--13 Clemson win). "I barely watch TV," he says, "or talk to people on the phone." But to him, it's worth it. His mother, Deann, is the only one of her six siblings to finish high school, and she said last year that Deshaun's degree would mean more to her than attending the 2015 Heisman Trophy ceremony had.

Like her son, she didn't have to wait long for either.



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