MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Southeastern Conference has become the most popular jumping-off point for underclassmen looking for a head start on NFL careers, creating more spots to fill around the league with preseason camps approaching.
No league has had nearly as many players leaving early to pursue NFL careers over the past eight years, and LSU has had the most of any program two years running.
“We do lead college football in three-and-outs,” Tigers coach Les Miles said.
It’s not a distinction coaches particularly covet – except perhaps to juice the sales pitch to teenage recruits already dreaming of their first NFL paycheck.
It also creates some potential headaches for those who have – sometimes unexpectedly – more job openings leading into August, not that coaches around the country have much sympathy.
LSU has lost 18 underclassmen to the draft over the past two years. Since the league’s title run began in 2007, the SEC has had nearly as many early departures drafted (109) as the next two leagues combined. The Pacific-12 (57) and Atlantic Coast Conference (54) rank second and third, according to research by STATS, Inc.
The 49 first-round selections among underclassmen during that span tops the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten combined (44).
The exodus can affect the quality of play at certain positions even with a new wave of four- and five-star recruits coming in annually around the SEC, which had its seven-year run of producing BCS champions halted by Florida State in January.
Alabama had three junior cornerbacks picked in the first round from 2010-2013, and a position of strength became a weak link last season with several young players thrust into big roles.
“We recruit a lot of good players in this league,” said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who played 14 freshmen last season. “What it does for me, and what it does for our team, I guess is what I should say, is the players turn over more quickly, so you play more players.
“It’s not that those players aren’t good players, but in some cases they might be playing a little bit before they’re ready to play.”
Alabama will have five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey vying for playing time at cornerback when camp starts.
The SEC has had 60 underclassmen enter the draft the past two years, counting players who graduated but had eligibility remaining. Not all have been hot commodities.
The latest group had six juniors picked in the first round and nine go undrafted, nearly one-third of the 28 SEC players who declared for the draft.
Former LSU and NFL defensive lineman Marcus Spears said the players leaving creates a big challenge in having enough depth to overcome injuries and other issues, and forces coaches like Miles to plan ahead in recruiting.
“You have to be able to look out maybe a year or two years in advance and kind of start honing in on those guys that can come in and replace them and play right away,” said Spears, now an analyst for the SEC Network. “When you lose those guys, it is a huge void, especially those underclassmen that apply for the draft. Having guys in the stable is very important.”
The good news for newcomers: There are plenty of opportunities for playing time, partly because of players not sticking around for senior seasons.
Here are a few:
• Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen is competing to replace 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
• LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, considered the nation’s top-rated prospect, should quickly carve out a role for himself after Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both left with eligibility remaining.
• Alabama’s Cam Robinson is the apparent front-runner to replace left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
Some prospects are weighing their career options long before they arrive on campus.
“I’ve had three (prospects), and these guys are like 16 years old, they’re saying, ‘If I go out and don’t make it, you’re going to put me back on scholarship if I want to come back, right?”’ Saban said. “I’m saying this guy just got his driver’s license and he’s got this figured out already. … But still they’ve really minimized in some cases their chances of being successful, having a career as a football player.”
EARLY DRAFT ENTRIES BY LEAGUE IN 2014
• SEC: 28
• Pac-12: 25
• Atlantic Coast: 10
• American Athletic: 7
• Independent: 5
• Mountain West: 5
• Big Ten: 4
• FCS (formerly I-AA): 4
• Big 12: 3
• Conference USA: 1
• Colonial: 1
• Mid American: 1
• Mideast Athletic: 1
• New England 10 (Division II): 1
• Sun Belt: 1