It is the nature of college football that a team is going to lose a certain percentage of its team each year to graduation (or, at least, the end of eligibility). In recent years the loss has been expanded a bit due to the number of players with eligibility remaining electing to foego their final year of college to give the NFL a try.
The problem is more pronounced at Alabama because Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide teams have had a large number of juniors (in class and/or eligibility) elect to head to the NFL early. A former assistant under Saban said the formula is to recruit players who are so good they will stay in college only three years.
Since 2009 Saban has had 20 underclassmen declare for the draft and 17 of those have been drafted in the first round.
The press conference at which, usually, most questions are answered about the upcoming NFL draft insofar as Alabama juniors participating, was held Friday. It left more questions unanswered than answered, however.
As expected, Heisman Trophy winning tailback Derrick Henry announced that he would enter the draft, and so did defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson.
There was no word from the other potential Crimson Tide players with eligibility remaining who may or may not enter the draft. That includes three who have been reported by social media as saying they would return for their final season -- safety Eddie Jackson and outside linebackers Tim Wilson and Ryan Anderson. There was no word from a handful of others, notably defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, inside linebacker Reuben Foster, and tight end O.J. Howard.
A spokesman said only that Henry and Robinson were the only two prepared to make an announcement, and that it is possible they are the only two electing to enter the draft early.
One unfortunate by-product of the NFL allowing men who have been out of high school for three years to enter the draft is that some don’t get picked up by a team. Last year, 84 juniors went into the draft and 24 of them went undrafted.
That has resulted in some sympathy for those players – who lose their eligibility when they declare for the draft -- and a dilemma of how to solve it.
Several problems are associated with the idea of a junior declaring himself eligible for the draft on Jan. 18 and then going through a combine and/or a pro day, working out for NFL scouts. Meanwhile, the college has finished its recruiting with a new batch of players on Signing Day, Feb. 3.
One problem cited is a coach having to manage his roster, because the aim is to sign at or about 25 new players each year and to have 85 players on scholarship when practice begins in August for the next season. What would happen, some wonder, if the juniors who weren’t drafted wanted to come back and there wasn’t any room?
For one thing, the coach would have a pretty good idea whether a player would make it in the NFL draft, but in any event other than at a handful of schools, it would not be a problem. The Alabamas, LSUs, Ohio States of the world ordinarily will have several juniors who are drafted, but also the possibility of having some who are not.
But shouldn’t there be some price to pay for leaving early?
One thought is that there could also be a reward for players who left early, but already had a degree.
A player who left early, did not have his degree, and went undrafted could return to his school, or tansfer to another school, but would have to sit out for a year, a forced redshirt season. He would practice through the fall and next spring, play the following fall, and then go back into the draft. Of course, no one could prevent him from sitting out the fall and then declaring for the draft again, unless the NFL decided a player could not declare more than once while still having college eligibility.
He could be on scholarship and it would not count against a school’s scholarship limit during the redshirt season, but would count against the 85 overall limit in the subsequent season, giving the coach time to make allowances in his next recruiting class.
It would be detriment enough for those juniors who are quite unlikely to be drafted from taking a lark, entering the draft early and knowing they could return if there was not the forced redshirt.
A player who left early, but had already earned his degree, would be able to return to his team (or transfer to another school) and would be able to play immediately. He might not be counted against the scholarship limit, or the school may have to make some roster decisions to have him back for one year.
In a press briefing in Arizona following the national championship victory over Clemson, Saban was asked about rebuilding Bama in 2016. Saban said he prefers to call it transitioning rather than rebuilding.
“It's a transition that every team has to go through,” Saban said. “It's like taking a new job. It's a new seasons, it's a new team, it's a new group of guys, new leadership. That's the challenge each and every year.”
So the return of undrafted juniors might add to the challenge.