NFL Casts Shadow Over Fiesta Bowl

At least three underclassmen on each side of Monday's Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame have to be at least considering the possibility of entering the NFL draft a year early. Charles Babb gets into this discussion with comments from coaches and players on both sides.

For Ohio State and Notre Dame players, the Fiesta Bowl isn't the only thing on their mind this week. A few are fielding questions about the future – one that might include the NFL sooner instead of later.

For Notre Dame it's Anthony Fasano, Brady Quinn, and Jeff Samardzija.

For Ohio State it's Santonio Holmes, Donte Whitner, and Ashton Youboty.

Within the past few weeks a number of articles have appeared speculating on each of these players. Holmes is expected to go and as a fourth-year player and no fans would begrudge him the opportunity. Fasano was quoted only weeks ago in an article admitting it could come down to being a business decision for he and his family. Quinn says he is staying, but who knows what a great performance in this contest might do – would he turn down tens of millions and risk it all for one more season? Whitner and Youboty are currently a mystery with not even their teammates knowing what will happen or where they are leaning. Samardzija could walk out the doors of Notre Dame but do so through a completely different exit; he is a pitching talent attracting the attention with his 8-1 record and 3.89 era and fielding abilities as a sophomore. A breakthrough season this spring is doubtful, but it if happened could attract Major League attention.

Is this a distraction? Are the respective coaching staffs worried their stars might be thinking less about the opponent and more about extraneous matters?

Buckeye offensive coordinator Jim Bollman dismisses such talk, but his defensive counterpart Jim Heacock doesn't.

Heacock admits it is weighs on his mind, "Yeah. It does. To me right now the most important thing – as I look back over the year these guys played together as a unit and gave each other credit. We didn't have a bunch of individuals out there trying to draw attention to themselves. The credit and focus of the unit and was what I think was special with this group due to the leadership of the seniors. We have to get back this week into the same mentality. We can't have our minds on things outside the program or things beyond the program or individual things whether anybody decides to come out early or doesn't decide to come out early…that's down the road. Hopefully for this week coming up we can lock in to what we need to do as a team and remember what has gotten us to this bowl game and get our minds back on the same page. Think about helping the team and forget about the individual."

Holmes, one of those whose future in college is in doubt, agrees; "That personal decision should always be second knowing you have a few other things to accomplish before you make that personal decision. Put that personal decision aside and take care of the task right in front of you. To have in the back in their mind we have these guys thinking about leaving this year or whatever the situation may be…we need those guys to stay focused throughout the whole time we are here."

Yet this decision is exceedingly personal. The team won't be able to make it for them with each player's family decision normally occupying a central role. Holmes in particular has pressures pressing at him from every side with children, a girlfriend, siblings, and a mother for which he would love care. He is saying he is 50-50 on leaving or staying right now, but it would be hard for him to return if he has a blockbuster party in the Fiesta.

Thus Ohio State players are keeping a tight lip on their future – in contrast to the most highly touted Irish athlete, Brady Quinn.

He squelched talk of his early departure this week saying, "Really when you look at the situation I am a big believer in my faith. I truly believe God helped me to make the decision to come to Notre Dame for a reason. I feel the same way about Him giving me the feeling it is in my best interests to come back for another year and it's in my best interest to finish out school and be prepared for the real world whenever football ends. I think a lot of guys sometimes end up not finishing their degrees, and it ends up taking them so long once they try and come back to finish up.

"I have so many goals and ambitions outside of football I believe it really is best for me to come back an extra year, get the tutelage from Coach Weis you can't receive in the NFL. He's not there anymore. He's here now. Why not utilize that as long as you can and go for every goal you want? Obviously I want to win a national championship. I think our team has the ability without a doubt next year to win it especially with the people we have coming back on offense and defense."

All of these questions about the future, the risks of playing all out in one's final career - this sounds exactly like the distraction neither team needs, but it's just possible that Bollman is right. Perhaps this isn't an issue.

Heacock noted, "These guys have been around it so long and so many players as you go through Ohio State I am sure those discussions go on daily."

That's a reasonable thought. Why come to Ohio State or Notre Dame if the NFL isn't an option? Why not go to a lesser school and start for four years? Why not just go to the Ivy League schools and get a world class education? If these players want to show their wares in ‘The League' then wouldn't they be thinking about it almost daily anyway during their long film and weight room sessions?

This stands in direct contrast to the thoughts of Notre Dame offensive coordinator Michael Haywood. He was decidedly less than humble when asked about players possible learning early.

He clipped off in no uncertain terms, "You look back in the history of the University of Notre Dame. No one leaves early. 99.2 percent of our football players graduate. So we don't worry about guys going early. It's not one of our concerns. Brady has had conversations with Charlie. Brady's not going anywhere nor are any of our other guys. That's one of the things about Notre Dame. Players stay to graduate because that's what they came to the university of Notre Dame for."

This matches the company line and image put out by the public relations machine in South Bend but on further examination falls apart. Fasano has already stated he will go if it is the right financial decision. Weis has made no secret of his recruiting tactics designed to not to attract Rhodes scholars but rather NFL hopefuls to South Bend. He isn't just selling an education but a chance to play on Sunday. Even Quinn, who Haywood implied wouldn't think of leaving, admitted that Weis' presence is a major piece of the puzzle for why he intends to stay. Would another year with Tyrone Willingham have been his last in South Bend?

When the dust from the Fiesta Bowl settles both of these coaching staffs and even their players are hopeful they will get these six back. With the two teams looking to use this game as a springboard into a national title run in 2006, the return of their more talented players is be critical. It can even be argued that the most important recruits for these coaches won't be any who sign in February but rather those who don't sign with an NFL agent and file for the draft this spring.

Troy Smith knows the two would be seniors in the Buckeye secondary is important for any national title aspirations; "That makes a huge difference. If Donte were to come back I think he would be a defensive leader."

What will be done to address the situation following the bowl?

According to Heacock, "Well, I think all you can do – this is philosophical – the only thing you can really do is advise, show them stats and tell them here is where it is, but you can't direct them in any way. To me that guy has to make the decision what he does with his life. As soon as you tell a kid you shouldn't go out and he gets hurt or you say, ‘you should go out' and he doesn't get drafted? It's like picking a school, I never felt like I could tell a young man ‘this is the best school for you.' He has to make that decision. There are certain decisions an individual has to make, and I think this is one of them. Here are the facts. Here is the history of the situation. Now you need to decide what is best for you and what you need to do."

Smith's approach is likely to be more direct saying, "I'll lean on anybody that wants to leave but if they stay can help us. I'll lean on anybody, but I also have an understanding that everyone's family situation (the same).

His advice to Holmes?

Flashing a mischievous grin he said, "Come back, and let me throw to you next year."

In the end, the way this game plays out Monday will likely determine the end or continuation of the college career for these six players. The Fiesta Bowl will be over Tuesday morning, but the waiting will have just begun.

Who will go? My thoughts:

Holmes 80 percent

Quinn 10 percent

Fasano 30 percent

Whitner and Youboty 50 percent

Samardzija 20 percent

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