Sound Off: It pays to stay in school

Eric Norwood took the road less traveled among his draft eligible junior teammates in January. After briefly declaring for the NFL draft following South Carolina's loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl, the All SEC linebacker, who was a projected mid-round pick, did some soul searching and came to the wise decision that another year in school would be in his best interest long term.


After all, by returning to USC for another year Norwood can finish his degree in criminal justice, vie for All American honors, re-write the USC record books with sacks and tackles for loss, AND further improve his stock for the 2010 NFL draft.

That sounds like a no brainer, right?

It does seem like an obvious choice standing from afar, but it can be difficult walking in the shoes of a talented, draft eligible college football player in this day and age.

Every player who has ever strapped on the pads holds aspirations of playing NFL football one day. I imagine that desire is only amplified when reaching the status of one of college football's elite. It can be a complex and emotionally grinding process when having friends and family encouraging you to take the plunge to test the NFL draft when your lifelong dream appears to be within your grasp.

Questions fill your mind... Who do I listen to? Who has my best interest at heart? What happens if I get hurt?

It can be even more challenging when watching several of your friends and teammates declare for the draft in an attempt to realize their pro dreams.

Welcome to Eric Norwood's world and the world of dozens of other college football stars across the country who made the tough choice, but the right choice to return to school.

Three former Gamecocks were not so lucky. Safety Emanuel Cook, tight end Jared Cook, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn learned the hard way last weekend that foregoing your senior year of eligibility to test the NFL draft waters is a dangerous and sometimes foolish endeavor.

E. Cook led the Gamecocks in tackles each of the last two seasons and was a bona fide all conference performer, but he stopped attending classes and flunked out of school last fall with plans of declaring early for the draft. Unfortunately, along with questions about his character, scouts felt he was too short and too slow to be an NFL safety and he ended up not being drafted. Yes... Cook left school early to go undrafted and will now resort to trying his hand as a free agent in the New York Jets organization.

Munnerlyn, a three year starter who was coming off a poor junior season, came dangerously close to going undrafted as well, falling to a seventh round pick by the Carolina Panthers. Very few seventh round picks end up sticking in the league, and Munnerlyn will have an uphill battle to earn his spot with no guarantees of making the team and a minimal signing bonus.

J. Cook fared much better than his previously mentioned former teammates, being drafted in the third round by the Tennessee Titans. However, even Cook fell further than he would have liked as he was projected by some to be a late first rounder or a probable second rounder following his showing at the NFL combine. The difference between first round money and third round money is several million dollars.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but all three are most likely wishing they had returned to school for one more year with Norwood.

Instead of finishing their education, cementing their legacy in Gamecock lore, and enjoying all of the other benefits that would have come with returning for another year, the trio of early departures will now be used as examples by the South Carolina coaching staff of what can happen if you listen to the wrong people when testing the waters of the NFL draft.

We can only hope that future Gamecocks will learn from their mistakes.

All the while, Norwood is enjoying another year of college life, setting new records in the weight room while preparing for the 2009 season, AND is now being projected as a first round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by ESPN's Todd McShay.

The moral of the story: Unless you are a sure fire first round pick, don't gamble with your future by declaring early.

It really does pay to stay in school.

Blogging live from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas... I just call 'em like I see 'em.

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