Underclassmen And Their Effects On The NFL

The Maurice Clarett lawsuit, which challenges the age rules for entry into the NFL, has brought up the question of how early entries would affect the caliber of play. College and NFL fans are hoping that a mass exodus from the college ranks isn't in the offing.

On Saturday, April 24th, many football geeks (including yours truly), will be planted in front of their TVs following what has become an premier event on everyone’s football calendar...the NFL Draft.

Besides the hand-wringing over what player should be taken by which team and at which selection number, experts and fans alike will be watching to see where two underclassmen, Ohio State RB Maurice Clarett and USC WR Mike Williams, will be drafted. The selections of these two players will be debated over and over to see what effects, if any, they will have on the future of the college and pro games.

Many fans, as well as NFL executives, have fretted over the prospect of players entering the NFL too early, thus depleting the college ranks and diluting the talent pool in the NFL. The lawsuit brought by Clarett has also brought the scrutiny of the United States justice system into what had been an otherwise fairly autonomous entity. The rules for player eligibility and the resulting changes brought on by the Clarett lawsuit could have long-term effects on the quality of play and the quality of the athletes playing what is now the number one spectator sport in America.

If you look at the average lineman in the NFL, you will see a man upwards of 6'4" and weighing anywhere from 300 - 350 lbs. The footwork and strength needed for the NFL can hardly be achieved with one or two seasons in college. Most linemen entering college come in weighing, on average, 270 - 280 lbs. While most young men finish growing by age 21, the body continues to add muscle mass and density through the mid-20's. College linemen need the nutritional guidance, the weight-training, and conditioning that comes with 4 years in a program. Even some senior linemen are considered "soft" when they finish their careers, having not spent the required time in training. These are just two positions (OL and DL)...one could surmise that QBs, LBs, WRs, RBs, and DBs all need to "fill-out" and work on honing their skills before getting paid to ply their trade.

The NFL scrutinizes prospective players with background checks, Wonderlic tests, and player questionnaires, so it is doubtful that too many players will truly be ready by the time they are 21, much less 18 or 19. Players will soon realize that a college campus is a much better place to learn than taking hits from men who outweigh them by up to 100 pounds!

The only athletes that will look to the NFL before they are truly ready are marginal students, who would most likely have to attend a junior college before entering a university anyway. Those student-athletes who attend college for at least 3 years, allowing their bodies to grow and mature while gaining some knowledge of how to conduct themselves off the field as well as on it, will experience greater success in their future careers whether with the NFL or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, college football will not miss a beat. The NFL has seen an influx of talent from smaller colleges over the years and this will continue. The so-called "sleeper" recruits who would normally end up at a Division II or small college program are then able to accept the scholarships left by those who unwisely chose the path to an early NFL tryout. The players making the mistake of leaving before they are ready will then be thrust into leagues like NFL Europe, the Arena League and the Canadian Football League. Hopefully they will take that opportunity to develop their skills in those leagues and maybe, someday, see another chance with an NFL team.

While the concerns are well-founded over this new turn of events, fans need not worry about the play in the NFL becoming something akin to the NBA. While a small number of players will look to skip college and jump to the NFL, you will see many more realize that they are not physically ready for the pro game. The NFL, much more than Major League Baseball and the NBA, is a contact sport where even the best and strongest athletes are one wrong move away from a wheelchair. Parents and friends are likely to be much more cautious in encouraging players to head to the pro level before their bodies and minds have gotten to the highest level possible. The lure of money will be a factor, but I have faith that players will be smart enough to choose the best path available to them. Sundays will still be the stuff that dreams are made of for football fans...and Saturdays will still be a place for student-athletes to shine.

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