Every year Alabama sends a handful of underclassmen to the NFL. Every year the next wave of stars slips into place for the Crimson Tide and Nick Saban’s team rolls along.
Saban said goodbye to five underclassmen last week, including All-America defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle DaRon Payne, the defensive star of the Tide’s College Football Playoff championship run. The Tide is neither winner nor loser in the early departure portion of the college football’s offseason. Most of the players Alabama lost were expected, and no team is better equipped to withstand the departures.
The NFL announced on Friday that a record 106 underclassmen had been granted special eligibility to enter the draft and another 13 underclassmen had notified the league they had completed their degrees and were entering the draft . The NFL draft will be held April 26-28 in Dallas.
A few teams made out especially well. A few took some losses that will leave a mark — three winners, three losers.
Coach Dabo Swinney had to be dancing when he found out that his entire starting defensive line, a group that featured three players who could have been first- or second-round picks, will return intact next season. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins’ decision to stay was most surprising. Wilkins seemed a lock to be taken in the top half of the first round. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are also back. Add in massive defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a future first-rounder heading into his junior season, and the Tigers’ defensive line is set to again be the most dominant single unit in college football in 2018. Clemson will also welcome back linebacker Kendall Joseph, cornerback Mark Fields and star left tackle Mitch Hyatt. All that easily makes up for the losses of receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McLeod and safety Van Smith.
The Bulldogs said goodbye to All-America linebacker Roquan Smith (not surprising) and former five-star defensive lineman Trenton Thompson (not that surprising). Thompson is the type of high-upside player who could get drafted higher than his college production suggests he should. Where the Bulldogs did especially well was in retaining second-tier players such as cornerback Deandre Baker, defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter, center Lamont Gaillard and guard Kendall Baker. Gaillard and Kendall Baker will give the Bulldogs two fifth-year seniors on the offensive line to go with some high-end young talent in 2018.
Cornerback Denzel Ward, who decided to skip the bowl game, is primed to become the latest Buckeyes corner taken in the first round, but Ohio State is well stocked behind him. Losing defensive end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Jerome Baker was expected. The big news for the Buckeyes came when third-year sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones decided to stick around for another season. Jones has first-round potential, and defensive tackles with his skill set are the scarcest commodity in college football. The Buckeyes also retained four receivers (Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin) with NFL potential.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack lost only two players — offensive tackle Will Richardson and running back Nyheim Hines — but their departures could be problematic for a team that will have lots of rebuilding to do on defense. Quarterback Ryan Finley will be back, but the 5-foot-9 Hines was one of the most explosive players in the country. The junior led the Atlantic Coast Conference in all-purpose yards (1,868) and scored 12 touchdowns. Richardson was one of the steadiest tackles in the country, but decided not to come back for a fifth season.
The Longhorns had six underclassmen declare: All-America safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Holton Hill, offensive tackle Connor Williams, linebacker Malik Jefferson, running back Chris Warren and super punter Michael Dickson. That’s a lot for a team that went 7-6 in coach Tom Herman’s first season. It would have been nice to have a senior star or two to help lead a bigger turnaround in 2018.
Guard Quenton Nelson, who completed his degree, is technically an underclassman entering the draft but there was no expectation that the fourth-year player and possible top-10 pick would return. The two losses that hurt were running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous Brown. Neither is a first-round lock and both would have been focal points in the offense next season. Compounding the problem is that Irish coach Brian Kelly just dismissed two running backs and receiver Kevin Stepherson from the team. The Irish did get good news with the return of linebacker Tevon Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
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