FAIRHOPE, Ala. – Everybody had an opinion, which bothered Tajh Boyd the most. The Clemson quarterback heard so many different things from so many people last year that the decision to leave for the NFL versus staying in college was significantly more difficult than it needed to be.
Boyd ultimately chose to stay at Clemson for his senior season, temporarily delaying the allure of an NFL career in favor of one more season in college. It was a worthwhile move: The Tigers finished 11-2, including a victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, and Boyd will likely be one of the top quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft in May.
"For me, I just wanted to be as ready as possible when I make this leap," Boyd said. "I didn't want to go into the league kind of doubting my abilities or doubting my skills. I wanted to own it as much as possible, and I felt like I did that during the course of my time. I felt like I matured more so a man than just a person, and I felt like that's what I wanted to do heading into this process."
Boyd's path is becoming less common. A record 98 underclassmen have been granted eligibility for this spring's draft, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, as well as Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The number of early entrants shatters the previous high of 73 players who left last year, and it means that for the first time, a significant number of players playing in the Senior Bowl on Saturday in nearby Mobile are in jeopardy of not being chosen.
"I think it's bad for college football and I think it's bad for the NFL because players are coming into the league and they're not ready," Phil Savage, the director of the Senior Bowl and the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns, told reporters following a press conference on Sunday. "They don't have the background – the 20-hour rule, 15 days of spring football – their depth of football experience is not nearly the level it was.
"I think the talent, the size and speed, is better than its ever been, but I think the actual technique and the understanding of the game is actually worse."
A player must be three years out of high school to be eligible for the draft, meaning most are juniors and, in Manziel's case, redshirt sophomores. The decision to leave early is not always a simple one. Players are often enticed by money – even the standard mid-round contracts will fetch a player an annual salary of more than $400,000, assuming they make the team – and they are often advised to leave college as soon as possible to minimize the chance of failure, and then less money, during a potential senior year.
Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton had a successful junior season and believed he was ready to play professionally. He was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, but a number of other factors directed him toward remaining in college for one more season.
He believed the Sun Devils could have one of their better seasons in recent years – and they did, finishing 8-5 for their most wins since 2007. But he also received a fourth-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a group of scouts and other team executives who offer an evaluation to players to determine their readiness for the NFL.
Then, when he spoke to his academic advisor, he learned he was nine credits away from graduating. Thus, he took a slate of online classes this fall, including one on leadership that led to him writing a 16-page paper on the leadership values embodied by his coach, Todd Graham.
"Some people get somebody else in their ear, get them saying, 'You're doing good,'" Sutton said. "I had people in my ear telling me, 'You should go.' You get the agents start calling you and everything, but you know, you've got to really – you can't really listen to all of that. You've got to take it upon yourself to say, 'What are my reasons for coming back, and why should I leave?' Whatever outweighs the other, you should go do that and you shouldn't look back on your decision."
Kyle Van Noy, an outside linebacker at BYU, was also tempted to leave following his junior year. He was nearly swayed by the constant attention given to defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, who left after his senior year and was drafted No. 5 overall by the Detroit Lions.
Watching Ansah go through the pre-draft process and then be selected in the first round was tough for Van Noy, who was weighed down by a feeling of regret last spring. To cope with it, he made three promises to himself.
"I wanted to graduate, I wanted to get better and I wanted to finish my legacy at BYU," said Van Noy, who figures to be a second-round draft pick. "Now that I did that, looked back, I can have no regrets. I graduated college. History major, and now I can move on to my next step. Close that door and open a new one."
By the time Boyd was able to forget about what he heard on television and started listening to his coaches, a good chunk of the season had already passed. This week, through four days of practices, he wants to prove he's ready for the NFL.
"You got to this point for a reason," Boyd said. "You've got a chance to finish college on a high note for the reason that you were the type of player that you were, and nobody can really change that."
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