- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Southeastern Conference has become the most popular jumping-off point for underclassmen looking for a head start on NFL careers, creating more spots to fill around the league with preseason camps approaching.

No league has had nearly as many players leaving early to pursue NFL careers over the past eight years, and LSU has had the most of any program two years running.

“We do lead college football in three-and-outs,” Tigers coach Les Miles said.

It’s not a distinction coaches particularly covet - except perhaps to juice the sales pitch to teenage recruits already dreaming of their first NFL paycheck.

It also creates some potential headaches for those who have - sometimes unexpectedly - more job openings leading into August, not that coaches around the country have much sympathy.

LSU has lost 18 underclassmen to the draft over the past two years. Since the league’s title run began in 2007, the SEC has had nearly as many early departures drafted (109) as the next two leagues combined. The Pacific-12 (57) and Atlantic Coast Conference (54) rank second and third, according to research by STATs, Inc.

The 49 first-round selections among underclassmen during that span tops the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten combined (44).

The exodus can affect the quality of play at certain positions even with a new wave of four- and five-star recruits coming in annually around the SEC, which had its seven-year run of producing BCS champions halted by Florida State in January.

Alabama had three junior cornerbacks picked in the first round from 2010-2013, and a position of strength became a weak link last season with several young players thrust into big roles.

“I think we recruit a lot of good players in this league,” said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who played 14 freshmen last season. “What it does for me, and what it does for our team, I guess is what I should say, is the players turn over more quickly so you play more players.

“It’s not that those players aren’t good players, but in some cases they might be playing a little bit before they’re ready to play.”

Alabama will have five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey vying for playing time at cornerback when camp starts.

The SEC has had 60 underclassmen enter the draft the past two years, counting players who graduated but had eligibility remaining. Not all have been hot commodities.

The latest group had six juniors picked in the first round and nine go undrafted, nearly one-third of the 28 SEC players who declared for the draft.

Former LSU and NFL defensive lineman Marcus Spears said the players leaving creates a big challenge in having enough depth to overcome injuries and other issues, and forces coaches like Miles to plan ahead in recruiting.

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