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Clock Ticks on Draft Decisions

Juniors such as Bush, White and Young have until Jan. 15 to declare themselves eligible for NFL. Choices are based on many variables.

January 04, 2006|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Reggie Bush, Vince Young and LenDale White have faced the questions all season and, for the most part, have responded with some version of "I'll decide when the season is over."

Well, the season ends tonight and those NFL-eligible juniors will be staring a very difficult decision squarely in the eye:

"Should I stay or should I go?"

Matt Leinart faced it last year. He said he fretted over it before, surprisingly, deciding to return to USC instead of declaring for the NFL draft.

"The bottom line is, I went with my heart," Leinart said.

There are so many variables involved in the decision that USC Coach Pete Carroll held a seminar last month so his draft-eligible players could become informed. For juniors, the choice is complicated by a Jan. 15 deadline to declare themselves eligible.

That leaves little time for accurate evaluations from NFL experts. The decision must be made before combines and scouting days. Players must quickly decipher where they are projected to go this year and how much they might move up should they play another year in college.

But even when you put all those variables in the pot and mix them together, only a search of the soul will yield the right choice.

"It's one of the toughest decisions you'll ever have to make," said Lofa Tatupu, a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks who left USC after his junior season a year ago. "There's all this and that that goes into it, evaluations and stuff, but when it comes down to it, you really have to just go with your gut."

Sometimes, it matters where you go to school. Texas and USC, for example, couldn't be more different.

Texas has not lost a draft-eligible junior since defensive lineman Tony Brackens in 1996.

Ricky Williams of the Miami Dolphins, Cedric Benson of the Chicago Bears, Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs and Roy Williams of the Detroit Lions are recent Texas players who could have declared early for the draft but stayed in school.

USC, on the other hand, has lost five juniors during that span and has at least five more -- Bush, White, Steve Smith, Darnell Bing and Winston Justice -- weighing options this year.

Ricky Williams, the fifth pick in the 1999 draft, said he was close to leaving Texas after his junior year because his coach, John Mackovic, had been fired.

Williams was relieved, however, when he hit it off with Mack Brown, Mackovic's successor, because he said the allure of Austin and the university made it a difficult place to leave.

"There was such a great atmosphere there," he said. "Austin is such a great city, and there is such great support. I loved it there."

Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent who has represented the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft eight times, said assessing personal needs was essential in deciding whether to leave school early.

"The first thing I'll tell them is to do an internal reflection of values and to try and be clear in ranking their own goals and priorities," Steinberg said. "Do you enjoy college? Do you want to get your degree? Then stay in school."

Brown, who has not lost a player to the draft early during his eight-year tenure, and has lost only a few during his 22 years as a head coach, said creating the right kind of environment had been key.

Safety Michael Huff and defensive lineman Rodrique Wright could have been drafted last year but returned to school.

Brown said former players often return to talk to his team and help players see the benefits of staying in school.

"They come back and tell our guys it's not easy up there," Brown said.

Tatupu has another theory on why the Texas players have historically stayed in school.

"Because they haven't won a national championship," he said. "Anyone who plays football plays to win a championship. In peewees, high school, college and pros, that's the goal. Maybe they have stuck around because of that."

He may have a point. Texas last won a national championship in 1970. Since then, USC has won five, including the last two. Steinberg said individual and team accomplishments, such as the Heisman Trophy or a national championship, were major factors to be considered in advising potential clients.

The process gets more complicated after that. Players routinely submit highlight tapes and other information to a board of NFL general managers and player personnel representatives, hoping to determine their draft positions.

Because of the Jan. 15 deadline for juniors, most have yet to be evaluated at NFL combines and rarely have met with NFL teams.

"The answer to the question of draft position will lie in a series of events that have not yet taken place," Steinberg said. "To successfully project a player, it's necessary to see their performance at a combine or scouting day."

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