DESTIN — Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has a proposal. On the surface it seems like a no-brainer. Last year the NBA and NCAA instated a rule allowing student-athletes to declare for the draft, go the NBA draft combine and still have the option to return to school if, after meeting with NBA teams, they decided a return to college was in their best interest.
Several players across the country have taken advantage of the rule this offseason and Bielema, who had two juniors in Alex Collins and Denver Kirkland, declare for the draft and go unselected. In fact, 30 underclassmen went undrafted in the 2016 NFL draft, 12 more than the previous year.
“There’s two things we have in common,” Bielema said “The NFL doesn’t want guys that aren’t ready and the NCAA, us guys, don’t want to have them leave too early. It makes too much sense to not have it happen.”
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones also agreed with Bielema that student-athletes can be too easily swayed one way by friends, family or other people who won’t be making the ultimate decision on draft day. An option to allow players to speak face-to-face with scouts, coaches or general managers would help in the decision process to stay in school or leave early.
“Maybe it’s being able to sit down face to face with NFL personnel or something like that to help these young men,” Jones said. “‘Hey, look, this is where we see you. This is what you need to do. You’re getting advice from us. This is our livelihood. This is what we do for a living.’”
However, to make it happen may be trickier than Bielema anticipates. First of all, NCAA basketball has an early signing period, something not available to football programs. This would leave uncertainty within the ranks with National Signing Day and coaches navigating tight scholarship numbers.
“You wouldn’t know until May where your numbers were on the 85, whether you have six guys leave, two guys leave or 10 guys leave,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “So how would you manage? One year you might have 75 on scholarship and the next year you might have 80. So that would be difficult management for us.”
The fact of the matter is that the rule wouldn’t be put in place to make Saban’s life recruiting easier. It would be, and should be about helping student-athletes make the best decision possible. The basketball model saw more than 120 players declare for the draft, with roughly 40 deciding to sign with an agent, barring them from coming back to school. However, more than 70 declared and didn’t sign an agent, fully taking advantage of the new rule. 57 of those that did not sign an agent chose to return to school.
“As I talked to a few of our [basketball] coaches who have had the experience, I think the feedback has been positive,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “The people have real-time, very valid information on their draft status.”
The real obstacle would appear to be National Signing Day. How would you work around having players potentially leaving school early, but not certainly leaving school early and handle commitments flying in for National Signing Day?
Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain scratched his head when asked about the issue. The second-year head man wants the best for his players, isn’t sure that the current system is the most beneficial, but admitted to not having the answer as to what could or would be the solution.
“I think maybe the question for everybody there is, how do the baseball guys handle it. I talked to Sully and they’ve got guys committed and then somebody’s drafted or whatever. I don’t know how they keep it organized, to be honest,” McElwain said. “But, you know, it’s definitely something that should be look into. Not for us, I’m talking about for the betterment of these players in helping them make their decision, whatever that decision may be.”
There may not be an answer present, but with the number of underclassmen that go undrafted growing each year, something needs to be done to help better educate the student-athletes. Good on the SEC, well most of the league, for recognizing that and getting the conversation going.