Just days after the Florida Gators season ended with a 41-14 win over Florida State junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson sent out a tweet. It was a well written statement declaring for the NFL Draft. In the statement, Gardner-Johnson made sure to include that he was committed to his team and his teammates and that he will play in Florida’s Bowl Game.
That news in and of itself was more surprising than the news that he would forego his senior season. Why? Because it’s becoming almost commonplace for draft eligible players that declare to not finish out the season, skip the bowl game, hire an agent and start preparing for the NFL Draft. For instance Florida’s bowl opponent, Michigan, will be without junior defensive tackle Rashan Gary in the bowl game. Gary has missed three games this season with a shoulder injury and will skip the Peach Bowl and bowl practices in order to prepare for the draft.
Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, thought to be one of the very first names called this season, declared for the NFL Draft after his sophomore season. That’s right. Before he was even eligible Oliver told people the 2018 season would be his last in college. Oliver tweeted out a message shortly after Horton’s final game, to no surprise, that he would skip the bowl game in order to prepare for the next chapter.
The first two players to make headlines were Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey both Heisman contenders, decided to skip LSU and Stanford’s bowl games after they declared for the NFL.
That makes Gardner-Johnson’s decision to play in the bowl game unique.
“He is going to play in the game,” an Mullen said of Gardner-Johnson on Monday. “I think he is excited to play in the game and finish out his career, you know, playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl and help try, you know, get a ten win season and finish on a top ten team in his last season with the Gators.”
There is some credence to skipping a bowl game. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was thought to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft until he tore his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Michigan tight end Jake Butt was thought to be the second or third tight end picked in the same draft as Smith. Butt tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl and wasn’t picked until the 145th overall pick by the Denver Broncos.
Gardner-Johnson isn’t the only draft eligible player the Gators have this season, he’s just the only one that has made his intentions clear. Running back Jordan Scarlett and defensive ends Jabari Zuniga are all potential early entrants to the 2019 NFL Draft. Offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor is another player that will likely test the waters and at least send in paperwork to the NFL and see where he’s likely to be selected.
Mullen has been on the road recruiting the past week but he did have time to meet with his players as a team and individually.
“I met with several with other underclassmen and with all the meetings I have had I think everyone plans on playing in the game,” Mullen said on the Peach Bowl conference call. “I think some of the guys were having meetings and exploring options in their futures and what it might hold with some research.”
In the past three years skipping bowl games has gone from being on outrage to commonplace. Mullen, as most coaches in America would say, is a big proponent of the NFL Draft. Every player’s situation is different.
“I think is the right way of handling things – gather as much information you can and make a great decision,” Mullen said. “I’m a big believer in the NFL draft. If you you’re a first rounder you should leave and go to the NFL and if you’re not you probably should stay and compete and develop and continue to develop and try to become a first round guy.”
Playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl game is a huge step for Mullen and his program in its first season. Still, football is a violent game and injuries can happen at any time. When a player is mulling over leaving school early to head to the draft can you really blame them for putting themselves first when there are potentially millions of dollars on the line?