Every year a group of young men are faced with a dilemma that many will never have to ponder. The group of men I am referring to are the underclassmen in college football. Their dilemma, if good enough, is whether or not to bypass the remainder of their college years and take a shot at the National Football League. While it is the dream of many who have strapped on a helmet and shoulder pads, it is a decision that these young men will agonize over for days, weeks and even months leading up to January 18th. That is the date that underclassmen have to formally declare their intention to enter the NFL draft to be held in April. The decision to enter the draft has always been difficult for any player to make and has been even harder with the debacle that occurred last season with Maurice Clarett which ended up snaring USC standout WR Mike Williams and costing him a chance to play for his second National title. While the circumstances surrounding Clarett are quite different than most will face, that situation will still be a factor in many of the decisions made. With the overall 2005 NFL draft looking to be one of the weakest in recent years, an influx of underclassmen could add enough spice to allow teams to find the immediate help that so many look for each year.
Juniors have always made an impact in the NFL draft and in many instances they have dominated areas of the draft. This is especially true in the offensive "skill" positions. And by "skill" I mean positions other than the offensive line, where we all know the true "skill" players are. The quarterback position in the 2005 draft is a solid class but could potentially be one of the best classes should 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart of USC as well as fellow West Coast rocket man, California's Aaron Rodgers decide to make themselves available for the draft. In addition to those two, the oft forgotten Utah has a terrific quarterback in junior Alex Smith who may also opt for playing on Sundays next fall.
The senior running back and wide reciever group has its share of standouts but few names outside of the top 5 in either group can be looked at as immediate contributors to the team that drafts them. The list of juniors that could declare would change that and make a few teams change their draft boards should they add their name to the draft. Some of those names are Louisiana Tech's Ryan Moats, Minnesota's Marion Barber, Frank Gore of Miami and DeAngelo Williams of Memphis who was banged up in the GMAC Bowl. Other running backs that could hear their names called on the first day of the draft are Vernand Morency of Oklahoma State and Dontrell Moore of New Mexico. The corps of undeclared wide receivers consist of names that will not unseat the likes of Mike Williams but will still be productive at the next level. The juniors making the most noise for themselves are California's Geoff McArthur and Chris Henry of West Virginia. Other undeclared notable receivers are Dante Ridgeway of Ball State, Oregon State's Mike Hass and David Anderson of Colorado State. A receiver that you may not have heard of but could make an impact should he make the jump is another MAC product, Martin Nance of Miami (OH). Should junior TE Heath Miller decide to come out this season, he will easily be the cream of the tight end crop and rightfully so as he is an outstanding player.
The offensive line has a few underclassmen that could find themselves on an NFL sideline next fall. The most notable of those names are D'Brickshaw Ferguson of Virginia and Boise State's Daryn Colledge. Both have been projected as offensive tackles once they enter the draft, be it this or next season. The offensive tackle position in the 2005 draft lost a few big names when Eric Winston (Miami), Andrew Whitworth (LSU) and Winston Justice (USC) all decided to head back to their respective universities for next fall. If they had entered the draft, this would have been the strongest position in the draft and it still may be.
The defensive side of the ball has a strong presence of underclassmen that many NFL teams want to see make themselves eligible for the upcoming draft. This is particularly true at the linebacker spot as the position is loaded with those underclassmen. If some of them don't come out this season, the 2006 linebacker class might be the best collective group ever. One of the juniors that was being eyed, Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, has already pulled out and will be returning to the Buckeyes for 2006 as they have a chance to have a special season with the talent they will have in Columbus next fall. Even without Hawk, the list of underclassmen is very impressive with perhaps the sophomore Ahmad Brooks of Virginia being the head of the class. Depending on which of this talented group come out for the 2005 draft, this could challenge for the best position in the draft. Of that group, these are the most notable; SEC standouts Odell Thuman of Georgia, Channing Crowder of Florida and both Fred Roach and DeMeco Ryan of Alabama. The ACC offers Daryl Blackstock of Virginia, D'Qwell Jackson of Maryland and Florida State's A.J. Nicholson. Rounding out the talented group are Michigan's Pierre Woods, USC's Lofa Tatupu, Will Derting of Washington State and Spencer Havner of UCLA. And imagine this, there are MORE. If your NFL team needs a linebacker, the next two seasons should provide excellent opportunities for you.
The defensive interior has its share of young guns as well but pales in comparison overall to their linebacker brethren. The most talked about underclassman is easily defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College. He is so highly regarded that should he come out, he and Texas defensive tackle Rodrique Wright have been rumored to possibly challenge for the number one pick in the 2005 draft. Others who have interest from the NFL but have not made their decisions known are DE's Justin Tuck of Notre Dame and Eric Henderson of Georgia Tech. From the defensive tackle spot, Anthony Montgomery of Minnesota, Georgia's Gerald Anderson and Orien Harris of Oregon have also garnered interest from NFL scouts.
The defensive secondary (especially cornerback) is easily the weakest spot in the draft with only a few underclassmen looking at legitimate shots at a high draft pick. Most of those debating the decision to come out would be better served staying on campus and putting in solid efforts in 2005. The most notable names at corner mulling over their future are speedsters; Adam Jones (West Virginia) and Jimmy Williams (Virginia Tech). A few others to watch for are Alan Zemaitis (Penn State) and Justin Miller (Clemson). At the safety slot, Michigan's Ernest Shazor (in the mold of Sean Taylor, Redskins) who is listed at 6'4", 225 lbs could be the best of the class. Thomas Davis of Georgia could battle Shazor for that right. Brodney Poole of Oklahoma is also a viable option should he enter the draft.