Jerald Hawkins is trying his best to focus on Notre Dame, LSU’s opponent in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, but he also knows he’s eligible for the NFL draft.
And that means making a life-altering decision.
“I look at it as a business decision,” said Hawkins, a third-year sophomore right tackle.
Hawkins, linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Danielle Hunter, cornerback Jalen Collins and guard Vadal Alexander have requested draft grades from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee, players said. The grades are expected back within the month, and that’s when the real decision-making begins.
For now, coach Les Miles and his staff have started the annual process of speaking with underclassmen about the decision to leave early. The program has lost 17 players early to the draft over the previous two years — excluding defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed before the 2012 season.
Monday night, Miles suggested LSU could be a championship-caliber team if underclassmen return.
“I think that this team has the potential to play in championships,” he said. “Should the juniors recognize how close we are to being in the (College Football Playoff), this could be a great class for quite some time and a great team for quite some time.”
What’s Miles’ pitch to them?
“It’s basically revealing statistics and observations about conference opponents, guys going to have senior quarterbacks and teams going to lose this and lose that, where we’re pretty much in good shape should we return our junior class,” Miles said.
Those draft-eligible non-seniors who have spoken to reporters have not revealed their decisions. Normally, that happens after the bowl game.
Talk of it, though, engulfs preparation for the postseason game pitting No. 22 LSU (8-4) and the Irish (7-5) at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee.
LSU led the nation the past two years in underclassmen who have left early. Seven left after last season, including running back Alfred Blue, who passed on a fifth year of eligibility. Ten left the year before, including punter Brad Wing.
Fans don’t have to worry about losing punter Jamie Keehn, eighth in the nation this season with a 45-yard average. Keehn said Tuesday he plans to return for his senior season.
“I’m going nowhere,” the Australian said. “Definitely. I’m in no rush to get out of here.”
Receiver Travin Dural, a draft-eligible sophomore like Hawkins, told TV reporters Tuesday he plans to return for his junior season.
The advisory committee limits five players from each team to request grades, but LSU is petitioning the NFL to allow more than that, Miles said. The coach suggested there are “eight or nine” players who want a grade.
The committee gives one of the following opinions: first-round grade, second-round grade or remain in school.
Hunter and Collins seem to have the best draft prospects of any underclassmen.
Some analysts, like CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang, have Hunter as high as a late first-round selection. At least two mock drafts had Collins as at least a third-round selection.
Defensive back Jalen Mills and Vadal Alexander have been listed as top-five players at their position in this draft class by ESPN.com analysts.
The draft status of Kwon Alexander, LSU’s tackles leader this season, and Hawkins are more unclear.
“Some people, it’s their choice. Never know what they’ve got back at home. They want to take care of their (family),” Alexander said Tuesday. “If you think you’re ready, you’re going to go. If you don’t think you’re ready, you shouldn’t. It’s all about what you think: Are you ready or not?”
Is Kwon ready?
“Don’t know, man,” he said.
For Hawkins, there’s one goal right now.
“I’m trying to focus on Notre Dame,” he said.