Think of coaches Nick Saban and Bob Stoops as tenured professors of football at Alabama and Oklahoma and their players as students of the game. At some point, all of their pupils will leave the college environment to make their way in the world.
For a chosen few, the NFL beckons.
It certainly is calling to a dozen or so top prospects playing in Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, most notably three members of the Crimson Tide: All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley, quarterback AJ McCarron and junior cornerback Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, who’s expected to forgo his final year of eligibility and declare for the draft before the Jan. 15 deadline. The Sooners also will send several players to the NFL, including defensive back Aaron Colvin and center Gabe Ikard.
At Alabama and Oklahoma, graduating to the NFL is a rite of passage.
During the Stoops era, which opened in 1999, 65 Sooners have been drafted, including 13 in the first round. Two current members of the New Orleans Saints played under Stoops: rookie receiver Kenny Stills (a fifth-round pick in April) and linebacker Curtis Lofton (second round by Atlanta in ’08). Stills bypassed his last year of eligibility to enter the NFL.
“(Stoops) does a good job of telling the players the truth about what’s going to go on in the process,” Stills said. “He does a good job of just keeping it real for you. For some guys, it’s hard to appreciate the truth. For a guy like me, I knew my situation.”
Stills was the 144th player selected, lower perhaps than several draft analysts had projected. But leaving early made perfect sense for Stills, who determined a brewing quarterback controversy might be detrimental to him.
His suspicions were spot-on. Quarterbacks Trevor Knight and Blake Bell shared time and likely will do so against Alabama.
Saints running back Mark Ingram decided to come out early at Alabama after weighing his options. Ingram missed several games at the start of his junior season with a knee injury.
“Running backs don’t typically last long in the league,’’ said Ingram, the 28th pick in the 2011 draft. “You only have one body, so you have to use it wisely.”
Staying at Alabama for his senior season proved to be the best situation for Mosley, a consensus first-round selection in April’s draft and the 2013 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker. Mosley likely would have been taken in the first round last April but opted to return for his senior season and complete his undergraduate degree.
“Coming back had nothing to do with Coach Saban or trying to win another national championship,” said Mosley, who received his degree in human and environmental sciences on Dec. 14. “I came back because I wanted to graduate. My decision was simple. I think it’s important (to graduate) because you never want to be a stereotype.”
For every player who decides to turn pro early, there are those who choose to stay in school and run the risk of missing out on potential millions for the chance to obtain a degree and get more seasoning. Russ Lande, director of scouting for The National Football Post, shared his theory on why Saban seldom has to deal with a mass exodus of underclassmen to the NFL.
“Saban and his coaches are relentless in how they teach the game and stress techniques and team and fundamentals,” Lande said. “Other schools may get better athletes and they may get better because of experience, but they don’t get better from teaching, and that’s a big part of Saban’s success and why some kids who might be on the fence decide to come back.”
Lande paused, then continued.
“I don’t necessarily think their players — a lot of them anyway — turn out to be great pros or become stars at the next level,” he said. “And I think it’s partly because they are prepped so well and a lot of them are so fundamentally sound coming out of school that there isn’t much room for improvement at the next level. Because of that, they may get drafted higher than they really should go.
“But that’s a good thing for the player, and I think they see that.”