(Stats Perform) – The canceling of most college pro days last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic proved costly in the NFL Draft for players below the FBS level.
There were only six FCS selections, by far the fewest ever, after NFL teams shied away from drafting players whom they did not get to view up-close-and-personal.
FCS draft prospects face another unprecedented scenario prior to the 2021 draft. They may have to surrender most if not all of their senior season just to give themselves a chance to be drafted.
While all FBS conferences are planning to play this fall, the 13 FCS conferences are pointing toward having a spring season, with only a small percentage of schools playing nonconference games this fall. Playing in a spring season will prevent prospects from being a part of the buildup to the April 29-May 1 draft, which includes training, all-star games, combines and pro days.
The caveat is the NCAA is granting all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility no matter if they play in this academic year or not. If NFL hopefuls shift their draft goal from 2021 to 2022, they can play this fall and in the spring as well as next fall.
Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl – the premier college all-star game – said on Tuesday that playing in the spring isn’t a realistic option for players with 2021 draft aspirations.
“If you want to come out in this year’s draft, you need to enter the draft process, in my mind. That would be my recommendation,” he said. “If not, you should go back to school next year. You should play in the spring and then go back and play next fall, and take advantage of that extra year that the NCAA gave you. In the entire FCS, you can count on one hand how many guys are going to be high-enough draft picks to legitimately say, ‘I’m coming out this year.’ There are very few slam dunks that are day 1 or day 2 (of the three-day draft).
“I think you just need to gauge the expectation level and the motivation of the player. To me, it makes the most sense for the vast majority of all these guys to play in the spring and play in the fall.”
The complexion of an FCS team ‘s roster could be unchanged or drastically different when the proposed spring season begins in late February. The most prominent program that will have changes is North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS champion. Left tackle Dillon Radunz, generally considered the top FCS senior prospect, is chosing to train for the draft instead playing in the spring season. Other seniors also don’t plan to play past the Bison’s lone game versus Central Arkansas on Saturday. Plus, redshirt sophomore quarterback Trey Lance will be the most coveted FCS player if, as many people expect, he declares for early entry into the draft.
Other leading FCS programs fall into the unknown. Jacksonville State opens a four-game fall schedule on Saturday at Florida State, and it would challenge for the Ohio Valley Conference title if it’s two leading senior draft prospects, quarterback Zerrick Cooper and tight end Trae Barry, play in the spring, but probably won’t if one or both them pursue the 2021 draft. They have NFL size and a developing skill set, and were the only OVC players and among just 12 in the FCS to be named to the Senior Bowl Top 250 watch list last month.
“Right now, I haven’t thought much about moving forward with my career. Right now, I’m just focused on the four games that we have and just enjoying my college moments,” said Cooper, a Clemson transfer who has 60 touchdowns passes at JSU the past two seasons and is one shy of Ed Lett’s school career record (61 from 1979-82).
Gamecocks coach John Grass said draft conversations will occur after the fall schedule, and he will seek input from NFL scouts on draft status.
“I don’t see it being a stretch to say that he wouldn’t come back,” Grass said of Cooper. “I think there’s potential he could come back. We just want the best for Z. If it’s best for him to go, then I support that. If another year would help him, I by all means would love to have him back.”
More immediately this week, Grass is happy to welcome Barry back into the lineup after the 6-foot-7 tight end played in only the first five games last season because of a knee injury.
“Our offense took a blow losing him last year, that’s for sure,” Grass said. “He was as good a playmaker as we had offensively.”
North Dakota State and Jacksonville State are two of just 17 FCS programs (out of 127 overall) that are playing at least one game this fall. Some key prospects made grad transfers to FBS programs to play this fall and some seniors who remained at programs that aren’t in action this fall, such as Northern Iowa offensive tackle Spencer Brown, plan to train for the 2021 draft, forsaking the chance to have a final game or season with teammates.