Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton and Arkansas’ Treylon Burks are among the college football star players who have opted out of their teams’ respective bowl games this season.
It’s become an annual tradition that has gotten more and more common as players choose to sit out and prepare for the NFL draft rather than risk getting injured. With millions on the line for some projected top picks, it’s typically an understandable — if disappointing — choice.
But Mississippi State coach Mike Leach made it clear Saturday he’s dead-set against the recent trend.
“You finish what you start,” Leach said. “You’ve got an obligation to the place that helped build and develop you to finish it out in the bowl. You owe it to your team. You owe it to your fans. You owe it to your coaches.”
The Bulldogs have two players who could potentially skip the Dec. 28 Liberty Bowl against Texas Tech in their draft preparations. Cornerback Martin Emerson already has declared for the draft, announcing he would forgo his senior year; left tackle Charles Cross has not yet declared but is a consensus first-round selection.
Asked for his advice on whether underclassmen in Cross’ and Emerson’s positions should return to school or declare for the draft, the second-year Mississippi State coach said simply, “stay” — the more experienced and developed a college prospect, the better.
“If you’re the NFL, you don’t care if anybody comes out early,” Leach added. “Why would you care? If you’re good enough to play in that league, they’re going to get you anyway. The more reps you have, the more games you’ve played, the more polished you are, the better shot you have of making the team and the better chance the NFL has of realizing their investment that they put into these guys.”
Leach confirmed Cross was not at practice Saturday and was unsure if Emerson was.
“I think he’s had a good career,” Leach said of Cross. “He came here and was a guy able to really do some good things at a young age.”
CBS Sports and WalterFootball.com project Cross to go No. 9 to the Carolina Panthers, NBC Sports has Cross 19th to the Miami Dolphins, and The Sporting News slates him No. 20 to Washington.
But the financial difference between even those slots can be massive. The ninth pick carries a signing bonus of roughly $14.3 million, while the 20th pick checks in around $8.3 million.
Draft-ready players certainly have a lot to lose by playing in a bowl game. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith was a likely high pick before being injured in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, ending up a second-round selection.
Smith is, of course, an exception. Most stars who do choose to play in their teams’ bowl games make it out unscathed.
Leach called choosing to skip one final game “the most bizarre thing in the world to me.”
“They think they’re going to have a storied, 10-year NFL career, but then they can’t play one more college game,” he said. “Well, that’s ridiculous. Guys will go to the NFL and they make the Pro Bowl and they’ll play in the Pro Bowl.”
Leach is among the college coaches who left their schools for new jobs prior to a bowl game, making the jump from offensive coordinator at Oklahoma to head coach at Texas Tech in 1999 before the Sooners’ two-point loss to Ole Miss.
But he made it clear Saturday he’s no fan of players leaving early.
“It’s one of the biggest absurdities that I’ve seen, and it’s selfish, too,” Leach said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.