TAMPA ― They were more pioneers than trend setters, football forebearers whose controversial decisions would impact all future bowl seasons.
When Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette opted three seasons ago to bypass the Sun and Citrus bowls, respectively, to preserve their bodies for upcoming NFL pre-draft workouts, a figurative floodgate was unlatched.
Both were benchmark decisions, spawning a trend that briskly evolved into convention. Today, dozens of draft prospects bypass bowls, at least those not affiliated with the College Football Playoff. In this state alone, FSU’s Cam Akers (Sun), UCF’s Gabe Davis and Adrian Killins (Gasparilla), and Florida’s CJ Henderson (Orange) all declined to participate in their teams’ December contests.
But what’s establishment without a non-conformist? Here at the dawn of a new decade, some highly prominent draft prospects are defying convention, bent on finishing a season they started four months ago.
Arguably the most coveted of the bunch will stick his hand in the Raymond James Stadium turf Wednesday.
“I think after the season we knew what we wanted to do,” said Auburn consensus All-America defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who leads a handful of other draft-caliber Tigers into the Outback Bowl. “We wanted to come get this 10th win and be able to leave our name in the record books.”
Brown, the No. 3 overall pick in The Sporting News’ latest 2020 mock draft, risks injury ― and millions ― by playing against No. 16 Minnesota. But going by that logic, he took the same risk by playing Alabama in the season finale. Or by suiting up for any practice this past fall. Or by running one offseason sprint.
“If I was worried about the risk, I wouldn’t have played the rest of this season,” he said.
To many, loyalty ― be it to team or graduating class or both ― simply trumps the risk, which can be cushioned by loss-of-value insurance policies, possessed these days by many first-round prospects (reportedly including Brown).
Penn State junior edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick, recently announced he would forego his senior season in Happy Valley, but played in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl romp of Memphis.
“This is my family for the past three years,” Gross-Matos said two days before the Cotton Bowl. “I feel a sense of duty to see it out with them. I wouldn’t want to be at home or anywhere else. Happy to be where I’m at, happy to get a chance to go out here and win."
A similar sentiment prevails throughout Auburn’s lineup, where Brown was joined by first-team All-SEC defensive end Marlon Davidson and left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho as draft-caliber seniors bent on remaining through bowl season.
Junior pass rusher Nick Coe, who had no sacks in an underwhelming 2019 season, is the only Tiger to announce he won’t participate in the Outback Bowl. Similarly, Minnesota’s only bona fide 2020 draft prospect missing today is senior linebacker Kamal Martin, who recently underwent leg surgery.
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“I think it just says a lot about our senior leadership,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
“Those guys, it’s real important to them to finish this thing. We’ve got a chance to win 10 games which, with the schedule that we’ve had, would be a good season. They’re excited to be out here one last time with their teammates.”
One last time. For some, those final steps of the journey are worth embracing, not skipping.
“We never tell our players what to do. Every case is an individual case-by-case basis, but we’ll support ‘em in whatever they want to be able to do,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
“But every other one of our seniors is playing in the game, and draft-eligible players. Just like Coach Malzahn, I think that’s a credit to the type of culture and program you have, and the connectivity you have as a team as well.”
Staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.