The next time some college football fan gripes about his favorite player going to the NFL before his senior season, we’ll have a ready reply.
Three of them, actually.
Manti Te’o. Geno Smith. Matt Barkley.
The trio returned for a fourth year of college football and look what it got them.
Heartache. Embarrassment. And, certainly in the case of Barkley, a much lighter wallet than he would’ve had a year ago.
The first round of the NFL draft came and went.
All three were left waiting by the phone. It never rang.
That’s a harsh lesson every rising junior with pro aspirations should heed. Think only of yourself.
If there’s a chance to dramatically improve your draft position, then stay in school. If you’re already projected as a first-rounder, it’s time to get started on your real job. Rest assured, the school will get along just fine without you. Sure, a college degree is great to have, but you can always finish up those last few classes in the offseason.
After getting passed over Thursday night, Te’o must’ve been having second thoughts.
We’ll never know for sure if the Notre Dame linebacker would’ve been a first-round pick in 2012, as many projected, going on the assumption that he wouldn’t done any better in the 40-yard dash than the painfully slow time he turned in at this year’s combine. But at least he wouldn’t have been lugging around all that off-the-field baggage — a ruse of a relationship with a girlfriend that wasn’t — plus a stinker of a performance against Alabama in the national championship game.
Even if the whole sordid affair with the fake girlfriend had still occurred, chances are it wouldn’t have been discovered until Te’o had already signed a pro contract. The money would’ve already been in the bank.
Instead, he’s left to wonder how much money he left on the table by returning to the Fighting Irish for what seemed a dream season until it took an oh-so-wrong turn at the end.
Ditto for Smith, who blossomed as a junior in West Virginia’s wide-open offense, throwing for more than 4,300 yards with 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. If he had decided to go pro at that point, the last bit of tape NFL scouts would’ve had on him was a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, when he threw for a record six touchdowns and 401 yards to earn the MVP award.
Smith kept it going through his first give games as a senior, when he was the hands-down favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and looked every bit like a guy who would be the top pick in the draft. He and the Mountaineers were unstoppable, averaging more than 50 points a game.
Unfortunately, the season still had eight games to go.
There was another side to the mountain, and it was all downhill.
Smith still put up some dazzling numbers — 4,205 yards passing, 42 touchdowns, just six interceptions — but West Virginia dropped six of its last eight, including a blowout loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. Suddenly, everyone was finding flaws in Smith’s game. His confidence was shaky. He setup and delivery were faulty. He was too emotional, too loose with the ball.
Heck, some pointed out that he didn’t play well in poor weather — which comes off as the ultimate bit of nitpicking.
Even so, Smith still expected to go somewhere in the first round, maybe even among the top 10 picks. That’s why he turned up at Radio City Music Hall in New York with all the other projected first-rounders. For most of them, their dreams came true. All Smith could do was look on glumly as one player after another went ahead of him — even a teammate he helped look so good, receiver Tavon Austin, selected at No. 8 by the St. Louis Rams.
Te’o stayed away from New York, allowing him to sort out whatever anger or humiliation he was feeling in private. That was the right call, showing he does have the ability to make good decisions beyond the online dating world.
On Friday — finally! — both Te’o and Smith heard their names. Back to back, no less. The Notre Dame star went to San Diego in the second round with the 38th overall pick; Smith was selected next by the New York Jets.
Barkley was still waiting. Amazingly, he wasn’t picked in the first three rounds — passed over through a total of 97 selections. The last four rounds will be held Saturday.
The guess here is that Te’o will turn out to be a good, solid pro, while Smith has a shot at greatness. Certainly, no other rookies will have a bigger chip on their shoulders.
When asked to analyze Te’o, former NFL coach-turned-TV analyst Jon Gruden said, “He’s got a real good football aptitude. He plays faster, I think, than people give him credit. I think he’s a very good, instinctive, high-effort, well-coached inside linebacker that’s got to prove he can play on every down. There is no question about that. But I’m really confident that he can do it.”
As for Smith: “It’s very underestimated what this kid can do from a football standpoint. He does a lot above the neck as well as making plays with his arm and his mobility.”
Then there’s Barkley, who was being mentioned in the same breath with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III before last year’s draft.
Barkley, for some reason, returned to Southern Cal for one more year. Maybe he was counting on less competition at the quarterback position in the 2013 draft (and, indeed, only one QB was taken Thursday). Maybe he truly wanted to take another shot at a national championship with a team that was pegged as the preseason No. 1.
Whatever the case, Barkley couldn’t have been more wrong in his decision, at least from a financial point of view. The Trojans didn’t come close to living up to the hype, barely finishing with more wins than losses (7-6). He threw twice as many interceptions and wound up spraining his shoulder in a late-season game, which raised more doubts in the eyes of the scouts.
Barkley’s stock dropped so severely that, frankly, it would’ve been a surprise if he had been picked in the first round.
“I think Barkley’s going to be a starter in the league at some point,” Gruden said, not sounding nearly as upbeat as he did about the other two. “He’s going to be a guy that relies on his system, complete execution around him. I think his supporting cast is going to be important to him.”
Now, Barkley will tell you that he has no regrets about his decision to return to USC. He’ll tell you that getting the chance to be a leader during tough times will help him down the road.
Barkley blew it.
So did Te’o and Smith.
All those juniors-to-be out there better not to make the same mistake.
Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963