Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bradford, other stars returning to school

Wednesday January 14, 2009
Stewart Mandel

Bradford, other stars make strong statement in returning to school
Sam Bradford will be back at the controls of the Sooners offense after throwing for 4,720 yards and 50 touchdowns in 2008.

Story Highlights
Heisman winner Sam Bradford announced that he will return to Oklahoma
He joins a number of returning stars, including Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow
The 2009 BCS title race could now include many of the same teams as '08

It's cool to stay in school.

That's the message that emanated out of Norman, Okla., on Wednesday when Heisman winner Sam Bradford stunned much of the football world by announcing his decision to return to Oklahoma next season.

Coupled with the return of Florida QB Tim Tebow and Texas QB Colt McCoy, both of whom previously announced their intent to put off the NFL, 2009 will mark the first time in history that the top-three Heisman vote-getters all return to the collegiate gridiron the following season.

As an unabashed advocate of the college game over the pros, let me be the first to say: That's awesome.

In announcing his decision Wednesday, Bradford said: "I've dreamed about playing at Oklahoma since I was little. My three years here have been three of the best years of my life. There's no need to cut this experience short."

Hardcore NFL fans (most notably those of the Detroit Lions) will likely scoff at those words. How, they might ask, could anyone in his right mind pass up tens of millions of dollars?

Easy: It was the best thing for Bradford.

While many media types, most notably ESPN draft guru Todd McShay, have had Bradford pegged as the no-brainer No. 1 pick for months, I had a sneaking suspicion since the Dec. 13 Heisman ceremony that A) They were wrong and B) That Bradford might come back. Asked by a reporter that night about Bradford's lofty draft stock, Sooners coach Bob Stoops got noticeably defensive.

"You don't know that," he said. "Those people who are projecting that have no idea about that. You guys are making something that isn't there unless you have got a draft projection back that I didn't. OK? So you're going on speculation that rarely is correct. If he's a top-five guy, he ought to go. If he isn't, he'll be a top-five guy at some point in his career."

When asked about the subject at a Jan. 3 press conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Bradford could not have sounded more apathetic.

"I'm not a big NFL guy," he said. "I don't watch a lot of it."

While Bradford threw for an astounding 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, and while his physical abilities were evident to even the most untrained observer, it's easy to forget that he was only playing his second year of college football. Just being around him recently, both at the Heisman and during the week leading up to the title game, it was striking just how introverted and uncomfortable he is in front of the media -- and dealing with college publicity is a walk in the park compared with the constant scrutiny surrounding pro athletes.

Bradford can stand to get stronger, he has areas where he can improve, but most importantly, he'll be much better prepared for the rigors of the pros with another year's maturity.

While nobody stood at the podium Wednesday and said what exactly Bradford heard back from the NFL's draft advisory board, it's a pretty safe to assume they didn't say "No. 1 overall pick." recently reported that "one Oklahoma source who had spoken to numerous NFL types said Bradford graded out somewhere between the No. 10 and No. 20 pick in the first round."

Judging by an exchange during Bradford's press conference Wednesday, draft position might not even have played that big a factor.

"Was there a point in the draft, whether it was No. 5 or No. 8 or whatever, where you would [have said], 'Man, I have to go?'" a reporter asked.

"No, to be honest," replied Bradford.

"So if you [could have] gone No. 3, you still would have come back?" the reporter asked.

"Most likely, yes," said Bradford.

Oklahoma wound up a big winner in the underclass derby this week. In addition to Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham, tackle Trent Williams and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy all decided to return for another year.

Judging by Stoops' comments Wednesday, it sounds like he made sure they knew well the experiences last year of juniors Malcolm Kelly, Reggie Smith and Curtis Lofton, none of whom went in the first round. Again, he indirectly criticized McShay and the other various draft "experts."

"Not one of them went where they were projected to go on TV," said Stoops. "They went where their [true] draft projection was. None of these people are in draft rooms. GMs are very secretive about it."

While no shortage of underclassmen around the country have gone the other direction this offseason, there has been a surprising amount of returnees among the nation's high-profile programs. In addition to Tebow, McCoy and the Oklahoma guys, USC safety Taylor Mays - projected by many to be the top defensive player taken -- announced he'll return for his senior season. (As of this writing, Trojans QB Mark Sanchez was expected to go pro.) LSU running back Charles Scott and tackle Ciron Black are coming back. Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes is said to be leaning that way as well.

"Hopefully it sends a clear message to other young guys out there that these guys value their experience in college," said Stoops. "Everyone says you can always come back [and get a degree]. That's easier said than done."

In terms of the football implications, the 2009 national title race is shaping up to include many or all of the same contenders as 2008. Of the four BCS-conference teams that finished in the top five this season, Florida and Texas return the most starters, but suddenly Oklahoma and USC are right in the mix as well.

The Sooners do lose four of the five starters from their dominant offensive line, as well as top receivers Juaqiun Iglesias and Manuel Johnson. It's unlikely that Bradford will put up the same gaudy passing numbers, but he might not have to what with a veteran defense and two solid running backs in DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown. It may even benefit Bradford for NFL types to see him operate without the benefit of such a loaded supporting cast.

USC, meanwhile, was looking at having to replace nearly its entire starting defense, so the return of a stalwart like Mays is a huge boost. Getting back Sanchez would have been even bigger, but another former top-rated high-school QB and one-time SEC starter, Mitch Mustain, is waiting in the wings.

As for the Heisman race ... wow. Normally, a new crop of stars rises to the head of the pack each season, but to do so next year, guys like Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead and Cal RB Jahvid Best are going to have to find a way to unseat the Bradford-McCoy-Tebow hegemony.

The sport just gets that much more fun when guys stay in school.

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