KNOXVILLE — College football players have been leaving a season or two early to enter the NFL draft for years.
Now players are skipping their team's bowl games to focus on their futures.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Stanford all-purpose star Christian McCaffrey, two projected first-round picks, recently announced their respective decisions, and those choices became talking points nationally this week when McCaffrey made his choice not to play in the Sun Bowl and "begin my draft prep immediately."
Tennessee has a couple of juniors who likely will go pro after the Volunteers face Nebraska in the Music City Bowl: running back Alvin Kamara and All-American defensive end Derek Barnett, who's also a projected first-round pick.
"I think there's a lot of extenuating circumstances that we don't know about," Vols coach Butch Jones said following Tuesday's practice when asked about Fournette and McCaffrey.
"Each individual is different and they have their own reasons, so I really don't think (it's right) for me to comment on that because I don't know. I'm sure there's a lot of things that go into that decisions. All I can tell you is about our players.
"Derek Barnett has had one of the best bowl preparations he's had. I think you look at Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton has not been 100 percent, and yet he's out here every day grinding through it. The team is very, very important to him. You look at Alvin Kamara. All of these individuals, they've had good bowl preparations and I've been very proud of them for that."
Many of McCaffrey's Stanford teammates showed their support for his decision on social media Monday, when his announcement was met with mixed reactions. Some commentators accused him of putting himself before his team or quitting on the Cardinal. Other applauded the choice and pointed out how coaches skip bowl games all the time when they change jobs.
Shock Linwood, Baylor University's all-time top rusher and a fringe NFL prospect, followed suit Tuesday when he publicized his decision not to play in the Cactus Bowl against Boise State.
It could become a worrying trend for college football. If players want to avoid the risk of an injury and the potential loss of millions of dollars in future earnings in an exhibition game, what coach will stop them? For players whose draft stock is both secure and high enough that one game won't make or break where they're picked, why not sit out a non-playoff bowl game?
"It's business decisions that's best for them and their family," Vols defensive back Rashaan Gaulden said after Monday's practice. "I don't really know the guys. I feel like it could happen. I've seen guys forgo their whole senior year to get ready for the draft, so that could be a trend coming up.
"Just trying to stay healthy and trying not to have an injury in the bowl game that would set them back for their future, I think that's a smart decision on their part."
The cautionary tale for the likes of Fournette, McCaffrey and others is Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who tumbled from a potential top-five pick to the second round when he tore his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl last season. Smith has yet to play for the Cowboys this season. He posted on Twitter on Monday if he had a redo, he'd still play in the bowl game.
"There's a lot of things that go into it," Jones said, "because obviously everything is about the team concept. Each circumstance is different, and I think you have to treat each one of those circumstances as they approach and how they present themselves."
After its eighth bowl practice on Tuesday, Tennessee will break for a few days, allowing the players to return to their hometowns and spend time with family, before reconvening in Knoxville on Christmas Eve, spending Christmas together as a team and heading to Nashville on Dec. 26.
Jones is pleased with the team's focus and drive during bowl prep, and he particularly praised Barnett, saying he has the "utmost respect" for the defensive star, for his approach despite the temptation to coast through what likely are his final days as a Vol before jumping to the NFL.
"There was an (NFL scout) waiting to speak with him the other day," Jones said, "and he didn't want to speak to him because he didn't want to miss his workout in the weight room. He's very, very driven. It's all in how you approach this bowl preparation.
"Derek approached this bowl preparation as another opportunity to get better, another opportunity to perfect his craft and another opportunity to get stronger in the weight room, and I think those elements speak volumes for what Derek Barnett stands for."
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