As his team was playing out a 9-3 regular season, Florida coach Dan Mullen didn't sense an exodus of his non-seniors leaving early for the NFL.
"I don't know if we have a lot of pro guys on our team right now, to be honest with you," Mullen said in mid-November on his weekly radio show. "That might be shocking to some people, and especially to our guys in the locker room, but the NFL is a different animal.
"I know everybody just assumes, 'Well, I play at Florida, so I'm going to the NFL.' That's certainly not the case."
Multiple Gators felt otherwise, as five Florida juniors are among the whopping 36 Southeastern Conference players who have elected to forgo remaining eligibility for an opportunity to hear their names called during April's NFL draft, which is being held for the first time in Nashville. The 36 players from the SEC are a new high, easily outdistancing the 27 who left early last year.
The SEC had 23 players declare early for the draft in 2017 and 26 in 2016.
Heading to the NFL for the Gators are defensive end Jachai Polite, running back Jordan Scarlett, offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor, linebacker Vosean Joseph and safety Chanucey Gardner-Johnson. Polite has been projected as a first-round pick, but there is always the risk of early declarers sliding down a round or two from where they expected to get picked or falling out of the draft altogether.
There are at least 133 players nationally who have declared early, which is a figure that would represent more than half of the 256 total selections in the 2018 draft.
"Something like 44 percent of guys who declare early for the NFL draft make it. Think about that," Mullen said. "Here's the problem for young people: They're all in that 44 percent; none of them are in the 56 percent who don't make it. None of them."
Last year's draft pool included a then-record 106 early declarers, with 37 of those (35 percent) failing to get drafted. Of the SEC's 27 who declared, six didn't get picked: Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway and outside linebacker Jeff Holland, Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro, Georgia defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and LSU offensive tackle Tony Weathersby and cornerback Kevin Toliver.
Alabama has accounted for seven of the SEC's 36 early departures in this draft cycle, which is the most for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. Of Alabama's 30 previous players under Saban who left early, 17 were first-round selections.
The Tide had three who were first-round selections last April — Miami defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, Washington defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne and Atlanta receiver Calvin Ridley — but the experiences for former Alabama defenders Jeoffrey Pagan and Adrian Hubbard weren't as memorable in 2014.
Pagan was a sixth-round pick of Houston after declaring early and lasted just 22 career games with the Texans, while Hubbard wasn't drafted at all and never played a regular-season down in the NFL.
"We've always tried to provide our players with the kind of information from NFL teams and from football people to help them make a good business decision about the future as football players," Saban said. "The conversation has to be about value. If you are going to get drafted in a position where you don't have a very good chance to make the team and you could have created more value by staying in school, you should stay in school.
"You've got a better chance to support your family next year when you become a third-round pick rather than be a fifth- or sixth- or seventh-round guy who has very little chance to make the team."
In addition to Alabama's seven early declarers and Florida's five, Ole Miss also has five, while Georgia and Texas A&M each has four. Leaving Georgia early are running back Elijah Holyfield, tight end Isaac Nauta and receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley.
Tennessee's lone early departure is linebacker Quart'e Sapp.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.