TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Life in the SEC can be taxing. Surviving a season of Alabamas, LSUs and Georgias can be difficult. Very few make it through the schedule unscathed. Of the 10 former Alabama players invited to the NFL combine this past weekend, only one (Robert Lester) was without a significant injury since the national championship. After a 14-game stretch, the scalpel is usually waiting. If a player doesn't see a surgeon before he graduates, he ought to be considered lucky.
So why tempt fate? That was the question asked of South Carolina sophomore Jadeveon Clowney following his sophomore season. The otherworldly defensive end could play in the NFL yesterday. He would likely be a top-five pick in April's draft if not for the 'three-years-out' rule keeping him in college. Some asked whether he should lawyer up and challenge the current eligibility standards. Others wondered whether simply sitting out his junior season was the best course of action.
Clowney, for his part, put the kibosh on the whole idea, tweeting from his account to say he would play. He even threw an "lol" in the message for good measure.
But he isn't the only player in the country capable of playing in the NFL today, despite being ineligible for the draft. At Alabama, there are a handful of prospects that would be ranked highly on draft boards across the country if not for their underclassmen status.
Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio has had the look of an All-Pro since arriving in Tuscaloosa as a freshman. What he has done on the football field hasn't swayed that opinion. He plays a high-value position and has the size (6-6, 311 pounds) scouts are looking for. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock couldn't remember Kouandjio's name at the combine on Sunday, but that didn't stop him from praising Alabama's talented tackle.
"By the way, the left tackle at Alabama, whose name I don't even know," Mayock told reporters. "On tape, he's a first-round pick."
Fab freshmen Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon might have been high draft picks as well. Both made it on Scouts Inc.'s list of the top 25 underclassmen in the country. Yeldon, who became the first Alabama rookie to rush for 1,000 yards, compares favorably to his predecessors Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. At 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, Yeldon already has the frame to play at the next level.
"He's one of those freshmen that come in and already have the right head on their shoulders and knows what it takes to win, and he's great to have in the huddle," UA quarterback AJ McCarron said of Yeldon before he ran for 108 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame in the national championship. "He's a freakish player. I know that."
"Cooper is a young, budding star," said ESPN college football and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl after watching Cooper live against Tennessee. "He has body control, hands, and the one thing I really like is he has some savvy for a young guy, in terms of setting up defenders -- subtle things scouts look for."
Cooper, Yeldon and Kouandjio will all have time to hone their skills over the next season or two. Rising stars like Denzel Devall, Geno Smith and Trey DePriest will follow suit on the defensive side of the football. Though there's no clear-cut young star on Alabama's defense yet, it's seemingly only a matter of time before the next Dont'a Hightower or Mark Barron arrives. It could be freshman Landon Collins who steps on the scene in 2013, or it could be someone like Jeoffrey Pagan breaking out of his shell.
If there's one thing that's certain under head coach Nick Saban, it's that Alabama won't be lacking for NFL talent. Sometimes it takes a few years to develop, and other times it reveals itself right away. Either way, the NFL will have to wait its turn.