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To go or to stay? As NFL prospects weigh future, former BYU great remembers what it’s like

Former Doak Walker Award recipient Luke Staley has unique perspective and knows how complex the process can be.

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Luke Staley runs

Luke Staley won the prestigious Doak Walker Award presented to the top college running back in the nation while playing for BYU. After leaving college early to pursue his NFL dreams, his career was cut short due to injuries.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This column has my name on it, but today I should share the byline with someone else. I’m turning over part of it to Luke Staley. Yeah, that Luke Staley. But first I’ve got to write a preface.

Staley is the best college running back ever to play for BYU or, for that matter, any other Utah school. Yes, Tyler Allgeier broke Staley’s 20-year-old season rushing record last year, but he had more carries — 80 more to be exact. Allgeier rushed for 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games (276 carries); Staley rushed for 1,596 yards and 24 touchdowns in 11 games (196 carries) and averaged an insane 8.1 yards per carry.

He missed the last two games of that season with an injury — both losses (it’s no coincidence that BYU was 12-0 until Staley was sidelined). He was still named the recipient of the Doak Walker Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s best running back.

Allgeier and Staley had one thing in common besides their school — both gave up their final year of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft. Which brings us to the point.

Several local players have announced this season that they will give up their remaining collegiate eligibility to declare for the NFL draft or they’ve made it known they are leaning that way.

Clark Phillips III, continuing Utah’s tradition of producing NFL-caliber defensive backs, is skipping the Rose Bowl because he doesn’t want to risk injury and his draft prospects; he is projected as a first-round pick. He’s only a sophomore.

Tavion Thomas, Utah’s first-team all-Pac-12 running back a year ago, has battled a toe injury this season and finally decided to quit the season and prepare for the draft. His draft stock is a mystery — he’s talented but his body of work is short. He’s a junior.

Utah’s Cam Rising, another junior, also seems determined to declare for the draft even though his name appears nowhere on the top lists of pro quarterback prospects. Just in the Pac-12 alone, there are four quarterbacks who had better passer ratings. If he’s drafted, he’d likely be the second quarterback taken in the state — BYU’s Jaren Hall is a better prospect and had slightly better stats. Hall could feel added pressure to give up his senior season because of his age (24). 

So I contacted Staley to get his thoughts on players who give up a year or more of college eligibility to declare for the NFL draft. It’s a gamble for most. Utah’s undersized receiver/return specialist Britain Covey gave up his senior year — he also felt his age (24 at the time) forced such a decision. It paid off. He is returning punts for the front-running Philadelphia Eagles.

At the other end of the spectrum is BYU’s John Walsh, who is often used as a cautionary tale. Convinced he would be a high-round draft pick, he gave up his senior year to declare for the draft and fell to the seventh round. He never played in the league.

Staley was indisputably an NFL talent, but he had a long history of severe injuries — shoulders, knees, ankles, you name it — beginning in high school and continuing at BYU and the NFL. He missed the last two games of his senior year with a broken leg, which is probably why he fell to the seventh round. He tore his ACL as a rookie with the Detroit Lions and that was the end of his football career.

With so many players declaring for the draft, I reached out to Staley to get his thoughts on the subject. I wondered if he regretted not returning for his senior year, especially given what happened with the Lions. Here’s what he wrote:

I did leave early and at least for me when I was going through that process it was a very complex discussion. There was a lot of different factors and obviously some weighed heavier than others that played a part in making the decision to leave with one year of eligibility left in college. I have NEVER regretted making the choice to leave BYU early. Knowing what I know now wouldn’t change a thing. Without question I made the right choice because my ultimate goal always was to play in the NFL. Granted, things didn’t work out like I imagined as an 8-year-old, but how can I have any regrets? I don’t. My life is pretty damn great and that experience helped me to get where I am now. 

As for college athletes now, I do think that deciding whether to stay or leave has become a little more complex in today’s world. Each player’s situation is unique. There are a few more reasons to stay in school for a majority of kids today because of NIL opportunities, but ultimately there are so many different things that motivate one person from another. It is important for kids to talk to experts that can give unbiased advice. I think it is natural for college athletes to want to make that jump when they feel their stock will be at its highest point. They are the ones who can best decide the risk/reward of staying or leaving. At the end of the day, as long as they have the ability to take ownership, whether the outcome is good or bad, then who are we to question their choice?

Anyone who has played football or any sport for that matter, especially at a high level, knows that we are all up against an expiration date. I am the person who knows my body the best. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I can somewhat estimate if I am close to my athletic peak or is there a specific area that I can focus on during another college season that would substantially benefit my draft stock. For me there wasn’t.

What more did I have to do in college besides get my degree? I achieved my goals on the field plus more. I was lucky enough to be part of one of BYU’s greatest offenses, an All-American and somehow won the Doak Walker. I was just one small cog in that offense and was much more of a benefactor from players around me. In my opinion, our offensive line that year might have been the greatest unit BYU has ever had and four of the five of them were graduating. All three tight ends were headed to the NFL. (Quarterback Brandon) Doman was headed to the NFL. And a handful of receivers were done. For me to come back to BYU and roll the dice, in my opinion, would not have been wise. The better question is, why would I have stayed if the NFL was my goal? Like (Seinfeld character) George Constanza says, “You always want to leave on a high note.”

The thing with life is you never know how things “could have been.” Would I have torn my ACL again if I was at BYU for my senior year as I did in Detroit? No one knows. All I knew was my playing expiration date was fast approaching and I knew leaving at that time was 100% the right thing for me to do. 

So every player who leaves early has his own unique circumstances that will be the driving force behind his decision. College football is the greatest, but as athletes we always want to push the envelope and play at that next level. We can all be Monday morning quarterbacks critiquing one’s decision, but we need to understand that what we, as fans, see might only be the tip of the iceberg when a player decides to leave early. Looking back 20-plus years later and a bust as a professional player there’s not one thing I would change. I saw my opportunity and tried to seize it, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out because one thing or another and guess what … that’s fine.

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BYU running back Luke Staley speaks at a press conference Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo announcing his intention to forgo his senior year of school and enter the NFL draft. Staley tore his ACL during his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, thus cutting short his professional career.

Jason Olson, Deseret News