Rabalais: Early exits new norm at colleges

Leonard Fournette spoke in headlines Jan. 2 when he announced his commitment to play football for LSU.

What he said in fine print was easy to miss but almost as telling.

The St. Augustine superstar vowed to take his talents to Baton Rouge for “the next three or four years.”

If Fournette is as good as his hyperventilated praise, the man touted as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson will make his exit from Tiger Stadium before Senior Day.

It’s the new norm — if not in college football overall, certainly at LSU, which has hemmoraged 16 juniors and draft-eligible sophomores to the NFL the past two seasons. Also leaving is tailback Alfred Blue, who could have had what was basically a second senior season but chose not to take it.

Chronicling the Tigers’ early departures Tuesday, CBSSports.com writer Bruce Feldman ended his tweet with “#3andOutU.”

Until the mid-1970s, college athletes could play only three varsity seasons. By the 1980s, LSU all-time greats like Dalton Hilliard, Tommy Hodson and Wendell Davis were playing in the purple and gold for four years. In the case of Hodson, still LSU’s all-time passing leader, he stayed to play four after a redshirt season.

It’s hard to imagine all three of those Tigers legends would stay for four years now. The temptation to move on to the NFL and its riches is simply too great.

Tuesday, LSU assembled five of the six key players who decided to return for their senior seasons for an afternoon news conference.

The event was expected to be a chance for starting left tackle La’el Collins to announce he is returning for his senior campaign. But fellow juniors like defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Jordan Allen, running back Kenny Hilliard and center Elliott Porter were also on hand, a show of senior force clearly intended to send a message that not every quality player LSU has is leaving early.

“To me, these guys really have exhibited quality decision-making and really the future path for young men in this program,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

“Each and all, they made a decision that weighed an NFL career versus playing another year, getting a degree, and playing for the Tigers. This will be the leadership of our team, these will be the guys that really kind of point in the right direction.”

Also returning, though he could have left as well, was senior-to-be tailback Terrence Magee, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s news conference.

Miles wouldn’t say it, because he isn’t a throw-them-under-the-bus kind of guy. But you know he can’t be thrilled with the decision by some of the seven.

Wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry? Hard to fault them, especially Beckham with his kick return skills (missed field goals or otherwise). Same for running back Jeremy Hill, the No. 2 rusher in the Southeastern Conference this year and some say the top running back prospect in the draft. Of course, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of displeasure inside the LSU football complex since Hill apparently gave the strongest indications he was returning in 2014 until Monday’s announcement that he was not.

Defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and offensive guard Trai Turner? None of them are going to be first-rounders, Miles’ threshold for leaving early as he re-stated Tuesday like a campaign plank.

“Anything short of the first round, if you leave early, is a deal” for the NFL, Miles said.

Turner’s decision is particularly perplexing. The only way he’s getting on TV in the first round of the NFL draft is if he sits in the crowd at Radio City Music Hall with the Jets and Giants fans who always rend their garments over their team’s first pick.

NFLDraftScout.com projects Turner as a seventh-rounder or free agent, hardly a ringing endorsement. There have been hall of famers who started out as free agents, but if Collins (a likely second-rounder this year) saw the wisdom in another year of college, Turner or someone whose advice he took should have seen the same.

But Turner, like Sam Montgomery last year and countless players before them, saw only the pot of gold out there on the horizon — not the path it takes to get there.

“Only one player every year gets drafted where he thinks he should,” LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said, speaking in general but wise terms.

In other words, expect more bad draft decisions here there and everywhere. And expect LSU to hold onto that label of 3andOutU.