Watching last week's NFL Draft, one thought repeatedly came to mind: who'll be the next Scarlet Knight drafted in the first round? The question is inescapable considering that Greg Schiano has endorsed the idea.
"Yeah, I believe we do. If you identify and recruit the right guys you should have a string (of first-rounders). Someone's got to want to do it. There's 32 decision-makers that decide whether to draft your guy in the first round. I know we have a lot of NFL players on our roster. Can some of them get into the first round? I hope so."
Rutgers returns a loaded defense next fall, led by seniors DE Alex Silvestro, DE Jonathan Freeny, LB Antonio Lowery, and S Joe Lefeged. While all will definitely get some sort of look next April, more likely Rutgers football will have to look to its underclassmen in order to find the next candidate to go in the first round.
There are a number of good candidates in the hyped freshman class. Quarterback Tom Savage was voted as a freshman All-American last year, has the prototypical size and arm strength, and is one of the rare birds in college to play in a mostly Pro Style offense. Defensive Tackle Scott Vallone, fresh off an injury redshirt, may have been the defense's second best player after Devin McCourty last year. Steve Beauharnais was thrust into the starting lineup by an injury to Antonio Lowery, and immediately looked like the team's best linebacker. That was especially notable considering he was playing on the strong side, which usually isn't emphasized in the Rutgers defense. He moved inside this spring and continued his strong play in the spring game.
The most probable of all may be receiver Mohamed Sanu. Sanu returned punts last year, caught 51 balls for 639 yards, and ran for 346 yards as a quarterback out of the wildcat, all as a true freshman. That formation was especially effective because of Sanu's combination of speed and power (it doesn't hurt that he's a fairly decent passer, as shown during the 2008 NJ/NY All-Star Classic). He's athletic, and built like a truck, with thighs as thick as a human torso. The only real flaw in his game to this point is a pair of inconsistent hands. Not bad, not bad at all for a safety who only switched to wideout near the end of last year's spring practice session.
That level of production will surely get him on the NFL's radar, but what could really move up the timetable is the fact that Mohamed is already 20, and will turn 21 this fall. Indeed, Sanu enrolled early last spring after being unable to play as a senior for South Brunswick as an overaged senior. (Which cost him considerable recruiting buzz, the main reason that he isn't already on the national radar. Everyone in New Jersey expected him to be a star.) That was because he was held back a year before entering grade school.
Born in New Brunswick, Sanu was moved to the Sierra Leone and back to Central New Jersey before age 6. Held back in the first grade because of a language barrier, Sanu moved with his father to Atlanta, Ga., after his parents split and then back to Sayreville all before entering the fourth grade.
If Mohamed Sanu keeps improving at this pace, it isn't out of the question that he could follow in the footsteps of Ray Rice, Kenny Britt, and Anthony Davis and forgo his senior season to declare for the NFL Draft. However, due to his advanced age, is it possible that Sanu could leave as a sophomore?
The possibility is on the table thanks to Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald. Mike Williams was not allowed to declare as a sophomore out of USC, but Fitzgerald was clearly ready for the NFL, and managed to find a way in despite only playing two years for the Panthers.
In a telephone interview Thursday from Minneapolis, Larry Fitzgerald Sr. said that if his son wants to turn professional after this, his sophomore, season, the family would be prepared to apply for an exemption to the N.F.L. rule that says that players are not eligible for the draft until three years after they graduate from high school.
Fitzgerald graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in May 2002, after attending a fifth year of high school because he needed to improve his grades.
Fitzgerald was ultimately granted his exemption. At this point, it is necessary to turn to the 2006 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement to find out how exactly this all works. The relevant statute is Article XVI Section 2-b, concerning eligibility for the NFL Draft (which is on page 28 of the CBA, and page 35 of the PDF linked).
No player shall be permitted to apply for special eligibility for selection in the Draft, or otherwise be eligible for the Draft, until three NFL regular seasons have begun and ended following either his graduation from high school or graduation of the class with which he entered high school, whichever is earlier. For example, if a player graduated from high school in December 2006, he would not be permitted to apply for special eligibility, and would not otherwise be eligible for selection, until the 2010 Draft.
Luckily for Rutgers, the text's wording means that the football team will get at least three years of Sanu. Mohamed entered first grade late because he had been living with his family in Sierra Leone. His high school class in South Brunswick graduated in June of 2009. Therefore, he will not be eligible to apply for the NFL Draft until 2012 at the earliest. Fitzgerald's case was different because his high school class graduated in 2001, but he prepped for a year to improve his grades. This means that fifth-year players signed from prep schools like Hargrave, Milford, or Fork Union would be eligible to declare after their second year in college. It may have been in Sanu's best interests to transfer while in high school and attempt to graduate early, but he did not, and Rutgers football is all that much more better off for it.