"What could have been" are words nobody likes to acknowledge about lost possibilities, but they've rung true in FCS college football during the departures of top players this year.
Dozens of potential FCS All-Americans became graduate transfers to FBS programs and are already in action this fall while most FCS programs are waiting for a potential spring season.
If and when preseason practices pick up in January and schedules kick off in February, some other top players will instead be training for the NFL. It's basically an either/or decision for draft prospects because playing in the FCS season would mean missing the key evaluation period of all-star games, combines, pro days, and team visits.
It's one of the reasons behind North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance announcing he will enter the draft as an underclassman a few days after the Bison played their only fall game on Oct. 3. He isn't alone, joined by his left tackle at NDSU, Dillon Radunz, considered the top senior FCS prospect, in skipping the spring season to prepare for the next level.
"Playing in the spring isn't really an option for guys that have draft aspirations," said Jim Nagy, executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl. "To me, it falls in one of two categories. It depends on what a kid's expectation level is: Does he want to get drafted as high as possible or does he just want to get out of school and take his shot?"
Northern Iowa, which was ranked second behind North Dakota State in the preseason, is also losing prospects who plan to forsake the spring season to train for the NFL. Like Lance and Radunz, defensive end Elerson G. Smith was an Athlon Sports preseason All-American, and big offensive tackle Spencer Brown wasn't far behind.
The HBCU ranks have lost Florida A&M offensive tackle Calvin Ashley and North Carolina Central cornerback Bryan Mills to NFL training. Also, some FCS schools have basically made the decision for their seniors by playing a non-conference schedule this fall with no plans to participate in their conference's spring season. Central Arkansas cornerback Robert Rochell and Campbell safety Darion Slade fall into that group, and it could add Houston Baptist quarterback Bailey Zappe, who after a dominating fall season is investigating his status with NFL teams.
The NCAA has granted student-athletes an extra year of eligibility because of interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That would allow seniors to play this spring, return in the fall and then prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft instead of next year's. That option is something that many borderline prospects are considering, according to leading small-school draft analyst Josh Buchanan.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Bryan Mills photo courtesy of Keshawn Ennis/N.C. Central Athletics)