-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Wisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball just made the hardest decision of his life by electing to return to Madison for his senior season.
At least, that is what he will tell you if you ask him.
Ball said at his homecoming announcement on Thursday that deciding to put off his NFL payday was tougher than trying to decide on which college to attend. The NFL told the talented tailback that he would likely be a third round selection in the upcoming April draft. Ball took this as a challenge – he also cited an academic promise to his family – and will return to college football as the highest returning Heisman vote-getter in 2012. He also tied (kind of) Barry Sanders single-season touchdown record at 39 and won a Big Ten championship.
The question is was it the right move?
If he returned to Wisconsin to try to win a national championship, he will be sorely disappointed – baring another star senior grad student quarterback transferring from NC State. But I respect the competitive spirit of all athletes. If he returned to Wisconsin to finish his college education, I will stand up and applaud him.
But if he returned to Wisconsin to improve his NFL Draft stock, he could be making the worst decision of his career.
First, for lack of a better term, he is what he is. He isn’t going to run a 4.3 40 all of the sudden with one extra year of Big Ten football. He isn’t going to grow three inches magically with a dozen or so more collegiate games under his belt. Yes, Ball can get stronger and smarter as a football player and a man, but he won’t ever be physically gifted enough to be a first round pick. Which leads me to my second point…
Running backs have quickly become the least valuable commodity in the NFL Draft. Ball has a really good chance — with his toughness, smarts and short space agility — to be a solid NFL back. Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and Frank Gore were the top six rushers this season in the NFL. If you are counting at home, that is a second, second, fifth, second, undrafted and third round draft pick. The point being, unless you are Adrian Peterson, LaDanian Tomlinson or Trent Richardson, running backs just don’t go in the first round any longer.
Finally, Ball touched the ball 331 times in 2011 and there is only so much tread on a running back’s tires. Another 300 touches – behind an offensive line and quarterback that won’t be nearly as talented in 2012 as it was this fall – could put his body, aka earning potential, at serious risk of injury.
It may work out for Ball. He may go from a early third round pick to a late second rounder. But the best thing he could have done was start working on his game at the next level, protect his body and start his already ticking professional clock a year sooner.
Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, however, could not have made a better decision.
In his first year under center in Norman, Jones completed 63.2% of his passes threw an interception once every 37.5 pass attempts. In his second year, he showed improvement by completing 65.6% of his passes and tossing a pick once every only 51.4 pass attempts. However, this fall Jones regressed mightily by completing only 58.1% of his throws and a career worst 32.1 pass attempts per interception.
He clearly failed as a leader against Texas Tech this season as the Sooners were not ready to play until it was too late against the Red Raiders. He also has had serious road woes, going an ugly 9-8 as a road starter over the course of his career. Jones only lost 10 total games as a starter in three full seasons at Oklahoma.
Finally, in the season's final three games without Ryan Broyles – the NCAA’s all-time leading receiving – Jones threw 144 passes. He threw five interceptions, zero touchdowns and lost twice.
There was no doubt that Jones would have been disappointed on draft weekend. He was not going to be a first day pick, even as a 6-foot-4, 230 pound quarterback who is the all-time leading passer in the prestigious history of Oklahoma football.
As a college football fan (who was born in Madison nonetheless), I love seeing names like Ball, Jones and Matt Barkley return to the college gridiron. But there is no doubt my unsolicited advice to Montee Ball would have been to start focusing full-time on your combine workouts, film study, interviewing skills and stamina. You can easily come back and finish your degree during your first offseason.