Jaylen Twyman watched Pitt’s first game of the season, and he cried. He watched his team’s second game, and he cried again.
The All-America defensive lineman cried in Week 3, and again in Week 4.
“Seeing my guys going out there, making plays,” he says. “Seeing that energy.”
How did he cope?
“I buried myself in the weight room,” he says.
Twyman, who has drawn comparisons to fellow Pitt Panther Aaron Donald, is one of an unprecedented group of players who will change the narrative of the 2021 NFL Draft, and maybe far more than that. He’s an opt-out. Under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, he chose to skip the 2020 season.
“All student-athletes must be allowed to opt-out of participation due to concerns about contracting COVID-19,” the NCAA decreed last August.
Some players opted out with plans to return to their teams for the 2021 season. Others decided to prepare for the draft.
Down in Florida, UCF cornerback Tay Gowan shed tears of his own. His pandemic summer was hellish: He got COVID, and then his girlfriend, Daisy, got sick. Then their baby daughter, Skylar, became ill. (She was never tested for the virus.) The three of them suffered for days, praying over their baby. Gowan lost 10 pounds. He returned home to Georgia, and then his mother got the coronavirus.
“Did I put my mom in the hospital?” Gowan wonders. “I came home with gloves, with a mask. It was just so bad. So bad. She was two weeks in the hospital. She was FaceTiming me like she was going to go away. Even now she has little problems here and there. She’s never been a sick person. Every time she called, I would apologize. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”
After all that, Gowan felt he couldn’t take a chance on a football season. Not with a one-year-old.
“Going through COVID, it scared the life out of me,” he says. “We didn’t have much information. I saw what it did to me. I didn’t want to put my daughter in harm’s way. I had to put football to the side. And put her first. Because I love her dearly.”
Gowan opted out, but midway through the season, his teammates asked him to come back.
“I almost gave in,” he says. “I cried a few times. I have been playing football since I was five years old. Them calling me, it hurts, it hurts, it really hurts.”
Twyman has had two siblings pass away prematurely, so family is especially important to him. He wants to take that next step to the NFL and enjoy its financial windfall, even if it means going from 2019 until late summer of 2021 between live games. “I had to take care of my mom,” he says.
Was it a great move? A costly sacrifice?
“You will never know if it’s a right decision,” Twyman says, “until the draft.”
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Caleb Farley can relate to both Twyman and Gowan. Three years ago, the Virginia Tech cornerback lost his mother to cancer. The fear of a potentially lethal illness affecting his father, Robert, weighed on him.
“Him having lost his mother, and being concerned about me being as close to him,” Robert explains. “Being exposed to people up-close and personal, he’d never know whether I’d catch the virus. He would never forgive himself if there was some way he caught it. He was mentally disturbed about participating. Better for him to opt out.”
Caleb made news when he wrote about his choice for ProFootballTalk, saying teammates were “going home, going to Myrtle Beach, coming back to campus, and weren’t getting tested.” He added: “We were like 100-deep in our indoor facility, no masks.” (Virginia Tech responded with a statement saying all of its athletes are tested and screened before being cleared for activities.)
He actually went to his former stadium in Blacksburg to watch his teammates play. He sat in the stands. “It was a strange feeling,” Farley says. “But I love watching football.”
Opting out was the right decision for the Farley family, but was it the right decision for Caleb’s career? “What will the NFL think of my decision?” he wrote. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard from anyone in the league. It’s kind of scary to think about.”
There will be long-term implications for Farley, Twyman and Gowan — and the whole sport. COVID caused an earthquake in football, and the sport is still feeling the tremors. What will it mean if players slip in the draft because they opted out? And what will it mean if players actually improve their positions after a missed season?
“Are players in college football or in high school looking at this and saying, ‘Will this hurt players who opt out?’” says ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. “And will there be players who say, ‘I may follow suit. If my college team isn’t doing well, why risk injury?’ That’s something to really watch.”
Victims of Circumstance
There are also players who didn’t opt out by choice. One is Quinn Meinerz of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His team’s season shut down because of COVID-19, and he was left to figure out how to chase his long-shot NFL dream from an unlikely place. Meinerz got no Division I offers and only one Division II offer. Game film really matters to a player like Meinerz, and all of a sudden, he had lost a lot of games.
His head coach, Kevin Bullis, always knew Meinerz was special. He remembers when he got a tip on the Hartford (Wis.) High School blocker, took a look at some film, and gasped, “Oh. My. G-d.”
As the pandemic covered the country, Bullis couldn’t help but fret about what it would mean for his star. “Last summer, that’s when I was truly concerned,” Bullis says.
Meinerz always had a Rocky-like story. Now his road to the draft got steeper.
“It was pretty tough,” he says, “but I took a simple mindset of control what I could control.”
His position through high school and college was guard, but he figured his chances at the NFL would improve if he learned other positions. So during quarantine, Meinerz set up a YouTube channel, a GoPro, a trash bin and a recycling bin. He would film himself snapping footballs into garbage receptacles.
“I would do a film study on myself,” he says.
He even set up orange cones as mock defenders. Bullis would look out the window from his office and spot Meinerz snapping footballs toward the goalposts.
Then there was his trip to a remote part of Canada, where he hauled propane tanks up wooden stairs and clean-and-jerked logs.
And that was his season.
Bryan Mills has faced plenty of football uncertainty before. The cornerback got only one offer coming out of junior college in California, and he had to cross the country to North Carolina Central University to take it.
Central took a chance on Mills, having faith that he would finish his academic requirements in time, and Mills came through. He excelled in Durham and became a prospect at the highest level of the sport.
Then COVID-19 happened. And Central’s season was canceled.
“I did think about transferring,” Mills says. “Scouts wanted to see more of me. I didn’t know how that would play out.”
He said he came “real, real close” to switching schools, but he loved Central and he stayed. He knew it was a risk.
“He’s a guy who would have elevated his stock had he played,” says Kiper.
Kiper also wanted to see more from Washington interior lineman Levi Onwuzurike. He has first-round talent, but the Pac-12 canceled its season before reconsidering and playing an abbreviated schedule.
“It was a real difficult decision,” Onwuzurike says. “Both about COVID-19 and how that could affect my future.”
He chose to opt out as well, meaning that he would also go the entire 2020 calendar year without live football action.
His situation wasn’t like Meinerz’s or Mills’ or even Twyman’s. When you’re a possible first-rounder, everything can make a difference in your pay and in your future.
Onwuzurike decided to take two weeks off in the late summer and then, “I went straight to work.”
“I missed going into the fight,” he says. “I missed the locker room scenery, hanging out with the guys every day.”
Maybe for some of the highly touted opt-outs, the judges of the NFL universe would be forgiving. But for those outside the Power 5, like Gowan, there was another level of risk. After all, when a general manager has to choose between someone he’s seen in the last few months and someone he hasn’t seen, trusting your eyes can be easier than trusting your gut.
“If I played this year, I know I’d go late first round or early second,” Gowan says. “I still believe I’d go no later than second round.”
Then there was yet another complication: The NFL Scouting Combine was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. So now the opt-outs had lost part or all of their final season of game film and countless chances to be seen in person by scouts, then lost the showcase that can turn a no-name into a household name.
“The Combine was something I was really looking forward to,” says Mills. “That’s the best job interview in the world.”
That put even more weight on Pro Days, which are traditionally a chance to correct any misperceptions about speed or agility. Now, one bad day in the office threatened to be a permanent game-changer.
While we watched college games, the opt-outs were training all over the nation — from San Diego (Onwuzurike) to South Florida (Farley) to Durham (Mills) to a backyard full of trash cans and cones in small-town Wisconsin (Meinerz).
There was one potential advantage for all of these players: a chance to control their own schedule and put in tons of hours of individual work. That’s what Mills did, going one-on-one with a personal trainer in the Durham area so he could hone his skills without a season. He believes it paid off.
“I feel like I’m gonna be OK,” he says. “My speed is up to par. It’s really your mentality, too — if I show effort, hustle and attitude.”
A few other opt-outs went to EXOS Performance Institute in the Florida panhandle and found a small family of fellow travelers.
“I liked it,” says Onwuzurike. “The focus was on me.”
Gregory Rousseau was part of that family. The Miami defensive end decided not to play his final season in Coral Gables in part because his mother, Anne, is a COVID nurse.
“She was adamant,” Rousseau says. “I took the step forward to declare. I felt like I was ready anyway, but it was real tough. I built so many great relationships with people in Miami. Leaving really took a piece out of me.”
Rousseau spent his days going to the facility, lifting, working on his linear speed, putting in some position work and then adding some technique work. It was, he says, “a good place to just focus.”
“It was just three or four of us,” he adds. “We all really pushed each other, for the time we were there.”
He put on seven pounds of muscle — during a time when many football players wear down.
Will all this make a difference? We don’t know yet. Teams might be choosing between Rousseau and his Miami teammate, Jaelan Phillips. One played in the fall, one didn’t.
“Teams like to have late information on players,” says Kiper. “If you have two or three players bunched, you might go with guys that played over the opt-outs. You might be leaning with the guys who played.”
What would that mean for Farley, who will be compared to Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II?
And what happens to the opt-outs who emerge from a missed season to mixed reviews? Onwuzurike showed up at the Senior Bowl having lost 10 pounds of fat and replacing it with 10 pounds of muscle. “Just stepping on the field felt hella good,” he says. “It was a heaven-like feeling. I just threw my whole body at guys. Felt good to do that s— again.”
Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah liked what he saw from Onwuzurike that week, projecting him into the first round. But here’s what ESPN’s Todd McShay said about Onwuzurike after watching him in Mobile: “On tape in 2019, this guy is one of the most dominant defensive tackles, 3-techniques up the field in penetrating and disrupting. You saw him in practice this week, and he had some flash plays, but I thought he was going to come in and dominate this week.
“I think one of the trends we saw with a lot of these opt-out guys that didn’t play and haven’t had the training and haven’t been in football shape, playing games, and gaining more experience, a large portion of them weren’t kind of ready and instinctive and didn’t seem to have the bounce of some guys who were coming off of a season and are still in game mode.”
But then there’s the flip side. Meinerz took a star turn at the Senior Bowl, turning heads not only for his play, but also his swagger. He shoved top defensive line prospects back on multiple occasions, with his belly exposed from underneath his jersey.
“My nickname in high school was ‘The Gut,’” Meinerz says. “My nickname in college was also ‘The Gut.’”
The Gut now plays several positions, including center. And no one is talking about the time he missed.
“I realized very quickly,” he says, “that I belonged.”
Even the opt-outs who didn’t go to the Senior Bowl felt they could rely on the element of surprise. If a Pro Day allows a Clark-Kent-coming-out-of-the-phone-booth effect, all the better.
“I worked six days a week,” says UCF’s Gowan. “I added a lot of explosiveness, and I did a lot of speed work. I got way stronger. And my weight is up.”
If the players who missed the season emerge in the same or even better condition than those who played — free of any wear and tear from an extra dozen or so games — could that enter the minds of future draft prospects? Well, remember when Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette skipped their teams’ bowl games and caused an outcry by doing so? Both stars went in the top 10 of the draft. McCaffrey became an MVP candidate, and Fournette just won the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. Might future players bail out before we even get to bowl season?
“It’ll be bad for college football if that happens,” says Kiper. “It’s already the case with bowl games. Now you’d be talking about regular-season games. If someone stops after three or four games, that would impact college football in a negative way.”
How fans remember the pandemic season rests in large part on the games that have already been played. How the sport reflects on this surreal and sad time may rest in large part with those who still wait to play.
“It’s gonna be very emotional for me,” says Gowan, whose family has faced financial struggle for most of his life. “I might not be able to talk. I want to come to a program I can call home. I haven’t been in a secure location for a long period of time.”
For the opt-outs, the final tears of this journey might be tears of joy.
— Written by Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) Athlon Sports' 2021 NFL Draft Guide