NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In an age of opt outs in college football, the best NFL prospects for Alabama and Kansas State are opting in at the Sugar Bowl.
Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. have high-first-round draft grades and could have minimized exposure to injury by sitting out Saturday’s game in the Superdome.
For Kansas State, standout players including running back Deuce Vaughn and defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah are risking their draft stock as well.
They say they have weighed the competing factors carefully and the benefits of playing won out.
“I love this program,” Young said. “I see how hard we work as a group, how much we pour into this and how much this means to us — how much it means to me. And it was easy.
“As a leader, I feel like it was important to me to make sure that we finish this year,” Young added. “With there being no opt-outs on both of the teams, I think that speaks to both of the programs.”
This season, as much as any other, opt-outs have been a common theme across games not tied into the four-team College Football Playoff, which this year are the Fiesta and Peach bowls.
Tennessee will be missin top receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman and linebacker Jeremy Banks in Friday night’s Orange Bowl against Clemson, which will be without top defensive end Myles Murphy.
Kentucky will play the Music City Bowl without quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez. Texas was without 1,580-yard rusher Bijan Robinson in Thursday night’s Alamo Bowl against Washington. LSU will play the Citrus Bowl without edge rusher BJ Ojulari and receiver Kayshon Boutte.
All of those players have turned their attention to NFL draft preparations rather than exposing themselves to injury in one final college game.
Anudike-Uzomah said he and Vaughn never considered missing the Sugar Bowl, arguably the highest-profile postseason game for Kansas State in a decade.
“We worked so hard for this team, why would we just leave it, honestly? Just go finish it,” Anudike-Uzomah said. “It took us three years really to do this, me and Deuce. And it’s just been a dream come true.
“Growing up, I always looked at Alabama as the best program in college football history. So, it’s a dream come true and an honor the play them, honestly,” Anudike-Uzomah added. “I’m not going to lie; I never thought I would be in the Sugar Bowl.”
Anderson, along with fellow pro prospects on Alabama’s defense such as linebacker Henry To’oto’o and safety Jordan Battle, essentially said they would have felt like hypocrites had they opted out.
All season they had preached the importance of living up the “Alabama standard.” So, shortly after beating Auburn, seniors and other draft-eligible leaders made a pact that they would go out together in a bowl game.
“If you want to go out the right way and you want to be legendary, you want people to remember you by doing something good, this is how you do it,” Anderson said. He said he felt he was showing younger Alabama players “the right thing to do.”
In other words, the college team that, year-after-year, fields as many NFL caliber players as any is fostering an anti-opt-out culture. It’s made an impression on younger Alabama players like sophomore defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry.
Anderson’s decision to play “made me feel even more confident about the guy that I already thought he was,” McKinstry said. “I feel like I’ll make the same decision” should he end up facing a similar choice.
Young has not yet declared for the next NFL draft but is widely expected to do so. He was watching the Sugar Bowl a year ago when Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral was helped off of the field after injuring his ankle.
After finishing seventh in voting for the 2021 Heisman Trophy, which Young won that season, Corral was largely seen as a second-round NFL prospect. Carolina selected him 94th overall, at the end of the third round.
“Everything that happens happens for a reason,” said Young, emphasizing that his faith in God also influenced his decision to play. “I know what happened (to Corral). I understand what happened. But again, I walk by faith.”