There were no surprises when it was announced Friday that Alabama football players Dee Milliner, Eddie Lacy, and D.J. Fluker would enter the NFL draft, foregoing their final seasons of eligibility. Well, maybe there was one surprise.
There were three chairs on the small stage in the football media auditorium in the Mal Moore Athletics Administration Building when Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban entered with Milliner, the nation’s top-ranked cornerback, and Lacy, who was MVP in both the Southeastern Conference Championship and BCS National Championship games. After Saban discussed their contributions and reiterated that he supported those decisions, and after Lacy and Milliner had addressed reporters, Saban returned to the microphone to announce that Fluker could not be on hand, but that the right tackle would also be going into the draft.
Milliner said it wasn’t an easy decision.
“The guys gave me a first round grade,” he said. “I can’t remember what the pick was. I got a first round grade. I decided after sitting down with Coach Saban, talked with my people.
“I had a great experience here. I had a chance of being picked in the first round.”
He said he would not have entered the NFL draft were he not projected as a first round pick.
Saban pointed out that “There is a lot of information out there that may or may not be correct in terms of where guys get ranked in the draft. I think what we're able to do for our players here is because of the relationship we have with NFL teams, we get specific information from the teams relative to what their draft status really is.”
Saban said that Lacy was not in the same situation because of the position he plays. Running backs historically do not have long NFL careers.
“In Eddie's case, we talked about this at great length,” Saban said. “Durability is always a big factor for running backs. There're two ways to look at it:
“You can come back and say, 'I'm going to prove that i can be durable by having a great season and playing 12-13-14 games without ever having an issue or problem and that may enhance my draft status.'
“Or you can say, 'I have certainly had durability issues to some degree but I've also been a very, very, very productive player in my career here and I only have so many years I can play. So maybe at my position, where durability is such a factor, it might be more beneficial for me being a really solid high draft pick to go ahead and do what I'm doing.”
Saban pointed out that all have done well academically. Fluker has already earned his degree, Lacy is within a semester of graduating, and Milliner needs two semesters to graduate.
“I would like to take this time to honor these young men for the great job that they have done in how they have represented the University of Alabama and their family,” Saban said. “They have all been great people, in terms of how they have represented our organization. From a personal character standpoint, these guys have been great representatives and great ambassadors for the University of Alabama and we really appreciate that.”
Lacy finished the 2012 season with 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 17 rushing touchdowns are tied for the third most in single season school history. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 94.4 yards per game. In the national championship game the Geismar, La., native was named the Offensive MVP after rushing for 140 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
“I want to start by thanking The University of Alabama, Coach Saban and Coach (Burton) Burns, my position coach,” Lacy said. “I want to thank all of my teammates and the teachers and academic staff here at the university; the training staff, Jeff Allen and especially Jeremy Gsell; we put in a lot of time over the years here.
“Of course I want to thank all of the fans. They are great fans. It has been an amazing experience here. I developed well as a player and as a person here at Alabama. As I look back at the four years, I feel that I have accomplished all of the goals that the team and I set out to accomplish.”
Milliner finished his junior season with 54 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, and 22 passes defended. He also forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and blocked a kick. The Millbrook native was a finalist for the Thorpe Award and was a consensus first-team All-America.
“It’s been a great experience for me in my three years being here,” Milliner said. “I’ve learned a lot of things -not only becoming a better football player, but also becoming a better man. Coach Saban and the coaching staff do a great job of developing players here and helping you out all that they can.
“I’d like to thank all the coaching staff for what they did for me: Coach (Jeremy) Pruitt, my defensive backs coach, for all the help and the things that he did for me; the trainers and all the strength coaches, for developing me as a better person and the things that they do; the academic center, for all the help that they gave me in academics, for making me become more of a student-athlete. I’d like to thank all my family for all the love and support they gave me over the years. Without them I don’t know what I’d be doing or where I’d be right now.”
Fluker started 36 games at right tackle for the Tide, including all 14 games in 2012. He was named a Walter Camp and Associated Press second-team All-American. The Foley native blocked for 10 individual 100-yard performances on the season and helped Alabama average 227.5 yards per game on the ground and 218 yards in the air.
Although he was not on hand for the announcements, in a statement released by The University, Fluker said, “After spending time talking to all of the people closest to me, I’ve decided to enter the NFL Draft. That is never an easy decision when you are playing at a place like Alabama. These four years in Tuscaloosa have been the best four years of my life and I appreciate everyone who helped me along the way. I especially want to thank my family, my coaches, and my teammates for helping me get to this point.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to play in the NFL, but I’ll also miss all of the people here. I’m sure I’ll be back plenty of times and these are memories that can never be taken away. Whether it was winning national championships or earning my degree, I’ve been able to accomplish all of the goals I had when I came here four years ago. I also want to make sure to thank the fans for making this such a special experience. In my heart, I’ll always be a Crimson Tider.”
This is the second consecutive year Alabama has lost three juniors to the NFL draft. Last year Tide tailback Trent Richardson, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower elected to go out early.
Three key players with a year of eligibility remaining have announced they will return next season. They are quarterback A.J. McCarron, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and offensive guard Anthony Steen.
As to whether there might be one or more other players with Bama eligibility remaining declare for the draft, Saban said, “We may have some other guys. I'm hopeful that we're pretty much finished with this, but I've been doing this long enough to know that every now and then you get surprised by someone. I've been around this long enough to know that that's happened on occasion. Most of those kinds of decisions get made based on emotions and not probably the kind of business decisions that you'd like. Hopefully the way we manage our guys here and try to be helpful to get them the information that they need here, that might not be the case. But in some cases where guys have already graduated, there’s always some concern as to whether they really want to come back and play their fifth year.”