Chasing dreams

Tori Gurley left South Carolina after the 2010 season. He wasn't drafted and played on six different practice squads in the NFL his first two years. He is currently under contract with the Cleveland Browns. Gurley has called his decision to leave school early "ill-advised."

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney saying thanks-but-no-thanks to his senior year at South Carolina was the right call. Same for Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Nobody disputes Clowney and Watkins could be the top two picks in the NFL Draft on Thursday. There was no reason for either to risk their fortunes by placing their bodies in peril for one more season of college football.

Clowney or Watkins have no worries about enjoying riches long into the future. The question is whether the Martavis Bryants and Vic Hamptons will.

Just three years ago, 56 underclassmen remaining declared for the draft, the most ever at the time. The number has soared every spring since.

A record 102 players with college eligibility remaining - including four from USC and three from Clemson - fled the NCAA for the NFL.

At least that's what they're hoping.

Listen to a chorus of agents, advisers and coaches who wish a vast majority of those players would strongly consider their tomorrows rather than grab a quick buck today:

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock: "There's a lot of mixed emotions around the NFL because I don't think the scouts or the coaches are in any way trying to push kids out of college."

Sports agent Joe Flanagan: "The biggest disadvantage is they have no all-star game opportunity, and there's a record number (of draft-eligible underclassmen). You've got to break through the noise."

ESPN analyst/former NFL head coach Jon Gruden: "To not be able to see these kids perform in a college all-star game like the East-West game or the Senior Bowl, it's a little bit of a projection, and I don't like it. But it's the way the world is going."

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis: "The problem is that right now they don't see this as work. Believe me, we're going to change their minds."

The experts sound like an army of fathers cautioning their kids. For some early entrants, this could be the most costly decision of their lives.

Three years is the average lifespan of an NFL career. That fact is not lost on young NFL hopefuls, who choose to get paid for their efforts the moment they have the chance.

"I guess it has to do with, you're not going to be long for the NFL," former Gamecocks receiver and Moncks Corner native Bruce Ellington said. "It can be one year, two years, three years, maybe 15 years. But after a while, you take enough hits, you have to find something else other than football."

However, that three-year alarm clock reflects the harsh realities of the NFL. Put simply, there aren't enough jobs to go around with 53 roster spots for 32 teams (1,696 total,). Yet the applicant list keeps rising.

Take the case of LSU, which saw 11 players leave early in 2013. Five of those players have yet to appear in an NFL game; three others played sparingly their rookie seasons, and those three are on contracts paying them less than $500,000 a year, with guarantees far less than that.

There are two in-state products - one from Clemson and one from USC - who might be regretting their choices from early 2011.

Surprising many by leaving school early, ex-Tigers tailback Jamie Harper was a fourth-round pick and played two years for the Tennessee Titans before being cut in May 2013. He was arrested for domestic assault in July, and has not been on an NFL roster since.

According to (a web site tracking pro contracts), Harper earned $990,290 in base salary and a signing bonus since leaving Clemson more than three years ago.

Also after 2010, wide receiver Tori Gurley departed South Carolina before his senior year. Going undrafted, Gurley bounced around six different practice squads his first two years.

The minimum pay for a practice squad player in 2012 was $5,700 per week, which equates to less than $100,000 for a season.

In May 2013, Gurley signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns for about $500,000 annually with nothing guaranteed. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported in July that Gurley also worked jobs at Home Depot and Thompson Caterpillar while supporting a sick grandmother.

"I don't need to watch that ESPN 30 for 30 'Broke' to understand how to manage my money," Gurley told the newspaper last summer. "I've made a few dollars, but if I get cut I can't be living the life some other guys lead. I pinch pennies and clip coupons."

Gurley, who went on to appear in three games in 2013, admitted to the Plain-Dealer that leaving USC early was "ill-advised."

Receiver Ace Sanders, the 101st pick of the 2013 draft out of USC selected by the Jaguars, and tailback Andre Ellington, No. 187 out of Clemson but a prominent part of the Arizona Cardinals' offense, each command a $495,000 salary this coming year.

All salaries are taxed and agents get their cut. So to start, Sanders and Ellington are working with about $300,000 in net income (before endorsements and other payments.)

The real world requires real money. Amidst the hubbub over paying college athletes, scholarship players do not have to provide their own clothing, travel, insurance, agents, trainers, handlers, food and so on.

"I would never recommend that a junior leave school," said pro performance trainer Tony Villani, "because they don't understand what type of life they're getting into.

"What we're trying to do is get them (acquainted), and let them know what they're going to experience the next four years, and try to get their attention."

Suddenly, it becomes clear that with the new NFL rookie wage scale, only the cream of the crop are sure to live in luxury right away. For the mid-rounders, late-rounders and undrafted free agents, the pot of gold is further down the road, never to be reached by many.

"These kids have been told since they were little about being millionaires," Villani said. "It's not that simple."

The mantra in pro football is it's not about the first contract, it's the second one that secures players financially.

"You've got to get through four years," sports agent Tom Condon told The Associated Press, "before you get to free agency and three years before you start to talk about a contract extension."

Vic Beasley didn't just return to Clemson for 2014 to improve his draft stock. The All-American defensive end said it was critical to earn his degree to aid him in life after football.

Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd had multiple reasons for returning for his senior season last fall.

"I felt like I wanted to be ready for this transition because you've got to be ready for whatever life throws at you. Whether it's the finances, whether it's the family. It's not just football, that's just a small part of it."

Some players see the writing on the wall with playing time or academic eligibility for the coming year, and decide to jump ship feeling that's the optimal time to capitalize on their worth.

When Bryant and cornerback Bashaud Breeland left Clemson in early January, their choices were met with some skepticism. Both players pointed out they have children to support.

"In life, you never know what it's like to go through something if you never went through it," Breeland said. "I was very solid about my decision; I was strong when I made it, and there's not one day that I regret."

It's worth noting that linebacker Stephone Anthony has a daughter, and elected to return to Clemson for his senior year after discussing the decision with his family.

Ellington, cornerback Victor Hampton and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles followed Clowney out the door with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's blessing.

"Coach Spurrier has always been supportive," Hampton said. "Yeah, we talked about it a lot. We just all felt we were ready. We felt like we did a lot for the school. We wanted to complete our dream."

Connor Shaw, the only South Carolina senior who attended the NFL Combine, said it's to the advantage of four-year quarterbacks like himself, Boyd and Georgia's Aaron Murray to stick around.

"Yeah, we all played for a very long time and won in really tough conferences, been in very big games," Shaw said. "I think that kind of translates."

Last year, 21 of the 73 draft-eligible underclassmen (29 percent) went undrafted. ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian estimates about 30 of this year's crop of 102 early entrants won't make a roster, meaning they spend this fall toiling on a practice squad for low pay instead of playing in college.

"It's easier to evaluate a player that's been there (college) for four or five years; hopefully he's more socially aware and secure," Mayock said. "You get a more physically mature football player, so it takes some of the variables out of play.

"There's nothing the NFL can do about it, except try to evaluate these kids and do the best job they can."