FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sam Bradford is the poster child for passing on NCAA eligibility for the NFL.
The Oklahoma quarterback returned to college this season despite being projected as the No. 1 overall draft pick last year. He was injured early this fall and missed most of the campaign.
“You have to consider what are the risks and rewards of coming back,” Iowa Tackle Bryan Bulaga said here Saturday morning. “Sam Bradford is a very good example. He probably would have been the No. 1 pick. He gets hurt and now who knows?
“He’s going to come to the combine and try to prove that he’s still a good player because he is. But those kinds of things get into the minds of NFL GMs. This guy just got hurt. Am I getting damaged goods? Those are things that need to go through your mind.”
Speculation has swirled around Bulaga all season that he might skip his senior season for the draft this spring. He filed the NFL paper work last month and said he‘ll announce his decision after Tuesday night’s Orange Bowl.
Fellow Iowa offensive lineman Dace Richardson also is faced with the college-pro choice. The fifth-year senior could petition the NCAA for a sixth season and most likely get it.
“I talked to Coach (Kirk) Ferentz,” Richardson said. “We both feel like we’re going to have a good team next year. I just feel like some of my goals that I had for this season I didn’t accomplish. That’s probably one of the things that would get me to come back, playing in the Rose Bowl and playing my senior game.”
Then come the thoughts of Bradford.
“I also have to be smart about it, too,” Richardson said. “I also have an opportunity to play at the next level. Even though I was hurt, people are still interested. I have to weigh that factor in, too.
“I always think of Sam Bradford. He came back for another year and then got hurt. That’s a possibility. Do I want to risk being hurt and losing out on an opportunity? So, I just have to weigh all of those things in.”
Based on Saturday morning’s interviews, seeing their mannerisms and eyes, I would say that Richardson is leaning towards a sixth year and Bulaga is an NFL lean.
“There has been nothing better than Iowa football for the last three years,” Bulaga said. “The fans have been great. The coaches have been great. The guys are great.
“You come here and you’re thinking in the back of your mind four or five years is how long you’re going to be here. You love the place. You love what it’s all about. I think anytime you leave a place like this, you’re going to miss it.
“If I were to leave, yeah, you miss it, but you’re looking out for your best interests. Coach Ferentz knows that. Everyone knows that. Guys know that. Whatever decision I make, I’ll have full support from both of them. It’s good to know that.”
Speculation began with Bulaga last spring when ESPN Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected the Illinois native as a Top 10 pick in the NFL selection process. Kiper has since dropped Iowa’s left tackle to No. 2 at his position among players in his class.
Todd McShay, also of ESPN, ranks Bulaga at No. 29 overall in his Top 100. Ferentz, who coached in the NFL, cautioned people last month that the “gurus” projections often are inaccurate.
“When you’re thinking about leaving, there are pros and cons to each thing,” Bulaga said. “Coming back is obviously the injury. More than ever now, guys are getting hurt and getting hurt to the point of “Hey, I might not even be ready for next season, full go, let alone being able to go for a combine or something like that in April.”
“There’s a chance that I could blow out my knee and be a half of step slower. You can’t have that kind of stuff. I was already at a point in my career earlier this year with the thyroid scare. No one really knew what it was early on. We couldn’t figure it out. For a couple of minutes you think, God, am I going to be able to play football again?
“You have to consider all of those things because any of those things can happen tomorrow. It could happen the next day. It can happen whenever. It can happen when you’re crossing the street. It could happen going to Subway getting something to eat. So, it’s something you have to consider.”
The Richardson and Bulaga families have been very involved in the decision process. Dace said that he had aunts and uncles encouraging him to leave, but other members of his clan that wanted him to return.
“I already registered for classes for next semester,” Richardson said. “Everything is set up so if I want to come back I’ll have a smooth transition back.”
Richardson felt strongly that the NCAA would award him with a sixth year. The Illinois native missed all but one game in ‘07 and ‘08 because of injuries.
“I still have to petition with the NCAA, but they feel like I have a good enough case where it should be a slam dunk,” he said. “I’d be shocked if I didn’t get it, but who knows?”
Bulaga said a thyroid condition that forced him out of action earlier this season will not factor into this decision. He gets his blood tested weekly and has been deemed to be healthy by doctors.
Robert Gallery played left tackle at Iowa early last decade. He decided to come back for his senior season despite speculation he might be a first round pick after his junior year. He ended up being the No. 2 overall pick after using up his college eligibility.
“I’ve been speaking to Robert, too,” Bulaga said. “We’ve talked a couple of times already. He’s a great guy. He’s been giving me a lot of good information. Are there parallels? Yeah, I’m sure there’s some stuff that’s similar and there’s some stuff that is different. When you get his side of it, it is actually very different from mine.”
The cases seem similar outside of Bulaga being a true junior. Bulaga doesn’t want to talk about the differences.
“That’s not something I’m not going to say,” Bulaga said. “He and I talk and that’s just kind of…I’ll leave it at that. But there are some big differences. He weighed in a lot of factors for me for pros and cons. He was able to give me both sides of the story. He’s not working for one side or the other side. He’s shooting me straight and how he thinks. I appreciate that from him. He’s been great.”
While weighing his options, Richardson wants to wipe out the memory of being carted onto the field for Senior Day in November.
“That definitely hurt that day coming out in a golf cart,“ he said. “I really wanted to be out there running.
“All the staff wants me back. They joke. They’ll say, you see that nice car? You’ll definitely have that if you stay one more year and get drafted. They’ve all been supportive. They all want me back. That’s good to have, your coaches wanting you to come back for another year.”