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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unga weighs decision on entering NFL draft

Published: Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 12:11 a.m. MST

LAS VEGAS — Harvey Unga could be playing his last college game in Sam Boyd Stadium when the Cougars and Oregon State meet on Tuesday.

Or not.

Unga will decide whether he'll give up his senior year, as Austin Collie did in 2008, in the weeks following this bowl trip. He'll consult with his inner circle, including his family, and take note of what his coaches and folks with NFL ties tell him.

Right now, Unga says he's not worrying about answering the NFL question until after the Cougars play the Beavers. Even then, he's got a lot to study.

"I'm not really thinking of that right now. We've got a game to play," said Unga.

Still, people wonder if this is the curtain call.

Why go early? There are plenty of reasons.

His health is always at risk as a running back. Why not be paid for getting hit? He needs to take this step while he's young and still without a major injury such as an ACL or serious shoulder injury.

He could use the money. Unga can always come back and get his degree.

His legacy as BYU's all-time leading rusher is in the books; it's time to move on, especially if somebody promises him a pick before the fifth round.

Why stay?

Well, he's not on the NFL's big-time radar screen.

He has yet to play without injury.

He's a halfback in a fullback's body, and his stock would be higher if he had more experience blocking, like former Cougars Fahu Tahi in Minnesota or Fui Vakapuna in Cincinnati.

He doesn't have NFL halfback speed; he could get ignored in the draft.

Manase Tonga could be taken before him because Tonga is a proven, experienced and productive blocker.

A key in this decision will be if Unga can learn if NFL teams plan on inviting him to the NFL combine in February. That could be the deciding factor.

Meanwhile, BYU running backs coach Lance Reynolds is ecstatic Unga is packing the ball next week.

"He is unbelievable; he makes a huge difference for us," said the longtime Cougar assistant coach.

Nobody appreciates Unga's skills more than Reynolds. Unga trusts Reynolds to give him solid advice. Reynolds will tell him the truth. If Unga needs to put his name in for the draft, Reynolds will counsel Unga to go. If Unga should stay, Reynolds will look him in the eye and tell him why.

"It's going to have to be supported by those who are very close to him," said offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

"You can't look through a crystal ball. If you ask folks about (Oklahoma QB) Sam Bradford, they'll tell you he should have gone to the NFL early and not come back (to play for the Sooners). But at the time, he made the best decision based on what was right for him and his family."

Bradford's return for his senior season ended just before halftime of his first 2009 game, when the Cougars' Coleby Clawson leveled the star, separating his shoulder in Dallas.

Anae said many a player has entered the draft, forgoing their senior year, and been disappointed.

"You look at other guys, boy, there are tons who have gone early and haven't been drafted at all," he said. "I think John Walsh was that way."

Actually, Walsh, who followed Ty Detmer, put his name in the draft after his junior year in 1994. Draft expert Mel Kiper predicted in USA Today Walsh would be taken in the first two rounds.

But after NFL scouts timed Walsh in the 40-yard dash, his stock plummeted and he fell to the seventh round, where the Bengals took him 213th behind several other quarterbacks, including New Mexico's Stoney Case, Eric Zeier (Georgia), Rob Johnson (USC), Dave Barr (Cal), Jerry Colquitt (Tennessee) and Craig Whelihan (Pacific). The top QBs of that draft were first-rounders Steve McNair and Kerry Collins.

The Bengals quickly cut the BYU star. He never played in the NFL.

"If you're going to go early, you ought to be drafted high to make it worth it. A lot of those things are decisions he'll have to make," said Anae. "Nobody can make them for him."

Anae, a third-round pick by the Patriots in 1985, said Unga knows people who are in the league. Tahi, Vakapuna and other former teammates like Bryan Kehl, John Beck and even former all-pro tight end Chad Lewis and Reno Mahe will chime in.

Mahe might say take it while you can. Kehl still wishes he had college eligibility.

"But ultimately, it's going to come down to what's in his heart. Ultimately, he's the one that's going to have to live with that decision," said Anae.

In college, Unga's been a career five-yards-per-carry back with 3,384 yards and 34 touchdowns. While he may not have the shifty, quick NFL running back speed, he is an outstanding receiver and a power runner.

Unga's skills out of the backfield as a receiver-runner are his greatest strength.

Most recently, two other BYU backs, Luke Staley and Curtis Brown, failed to make it in the NFL. Staley, a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Lions, had serious knee issues, and Brown simply couldn't stay on rosters as a free agent.

If Unga's advisers believe he is far superior to Staley and Brown, he should go.

Jamal Willis, whose school rushing record was broken by Brown, and later Unga, made a San Francisco 49ers roster for a year in 1995.

Back in 1987, the Chicago Bears picked Lakei Heimuli in the ninth round, Seattle drafted Eric Lane in the eighth round in 1981, and Bill Ring, an eighth-round pick by the Giants in 1977, found a role with the 49ers and played more than all of them.

You could say Ring, a tiny fullback, has had the best NFL career of a BYU running back and he doesn't have nearly the statistics of Unga. It really boils down to roles being created.

Collie, who made the decision to leave school early, struck gold with the undefeated Indianapolis Colts because they carved out a place for him. A lot of Unga's success at the next level depends on things out of his control — like getting the exact fit with an NFL squad clamoring for his particular skill set.

If Unga can be shown he has a needed role, he should go.

If he's part of the meat train and doesn't really fit and a team doesn't prove to him that he really has a place and a role, it wouldn't hurt to experience another round in this college realm — if he stays healthy.

The average career of an NFL running back is 2.6 years.

Unga knows the clock is ticking.

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