It is that time of the year again for college football players. Underclassmen are looking towards what is perhaps their last college football game, as many face a decision whether or not to forgo their remaining eligibility and enter the NFL draft.
The Virginia Tech Hokies have four such players who face this decision. Junior quarterback Logan Thomas being the most prominent.
The Hokies are coming off their worst season in 20 years after finishing 6-6. Instead of competing in a BCS game they will be playing Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The 2012 season wasn’t a picture of consistency by any Virginia Tech player. Talented seniors Bruce Taylor and Marcus Davis battled through their own issues.
Here is a look at the four Hokies who face that decision in the coming month and why each should return to school in 2013.
Thomas entered 2012 amid high expectations. In 2011, as a first-year starter, Thomas completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
In 2012, Thomas’ completion percentage fell below 53 percent while throwing for 2,783 yards. His touchdowns fell to 17 while his interceptions rose to 14.
Thomas appeared to have felt the pressure caused by the departure of record-setting wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. The Hokies also lost running back David Wilson, himself an early entrant in the 2012 NFL draft. The Hokies never found a clear replacement for Wilson and the running game struggled all season.
Thomas’ stats do tell the story of his 2012 struggles. He would miss several passes a game which eventually cost the Hokies points. His problems stem more from inaccuracies in the short and intermediate passing game. He is a fairly accurate long ball passer.
Thomas’ physical talents alone could land him in the first round of the NFL draft in 2013. However, with more teams drafting rookies and expecting them to play immediately, Thomas would likely fall out of the first round because he will clearly not be ready to play in 2013.
Another year of school would give him more experience to work on his consistency throwing the football. And the Hokies return the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball and should be pretty good next year.
A concern for Thomas has to be if he will get the proper coaching from this staff in order to take that next step. That could play a large role in his decision.
Gayle, a junior from Hampton, Va., was expected to have a monster season. While he didn’t deliver that type of season, he was pretty good. He finished the year with 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Gayle struggled in the early portions of the season getting to the quarterback. Most of his sacks came in the second half of the season once defensive tackle Luther Maddy returned to full health.
Gayle is big (6’4”, 269 lbs) and fast. He is a terrific pass-rusher and hustles in the running game as well. The NFL will want to see that for an entire season, meaning Gayle may not be drafted as high as he should be.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster himself said he thought Gayle could benefit from another year in school. Foster has been known in past years to give his blessing to those he thought were ready.
With most of the NFL now relying heavily on the pass, the need for talented pass-rushers is more paramount. Gayle’s combination of size and speed could make him a first-round pick in the future.
Returning to school and having the kind of season he was expected to this year would greatly benefit Gayle.
Exum is perhaps the most intriguing of all the Hokies’ underclassmen.
He has yet to play the same position in back-to-back years during his time as a Hokie. As a freshman he played a lot of nickelback, and as a sophomore he played rover and free safety before finding a home at cornerback in 2012.
Exum had his share of struggles, especially in the first half of the season. The games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are tough to watch as it pertains to Exum. He was routinely beaten in both of those games and struggled, committing several penalties as well.
However, Exum bounced back to have a strong finish to the season. He often lined up against the opponent’s top receiver and did a good job. He has excellent size (6’0”, 220 lbs) for a cornerback.
His 40-yard dash time will be worth monitoring if he does turn pro. He hasn’t always shown blazing speed, but he did a better job with his hips—turning and running—in the later portion of the season.
Exum could be a good NFL player at some point. But if he turns pro too soon, he will unlikely ever fulfill that potential. If he returns to Blacksburg for his senior season, he could not only improve his professional stock but be an All-American candidate, too. He has that type of ability.
Exum led the Hokies with four interceptions in 2012.
To Fuller’s credit, he hasn’t really mentioned that he may leave Blacksburg with one more season of eligibility remaining.
Perhaps part of that is Fuller’s anticipation of playing with his younger brother Kendall, one of the top recruits in the country in 2013.
Fuller had an outstanding sophomore season making second-team All-ACC, despite splitting his time between whip linebacker and cornerback. The Hokies expected a big year from Fuller this season, but he had times where he struggled in coverage.
Fuller has terrific football instincts, perhaps the best on the team and may be the best tackling cornerback in the entire nation. He is that good. But his lapses in coverage, often due to getting behind the receiver, are likely what will keep Fuller around for his senior season.
If we’ve learned anything at all about Fuller it is that he will work hard and come back an even better player than before.