By Turner Walston
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey announced on December 7th that he would forgo his final year with the Cardinal and enter the NFL Draft. That was two days after the Sun Bowl announced that it would host North Carolina and Stanford in El Paso.
McCaffrey's decision makes sense: a year ago as a sophomore, he was a consensus All-American and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. This year he led the nation with 2,327 all-purpose yards. This is very little left for Christian McCaffrey to accomplish as an individual in college football.
Monday morning, McCaffrey tweeted that he would not play in the Sun Bowl against North Carolina. Skipping the game, McCaffrey said, would allow him to begin preparation for the NFL Draft immediately. Unspoken but also no doubt considered in the decision was the risk for injury. The Hyundai Sun Bowl is not part of the College Football Playoff; there are no trophies on the line other than the Hyundai Sun Bowl trophy. McCaffrey decided that his future was more important than a one-off postseason game.
McCaffrey isn't the only high-profile underclassman to opt out of his team's bowl game: LSU tailback Leonard Fournette announced on Friday that he would skip the Citrus Bowl. These players are making individual decisions for their futures, for their NFL dreams.
At his Monday press conference, North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora was asked if any of his seniors or draft-eligible juniors would opt out of the Sun Bowl. "Not that I know of, no," the Fedora said. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Nazair Jones has already announced his decision to enter next year's draft. Tar Heel junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky was recently featured in the New York Daily News as a potential first-round pick by the New York Jets, but he has not yet announced a decision.
"Mitch and I have had multiple conversations," Fedora said, "built he's got a decision to make, and he will make it at some point. My role in that is to give him as much information as possible and to support him and his family in their decision."
In addition to Trubisky, three more juniors –tailback Elijah Hood, cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Donnie Miles– have all asked the coaching staff to gather information to help them make decisions of their own. "This is their decision," Fedora said. "It's them, their families, it's their decision. It's not me. It's not anybody on the coaching staff. It is them doing what is best for them, because this is their future they're talking about."
On Monday, Trubisky put to rest any notion that he wouldn't play in the Sun Bowl. "He's doing what's best for him, and no one is going through that situation but him," Trubisky said of McCaffrey. "I respect it. He's doing what's best for him. For me, personally, I'm going to play in the game."
In one year as the starting quarterback, Mitch Trubisky has put up eye-popping numbers. He is fifth in the nation in completion percentage and in the top 15 in total completions, pass efficiency, touchdown passes and passing yards per game. His steady leadership in the pocket is attractive to NFL scouts, and is projected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in April. If he's made a decision, Trubisky hasn't announced it, and he's focused on winning next week in El Paso.
"I'm really not thinking about it too much," he said, "because I'm focusing on the bowl game first, and after the game, we'll go from there and I'll talk it over with my family. I'm definitely not letting it consume me, because it's a blessing to be able to have this type of decision."
On the other side of the coin is Jones, who went ahead and made his announcement via Twitter last week. According to at least one site, Jones is rated in the top ten among draft-eligible defensive tackles. He said on Monday that his family situation motivated him to forgo his fifth season in Chapel Hill. "[There are] things that I've been wanting to do for [my mom] and my little sister since I started playing ball, so now that I have this opportunity, I can't let it go away," he said.
His decision made, Jones has been able to enjoy his final month in Chapel Hill and the preparation for his final game. Jones was his usual smiling self on Monday. He has pro prospects, exams finished and nothing but football to do until the New Year. He has every intention of taking the field with his teammates next week in El Paso. "I'm cherishing this last moment I have with this team, because we've all been through a lot the last couple of years, and this season especially," he said. "Me personally, I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to play with my brothers one last time."
So he will. The Tar Heels will take the field next week in El Paso for one final time as a 2016 team. It's not just Jones' final game: it's the last hurrah for players like T.J. Logan and Des Lawrence, Lucas Crowley and Jon Heck, Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer, Khris Francis and Nick Weiler. "This game is important to them," Fedora said of his seniors. "I think they all want to finish their career here in the right way."
That goes too for the juniors that may or may not return in 2017. Jones, for example, pledged that he's invested in Carolina football moving forward. It's not at all uncommon to see former Tar Heels dotting the sidelines during their NFL bye weeks, and Jones said that in the future he would be among them. "I was a fan of this university before I was even here, so you can definitely plan on seeing me at football games, basketball games, whatever the case may be, whenever I have a chance to get back and support these guys," he said.
And Carolina fans ought to lend their support to both the players that opt to come back to campus and those that may forgo their senior seasons. These young men will continue to represent Carolina, on Sundays if not Saturdays. If Mitch Trubisky goes to the NFL next year, if Elijah Hood or M.J. Stewart go next year, they will make us proud. And professional success for former Tar Heels makes Chapel Hill an enticing destination for future ones. The dream is to play in the NFL, and if Carolina can be seen as a step on that path, then Carolina football will be all the better for it.
But there is the matter of that one more game. Though he hasn't made an announcement himself, in fielding several draft questions, Trubisky was as poised as when he's at his best in the pocket: patient, thoughtful and direct. And whether or not it's his final game in Carolina blue, Trubisky is intent on making a statement both for himself and the program. "We've got to finish off our last game. That's been one of our goals, to win our last game and to beat a big name like Stanford, that's going to be a quality win, so we're preparing as hard as we possibly can. We're doing this for each other and for the program as well. This is a big game for us. We need to get this win."