The Swan Song. The Last Hurrah. The Big Sendoff. Going Out in a Blaze of Glory. The Last Kiss Goodbye.
You know what I'm talking about.
The beauty of college football is that every player has an opportunity to graduate from the program on his own terms. Unlike pro sports, where you pretty much have to be a super-star in order to get the "fond farewell" that guys like Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter have garnered in recent years, every college player who uses up his eligibility or decides to move on has the opportunity to be honored simply for excelling in whatever role that he was given. It is part of the pageantry of the game and it defines, to a great extent, the emotional ties that we as fans establish with our programs. While we are loyal to the logo, we are entranced by the players who don it every Saturday.
2014 will be the last go-round for several Huskies and more than a few of them will continue their careers on Sundays. In fact, the 2015 NFL draft promises to be chalk full of purple and gold as no fewer than nine Huskies are expected to be scouted draft prospects (two underclassmen) with up to three more likely to get looks on the free agent market.
That's quite the haul.
Before we begin to fret over the challenge of replacing all of that talent, I thought it would be fun to strike up a dialogue as to who we all think will be the most coveted Husky in the 2015 NFL Draft. In other words, who do you think will be the first Husky drafted next April?
To make this exercise a little more interesting, let's subtract from the assessment the underclassmen who could declare and just focus on the seniors whose eligibility is expiring. Who would go first in a contest between Shaq Thompson and Marcus Peters would be an interesting subject to debate in its own right. Beyond that, there is a pretty good bunching of talent among the Husky seniors. So, let's focus on that grouping.
I count 16 seniors who have eligibility expiring in 2014. Of them, at least four are almost certain to get drafted (John Timu, Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, Kasen Williams) with three more possibly getting a look based on how their senior seasons play out (James Atoe, Micah Hatchie, Ben Riva). From that list, I've narrowed it down to the top three candidates.
Option 1 - Hau'oli Kikaha, LB / DE
I checked out a number of scouting profiles on Kikaha and there seems to be an overwhelming sense that from both an instinct and motor perspective, Kikaha is viewed as the top hybrid OLB / DE player among seniors in this upcoming class. The concerns surrounding Kikaha are his measurables when it comes to playing with his hand in the dirt and, of course, the two knee injuries that he has had to overcome in the last three years. It is not clear to me how his position switch to the BUCK role will play out in the eyes of scouts, but there is little doubt that he is viewed as having a certain "it" factor. Combine that with his great personality and his overall maturity and you could see Kikaha being a highly coveted asset among pro scouts.
Reasons he will be first: Pass rushers are valued at a premium; He is a natural leader and projects as a great pro; The "Hybrid" LB/DE is an emerging trend in the pro game
Reasons he will not: Injury history; Some scouts might still be looking for some kid named Jamora; Position switch may have turned off scouts who see him a pure DE
Option 2 - John Timu, MLB
CBS Sports currently has Timu ranked as the 19th inside linebacker for the 2015 class. This is not necessarily a promising position for the Huskies stud MLB, but Timu has a unique opportunity to really jump up in the overall rankings. The key reason for this is that two of the top four prospects on this list are Pac 12 rivals. UCLA's Eric Kendricks and USC's Hayes Pullard promise to get a ton of attention from scouts this season. If Timu has a great season against the same schedule that the other guys play, he will have a very nice set of benchmarks for scouts to compare him to. Layer in the idea that he has a ton of playmakers around him in guys like Shaq, Kikaha, Shelton, Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney and you can bet that Timu will not always be the first priority for opposing defenses. This could provide him a boost in statistical production.
While his off the field incident was a bit of an eye-raiser, I do not get the sense too many scouts are buzzing about it. A full season under Chris Petersen will most assuredly give scouts confidence in the fact that the leadership and accountability they see when they speak with John is authentic and not contrived.
Reasons he will go first: Former QBs playing MLB are a unique commodity; Demonstrated ability to play tough against pro-style and spread-style offenses; Three year starter - experience is a critical critiera for scouts looking at MLB
Reasons he will not: MLBs tend to not always get drafted very high; Not an elite athlete like some of the higher ranked guys; Off field incident may eliminate him from some lists on principle
Option 3 - Danny Shelton, DT
Projecting where Danny might go in the NFL draft is a bit of a challenge. On one hand, he hasn't put up a ton of stats that draw eyeballs to a tear sheet. On the flip side, Danny, at +330 lbs, is the biggest DT on the board of all graduating seniors in College Football and is currently viewed as the fourth ranked interior lineman going into the draft. Scouts give Shelton very strong marks based on the fact that he has been a full-time starter for three seasons and that he has been remarkably durable for a man his size. The fact that he was an Academic All-American speaks to his overall maturity and intellect while the fact that he was honorable mention All Pac-12 in a season where the competition came from guys named Will Sutton and the like speaks to how he is perceived by the competition. Danny enters 2014 with a ton of talent around him and, with a big season simply doing what he does - crashing lines and occupying multiple blockers - he could propel himself into a showdown with Ohio State's Michael Bennett (290 lbs) as the first DT taken next April.
Reasons he will go first: Scouts love productive, reliable big men in the middle of the D-Line; His physical dimensions are truly unique among draftable seniors; Three year starter - lots of tape on him reduces speculation risk for scouts
Reasons he will not: He doesn't amass a ton of stats in his position; Scouts may value more athleticism in the position than what Danny shows; Concern about tread left on his tires
The Verdict - Danny Shelton, DT
I'm not going to say that this is a "no-brainer" given the fact that Kikaha could really explode with another big season. However, Shelton happens to play at a position that is a quickly rising priority for NFL front offices as more and more teams implement that hybrid 3-4 scheme that teams like the Seahawks and 49ers have been perfecting over the last few seasons. His physical dimensions are unmatched by any other highly-rated athlete in this year's draft and his record as an Academic All-American is sure to give scouts an added level of comfort when it comes to personality risk. Considering that injury risk to Kikaha is present and that MLBs tend to not be as highly-valued on draft boards, I predict that Shelton will be the first of UW's seniors to get selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.