During bowl practice in December, Ameer Abdullah said he wasn't giving any thought to the NFL. He already had 1,568 rushing yards at that point and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, but he claimed his focus was on the Gator Bowl and not anything else.
His tune changed in less than a month's time.
After running for 122 yards and a touchdown against a Georgia defense loaded with future pros, Abdullah said he planned to talk things over with his family and coach Bo Pelini. He gave no sure indication that he was leaving early, but unlike defensive end Randy Gregory, he left the door open.
So what should Abdullah do? Nebraska fans obviously want him back - he accounted for 60.3 percent of NU's rushing yards and 35.9 percent of NU's total offense in 2013. But let's take a statistical look at the pros and cons to see whether Abdullah should bolt to the pros or stick around another year.
Pros to leaving early
Younger backs are drafted higher: Typically, the more college carries a running back has, the less desirable he becomes to NFL teams. NFL running backs have a very short shelf life - the amount of hits they take on a play-to-play basis builds up quickly, and few last past age 30. The human body simply isn't designed to take the beating that backs usually endure, and their careers tend to flame out more quickly than that of other skill position players.
This is a major factor in Abdullah's decision - over the past three seasons, underclassmen backs are drafted much higher than their senior counterparts. Take into account the following numbers (Upperclassmen-underclassmen):
On the surface, the numbers indicate that upperclassmen rule the draft - 62.7 percent of the running backs drafted over the last three years were upperclassmen. But look more closely at who was drafted early on - 14 of the 20 (70 percent) running backs drafted in the first three rounds over the past three years have been underclassmen.
The running back position has been devalued in the NFL as more and more teams turn to spread offenses and rules evolve more and more to protect the quarterbacks and enforce more calls on defensive backs. This puts a tough burden on any back entering the draft, especially those who choose not to leave early, which leads to the second pro …
Less tread on the tires: Although Abdullah only took a handful of carries as a freshman, he has faced a heavy workload over the past two years. Consider the career carries for the college backs over the past three years taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft (junior college players not included):
Underclassmen: 512.1 career carries
Upperclassmen: 656.3 career carries
Average: 560.2 career carries
This isn't a foolproof measure for how many carries an NFL team wants a given back to have, but it's a decent barometer. The less tread on the tires, the more an NFL team will think a prospect is healthier and value him more.
So how does Abdullah factor into his? He already has 549 career college carries - more than the average back who leaves school early. If he were to run another 260 times his senior year (completely understandable considering he had 281 carries last year), that would put him at 809 career carries - by far the most since Monte Ball had 924 for Wisconsin.
If Abdullah values his longevity, recent history suggests he should go pro.
How much higher can his stock rise?
Honestly, what can Abdullah prove to scouts in his senior year that he hasn't shown already? He could certainly cut down on his fumbles (we'll get to that), but only seven backs rushed for more yards in 2013 and Abdullah averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Those numbers suggest that Abdullah is ready for the NFL, but there are still some...
Cons to leaving early
Size: This is no knock on Abdullah - the guy has worked incredibly hard on his body over the past three years The junior has been named Nebraska's Lifter of the Year two times in a row and dramatically increased his weight to 190 pounds.
But that would still put him on the pee-wee scale of NFL backs. Only eight of the top 40 backs in terms of 2013 rushing yards were 5-foot-9 (Abdullah's height) or smaller, and just three weighed under 200 pounds. Abdullah will no doubt have to get bigger upon entering the NFL, but how much can he add?
The average weight among NFL backs in the top 40 in 2013 rushing yards was 212.1 - a full 30 pounds heavier than Abdullah. He will undoubtedly add weight when he goes to the pros, but can he gain that much? There are several NFL backs, including Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles, that have exceeded expectations at lesser weights, but they are not the norm. Can Abdullah live up to their standard?
Fumbles: Unfortunately, Abduallah doesn't have the most secure of hands. After fumbling eight times (and losing six) in 2012, Abdullah lost the ball on all five of his fumbles this year. It's a problem that can certainly be corrected (see Tiki Barber and Adrian Peterson), but Abdullah's track record doesn't speak well for himself.
Of the top 40 rushers in the NFL, only Alfred Morris and Reggie Bush had five fumbles, and they play a 16-game schedule as opposed to Abdullah's 13-game slate this year. If Abdullah could prove he could hang onto the ball in his senior campaign, it would certainly help his draft stock.
Nebraska legacy: It's tough to place what value he has on this, but Abdullah has the chance to go down as one of the best Nebraska running backs of all time. Consider:
***He needs just 673 yards (4,914 currently) to pass Johnny Rodgers for the most career yards in school history.
***He has 2,977 career rushing yards - just 1,012 of catching Ahman Green for second-most in school history, and although it's unlikely, it's possible he could gain 1,861 to pass Mike Rozier for the NU record.
***Abdullah's 2013 numbers rank among the top four in both rushing yards and total yards in a single season, giving him a chance to break both school records if he stays healthy.
He's not the only good back potentially leaving early: If Abdullah did choose to leave early, he would join a host of backs ready to contribute immediately - Washington's Bishop Sankey, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, Baylor's Lache Seastrunk, UFC's Storm Johnson and five other backs have already declared early, a number that is certain to grow. Five of the six running backs who rushed for more yards than Abdullah are seniors or have declared for the draft (Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey is still deciding).
The strength of this running back class, combined with the recent devaluation of running backs in the draft, would suggest that Abdullah might be best served to stay put.
The bottom line is that Abdullah has a big decision on his hands - there are a number of reasons to go pro, and there simply isn't a lot more he can prove in college. But he has the chance to be a Nebraska legend and solve his fumbling woes, influences that could bring him back to Lincoln for a fourth year. We'll find out what Abdullah truly values in the coming weeks.
Gator Bowl Receiving Breakdown
The Gator Bowl served as a nice microcosm for the Huskers' top trio of receivers. Much was expected of Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner heading into the year, but the 2013 season didn't play out as many thought it would.
Enunwa assumed the No. 1 role in his senior campaign and was targeted 15 more times than any other NU receiver. Though his catch percentage wasn't great and he dropped too many balls, Enunwa was a solid top option who saved his best performance (four catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns) for his final game.
Bell was hampered by a combination of injuries, expectations and extra attention from the defense. He fell well short of his goal to become NU's first 1,000-yard receiver, dropping from 863 yards in 2012 to 577 this year. A groin injury contributed to the drop in his numbers, but he also never seemed to have the same chemistry with Tommy Armstrong that he had with Taylor Martinez. Nebraska needs that to change heading into 2014.
Turner got off to an incredibly hot start, catching four passes in the first half of the season opener. But he had just nine receptions the rest of the way as he was hampered by hamstring and calf injuries. Turner claimed he was healthy and ready to go for the Penn State and Iowa games but didn't get in, then played only briefly in the bowl game (he dropped a touchdown pass). The coaches have to be looking more from Turner next year.
The positives here are that Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Burtch and Alonzo Moore all proved they could be counted on this year. Those three should all see expanded roles, as should Taariq Allen, who continues to come back from a brutal knee injury in 2012. Cethan Carter also showed strong flashes.
The receivers lose Enunwa and Jake Long next year, but there is plenty of talent and ability coming back. If Bell and Turner revert to their 2012 selves and the youngsters continue to develop, this should be one of the Big Ten's better receiving corps against in 2014.
Drops: Enunwa, Newby, Turner
size="4">Season Receiving breakdown
Drops: Enunwa 11, Bell 7, Turner 4, Long 3, Carter 2, Cotton 1, Moore 1, Newby 1, Westerkamp 1, Wullenwaber 1