STILLWATER — On the surface, having nearly double digit defections – and who knows, there might be more by the time the dust settles – might look bad, but one must pause and take inventory on each decision instead of just clumping them all together and proclaiming the sky is falling.
The more recent announcements, which have caused the number to climb from just Jalen McCleskey after the fourth game to now eight leaving the program, have a far greater understanding than seeing the senior receiver bolt in the middle of the season.
For Darrion Daniels, Justice Hill, Jordan Brailford and Larry Williams, it wasn’t about getting more playing time – as was the case for McCleskey, J.D. King and Thabo Mwaniki.
Daniels would have been a starter again next year, but he elected to play his last year – which was oddly gifted to him by freak injury – alongside his younger brother, where they will both likely be starters for a Nebraska program that has just one 10-win season since departing the Big 12.
Hill, Williams and Brailford – each of whom have battled through injuries at some point in their career – are turning pro, which in an elite program is a normal thing. Alabama had at least five players leave early after last year’s national championship campaign, and will likely have a similar number again this year.
If OSU fans want, or expect, the Cowboy program to grow and compete for national championships, early NFL departures are going to come with such lofty goals. Not every player who comes to Stillwater will be like a James Washington and Mason Rudolph who decide to play all four years. But, also remember, they were third-round picks and very likely would have gone even later if they had actually left early.
Hill is considered one of the top tailbacks on most draft projection sites, so there is little room for improvement if he returns, and while Brailford’s stock could benefit from returning, he’s also been hampered by shin and shoulder injuries during his five years in Stillwater, so that is certainly a threat of derailing him next season if he returned.
And in the chaos around players skipping the bowl, people seem to be forgetting that Williams doesn’t have another year of eligibility and has already gone through the draft process last year while waiting for an NCAA ruling on his eligibility. He likely wants to get a jump start because he didn’t have a great season and may not have received great marks from a year ago.
The number also gets inflated even more with John Kolar leaving as a grad transfer. But is the departure of a fifth-string QB (at best) to an Iowa State program in which he won’t play for but get to spend time with his younger brother, really that detrimental to the OSU program?
As for the loss of King, he witnessed firsthand that he would never be top dog in the tailback room with the emergence of Chuba Hubbard this year as RB2 – and eventually starter when Hill went down to injury. King is talented enough to be a starter, so it makes sense that he would want to find a new destination where that may be a possibility.
While on the surface the numbers may be a cause for alarm, Mike Gundy has been right on one thing – though maybe not as a graceful in his wording at times. Player defections are going to be on the rise across the country with the new NCAA rules. It just so happens that OSU is one of the first to feel the brunt – but the program won’t be the only one, and this likely won’t be the other year it happens here either.
If it were 10 players – that were full-time starters, or even on the two-deep – leaving for better programs then yes, there should be panic in the streets. But for now, it’s just a part of the process that OSU fans haven’t had to experience in the Gundy era.
Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater News Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.