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December 28, 2010ORLANDO _ One would think that University of Alabama junior wide receiver Julio Jones is getting the question seemingly non-stop.
He is from reporters, but that's about it. Family? Friends? Not so much.
"They're going to support me no matter what," Jones said.
It's not really coming up in conversations with teammates either as the Crimson Tide prepares for its season finale against Michigan State in Saturday's Capital One Bowl. But after this is all over, Jones is going to have to make the decision about whether to enter the National Football League's draft a year early.
"I really don't know," Jones said. "I'm trying not to think about it, especially right here, right now. I'm focused on myself and my team and what we're doing here."
The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15, and Jones isn't alone. Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus and junior running back Mark Ingram could also be first-round selections should they leave and there some other Alabama players weighing their options as well.
"We're like a family now," Jones continued. "We don't really talk about 'Are you staying?' or 'Are you going?' We try to embrace the time that we have together and have a good time."
Regardless, it will be the final time this team will be together, although the makeover will be nothing like the defense replacing nine starters and key role players from last year. The seniors who hope to be drafted include quarterback Greg McElroy, tight end Preston Dial and left tackle James Carpenter, but they'll leave behind a lot of talent in Tuscaloosa.
"Every year when they leave us it's crazy," Jones said about departing seniors. "You look around and see who we'll get back. The ones who are gone you think 'What are we going to do without him,' but every year someone steps up to take their place."
"Who's going to hold their positions down? Who's going to step up to the plate?"
Complicating matters are the ongoing NFL labor issues that are about to come to a head with the potential, and some believe likely, lockout. The league is playing the 2010 season without a salary cap and the current collective bargaining agreement expires March 3, well before the draft but long after underclassmen have to make their choice.
The longer it drags out the more it could affect incoming players. For example, they couldn't participate in offseason workouts and minicamps, which is when rookies start getting indoctrinated into the NFL lifestyle and begin to learn the playbook. Subtract that and one has to wonder how well the newcomers might hold up over the long season.
While the draft would go on even during a lockout, clubs would probably be very reluctant to sign their selections until after a settlement is reached, especially considering the rookie wage scale will be a key part of the negotiations with the league aiming to impose stricter limits to guaranteed money for rookies. Last year, first-round selections alone signed for $528.59 million guaranteed, up from $462 million the previous year, with all 255 picks securing for $656 million guaranteed.
That the union advised its membership earlier this month to save the last three game checks this year in case next season is canceled, with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith writing that the union's "internal deadline" for agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement has passed, should cause everyone to pause.
Consequently, instead of telling his players that they have his blessing to make the early jump if projected to be a first-round selection, this year Nick Saban has scaled that back to top 15.
That could be Jones, but the coach would certainly like to have him back.
"I think Julio has made a tremendous amount of improvement each year at Alabama," he said Monday. "There's no doubt that the last five or six games he sort of developed to a different level in terms of a player. It's hard for me to know exactly how NFL teams would evaluate what he needs to do to get better, I know what I think.
"The faster he plays, the better he plays, the more consistently he catches the ball up field the better. I think he'd be the No. 1 receiver in the country next year. He's probably a guy who would have a chance to win a lot of national honors in terms of being an award like the Biletnikoff (for best receiver) or being in the Heisman Trophy hunt. Obviously it would go a long way toward the leadership of our team."
To put Jones' stretch run into perspective, he had 51 catches for 762 yards and five touchdowns since sustaining a left hand fracture early in the game at South Carolina (where he still had 118 yards on eight receptions), a period of seven games that includes the one-catch for eight yards against Ole Miss just six days after doctors inserted a plate a screws.
That's more than he had during the entire national championship season (43 receptions for 596 yards and four TDs).
Overall, he's already set the Crimson Tide record single-season record with 75 receptions for 1,084 yards, including a single-game record 221 yards at Tennessee.
Yet even Jones can get better.
"Every player can improve," Saban said. "I think the history of most NFL positions, the failure rate of juniors is a lot higher than it is for seniors. It's just about knowledge, experience, maturity, adapting and adjusting to be more ready to make an impact."
He added: "There's no question the guy has really good toughness. He's very physical and you're at a position where you sometimes have to develop toughness, that's never been the case with him. It's just a part of his game, and I think that's a tremendous asset for him."
So are his attitude and selfless style of play. Consider Jones' response to being asked if one game stuck out at Alabama: "A lot of those games I have to thank my teammates. I mean I did better from one game to the next, but when I do well it's because of my teammates. It's the offensive line blocking well, the quarterback throwing, it's not just about what I did. I contribute to it a little bit, but they had the hard jobs.
"All I had to do was catch the ball."
He added that what he's most proud of are: "My teammates. It's been great for me that I have these guys, who look up to me as a leader. I feel like I have that role and I try and lead by example."
The question now is if he will past Saturday.
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