Alabama and Florida’s Underclassman Opt for the NFL Draft

Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, the centerpiece of the Crimson Tide’s national championship defense, announced Monday that he was skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

McClain won the Butkus Award this season as the top linebacker in college football and led the Crimson Tide in tackles. He was a three-year starter and has been calling the defensive signals since he was a freshman.

He led Alabama with 105 tackles and 14.5 stops for losses in 2009. He also had two interceptions and two sacks.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has called the All-American one of the smartest players he’s ever coached.

“I’m going to leave the university pretty satisfied with what I’ve done here,” McClain said.

He said he believes he is leaving the Alabama defense in good shape.

“I think also that I have a few good linebackers behind me that can come in and contribute in such ways that I did,” he said. “Guys like Don’ta [Hightower] being back next year and Nico Johnson having a good year this year and I think they’ll come in and do just as good as I did.”

Most projections have McClain going in the top half of the first round.

Florida has three more underclassmen headed to the NFL and one junior sticking around another season.

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, safety Major Wright and center Maurkice Pouncey announced their intentions Monday, joining cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Aaron Hernandez in leaving school early.

Guard Mike Pouncey, however, plans to return for his senior year. His decision should give the Gators four returning starters along the offensive line.

“Mike has a great future ahead of him,” offensive line coach Steve Addazio said in a statement. “I believe he will be the top returning offensive lineman in America. Coming back just gives him another opportunity to grow as a player and as a leader and will help him increase his positional versatility. Without question, Mike’s future is very bright.”

Dunlap, Wright and Maurkice Pouncey are hoping for the same things — at the next level.

Dunlap, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior from North Charleston, S.C., led the Gators with nine sacks in 2009. He is projected as a first-round pick despite his arrest on drunken-driving charges in early December.

“Carlos has all of the physical tools to be successful at the next level,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “I believe if he continues to grow and mature he will have a very long career in the NFL. He provided matchup problems for opposing teams and was a big part of our success during the last several years. We wish him the best of luck.”

Wright, a 6-foot, 205-pound safety, told ESPN.com’s Joe Schad, “I looked at the pros and cons and prayed with my family about it. I will be a leader. I will lead by example for whatever team drafts me.”

Wright told Schad that Coach Meyer’s pending leave of absence did not play a role in the decision.

“You don’t want to die over football,” Wright said. “He needs to take care of his health and his family. But it really didn’t play any role in my decision.”

Wright was tied for second on the team with three interceptions and had 32 total tackles.

Maurkice Pouncey, a 6-foot-5, 318-pound junior from Lakeland, Fla., was awarded the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center in 2009. He is projected to be a second-round pick.

“Maurkice has all the tools to succeed in the NFL,” Addazio said. “There is no doubt in my mind that he will be a great player at the next level. I wish him nothing but the best because has been like a son to me.”

The Gators could lose one more junior to the NFL. Safety Ahmad Black is still weighing his options.

Dunlap’s decision looked like a no-brainer — until his Dec. 1 arrest. He was considered one of the nation’s top pass-rushers and possibly a top-10 pick. But his draft stock dropped slightly after police found him passed out behind the wheel at an intersection days before the Southeastern Conference championship game.

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