Last January 7, four Louisville star defensive players gathered on campus to announce they were returning as seniors for the 2016 football season.
Linebacker Keith Kelsey, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, nose tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebacker Devonte Fields felt Louisville football was on the verge of a special season. They want to be part of it and earn their degrees.
“I was there when they announced. I was excited,” said Louisville sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson at the recent ACC Media Days in Charlotte. “People talk about our offense having more experience this year, but we still need a defense to get the ball back.”
Naturally, the announcement was big news in Louisville. Nationally, it was overshadowed by Cal quarterback Jared Goff, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, and Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (among others) declaring for the NFL Draft as underclassmen.
That’s not to say Goff, Bosa and Elliott made unwise decisions. They are set financially for life as three of the first four draft picks – assuming they don’t become new examples of pro athletes who squander their money.
It is the sad reality we live in that their message of cashing in attracts more attention than stories such as the Louisville Foursome. It’s no surprise, considering that the Kardashians are rich and famous for… merely being famous, but it’s still sad.
The four players submitted their names for NFL Draft evaluation and none received a first- or second-round grade. Yes, that played into their decisions to return, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of others from declaring early for the draft and finding themselves without an NFL job or college degree.
By returning, they can improve their draft stock with a strong senior year. Kelsey, who joined Jackson in Charlotte, said their other message was the importance of education.
“It’s a very important,” said Kelsey, who graduated in the summer. “Football can be taken away from you at any time, but the degree can never be taken away from you. Just like taking football and sports serious, you have to take your academics serious. Academics can get you just as far.
Kelsey added he believes it is easier for a football player to be realistic about his pro chances than in basketball. A football player spends three years in college before he can declare for the draft as a junior or redshirt sophomore. He has more time to mature than a basketball player who is tempted to leave after his freshman year, even though the basketball player graded out as a second-round pick at best.
“Some guys get caught up in the hype,” Kelsey said. “You have to be realistic with yourself. Football is different than basketball. You can play one year and go in basketball, but in football those are grown men out there in the NFL.”
At the January press conference, the Louisville Four talked about finishing their degrees and their optimism after winning eight of their final 10 games to finish with an 8-5 record. They make up half of Louisville’s eight defensive returning starters along with nine on offense.
Kelsey, a 6-foot-1, 236-pounder, was a first-team All-ACC pick. Harvey-Clemons (6-5, 230) and Fields (6-4, 245) were honorable mention All-ACC. Brown (6-0, 308) enjoyed his best season plugging up the middle after missing 2013 with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
They have their sights set on an ACC title, which could land the Cardinals in the College Football Playoff. The last two years the ACC champion received a CFP bid. Florida State lost in the 2014 semifinals; Clemson advanced to the 2015 final before losing to Alabama.
“We all discussed it our decision to return,” Kelsey said. “We decided it was in our best interests to return. We can do great things. We all graduated this summer as well. I came to college not only to play football but to get my education as well. My family came up here to watch me walk across the stage. It was a great feeling.”
Now, Louisville tries to pursue another great feeling: making the College Football Playoff.