Publish date:

DECISION 2016

Author:

YOU'RE A JUNIOR DEFENSIVE END AT CLEMSON, PLAYING OPPOSITE A STAR. AFTER A STRING OF ROUGH YEARS YOU'RE SUDDENLY A SACK MACHINE, AT YOUR BEST ON THE GAME'S BIGGEST STAGE. DO YOU STAY AT SCHOOL TO GROW? OR CASH IN WHILE YOU'RE HOT? Welcome to Kevin Dodd's million-dollar dilemma

THE TWEET from Pro Football Focus's collegiate arm, @PFF_College—and the lone response it received—perfectly summed up the conundrum faced by so many young players who excel on college football's biggest stage. "Kevin Dodd led Clemson with 60 pressures coming into the game," one of PFF's analysts typed during the second quarter of the 2016 national championship game after the defensive end dropped Alabama's Jake Coker for the first of his three takedowns in a 45--40 Tigers defeat. "Huge sack there."

Shortly afterward, a Philadelphia fan with the handle @eaglesbreakdown asked an obvious question about the junior who until then had labored mostly in the shadow of fellow end Shaq Lawson: "Is he coming out?"

At the conclusion of the January playoffs, the 6' 5", 277-pound Dodd looked like a guy who'd just struck it rich. He'd played his best when it mattered most—first with a sack in an Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, after Lawson injured his knee, and then in the loss to Alabama. Media members began counting the dollars Dodd had just earned if he chose to enter the draft. But what people thought Dodd should do next—and seemingly everybody had an opinion—depended on how they saw the 23-year-old.

A onetime project who'd made huge gains in his first year as a starter but who wasn't close to his ceiling. Think how much better he could be, how much more money he could make on his first NFL contract, if he stayed one more year.

Or: A guy who squeaked by in high school and prep school, then redshirted his second year in college before exploding onto the scene as a junior. Dodd needed to go pro now; maybe this was the best he'd ever look.

To fully understand the decision he faced, consider: Even though the NFL's collective bargaining agreement has eliminated the absurd guaranteed money at the top of the draft—remember the $50 million Sam Bradford was promised as the No. 1 pick in 2010?—the difference between being selected in the middle of the first round and at the top of the second remains huge. Melvin Gordon, picked at No. 15 by the Chargers in '15, received $10.7 million in guaranteed money; Giants safety Landon Collins, the first pick of round 2, got $6.2 million less. For perspective: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average U.S. engineer will make a little over half that difference during an entire working lifetime.

ONE WAY TO look at Dodd's dilemma was to ask, Is he more like Cardale Jones or Reggie Ragland? Jones, the former Ohio State QB, was a struck-it-rich guy in the playoffs following the 2014 season. A 6' 5", 253-pound redshirt sophomore with a bazooka strapped to his right shoulder, he beat Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in his only three starts. Maybe he would have been picked apart in the predraft process, but it's just as likely that some team would have fallen in love with his physical gifts and used a first-or second-round pick on him; his lack of film could have even helped. In the end Jones didn't think he was ready. He returned to Columbus and started seven games before he was benched in favor of J.T. Barrett. Now Jones is projected to go somewhere between the third and fifth rounds; staying cost him millions. Still, he stands by his choice. "That extra year helped me with maturity," Jones says. "Going back to school did me well."

Ragland, the former Alabama linebacker, can say that more definitively. His draft stock skyrocketed when he closed the 2014 season with a seven-tackle, two tackles-for-loss playoff semifinal against Ohio State. He stayed in Tuscaloosa, earned '15 SEC Defensive Player of the Year accolades and very likely added millions to the guarantee on his first contract. "Reggie last year had a second-round grade; I'm sure he'll be a top 15 pick this year," says his former coach, Nick Saban, whose opinion is shared by most mock drafters. "Do the math—that's a $12 million to $14 million decision." Saban is not a stay-or-else coach; he had no problem with tailback Derrick Henry and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson declaring for this year's draft, after their junior seasons. Their stocks had peaked.

So, has Dodd's? Anyone who watched him in January would have trouble believing it could go any higher. Dodd's signature sack against the Crimson Tide came in the third quarter: 313-pound Dominick Jackson, a second-team All-SEC tackle, was flagged for grabbing Dodd by the collar, but the infraction didn't slow the defensive end, who dragged Jackson en route to leveling Coker.

That night, Dodd looked like one of the nation's premier pass rushers, a polished product at the top of his game. In reality, though, only Dodd—and the coaches on Clemson's sideline—knew how far he had come.

WHEN BRENT VENABLES arrived at Clemson from Oklahoma in the spring of 2012, his job was to coordinate a defense that had just been torched 70--33 in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. Eyeing his new charges, he liked what he saw from a pass-rushing standpoint, but he worried about depth. And here coach Dabo Swinney had a suggestion: Number 98 might provide some help.

Venables scoffed. Kevin Dodd? He'll never play. "Is there another word that's worse than raw?" Venables asks now. "He looked very uncoordinated. Very unathletic. He stuck out like a sore thumb."

Venables would soon learn how wrong he was. Like a hunk of marble before it is chiseled into a statue, Dodd was merely unrefined. The player Venables encountered early on looked much like the one that offensive line coach Brad Scott and defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks had scouted at Riverside High in Greer, S.C. Back then, Dodd was big and long (already 6' 5") and he could run—and that was about it. It was enough, though, that in 2010 Scott advised Swinney: Offer Dodd a scholarship, but don't look at the tape. Scott knew that Dodd had played football for only two seasons and that he stood almost no chance of qualifying academically with the class of '10. But if he got his grades in order at prep school, giving him another year to mature physically, that player might be worth a look.

Academically, Dodd was so far behind because there were days in high school when he simply couldn't make it to class. Maybe he couldn't get a ride from his home in Taylors, S.C. Maybe he had to work. For a while he assembled printers at a factory—any odd job to help put food on the table. "I worked for everything I ever had," says Dodd, who mastered the country-kid skills of landscaping and making beat-up cars run again, at the expense of his grades. Football gave him a reason to get to school, but, he says, "College didn't exist in my world. Guys didn't have the funds; I never thought about it."

Brooks and Scott changed that perspective.

"I'm thinking, God just dropped a million dollars out of the sky," Dodd says of the scholarship offer he received in early 2010, when he was a Riverside senior. At 17 he retook his freshman and sophomore classes to raise his GPA. After graduating, he attended Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and continued cleaning up his transcript. Finally, in January '12, he enrolled at Clemson. A few months later he was getting harangued by defensive ends coach Marion Hobby as he struggled to master the basics. "He wanted me in [a certain] stance, and I just couldn't do it," says Dodd. "That spring practice was so long, so foreign."

He listened, though. Venables can't recall an aha moment when Dodd morphed from project to pass rusher; he simply did everything that was asked of him on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom. "He just worked," says Venables. "He kept his head down and worked." Dodd played 87 snaps as a freshman and would have assumed a bigger role in 2013 had a toe injury not forced him into a medical redshirt. In his absence a former tailback named Vic Beasley blossomed, and in '14, Dodd—playing behind Beasley (a future first-round pick), Lawson and Corey Crawford—logged only 92 snaps in 12 games. It wasn't until October '15 that he even registered on opposing coaches' and NFL scouts' radars with a two-sack night against Notre Dame, which ended when Dodd set the edge for a game-deciding two-point conversion stop. Even though Lawson drew the headlines for most of the year, Dodd was, finally, just as frightening. Lawson, the first-team All-America, finished the season with 25½ tackles for loss and 12½ sacks; Dodd had 23½ and 12.

As the College Football Playoff approached, Dodd asked to be evaluated by the NFL's draft advisory board and received a second-round grade. "I was still willing to come back," he says. "I had nine hours to graduate, and I could have used the extra year to refine my game." Then Lawson went down in the Orange Bowl, and the spotlight shone on Dodd. "It just came easy," he says. "And I finally got the attention I needed."

After the title game Dodd figured his draft stock had indeed peaked. "If I could perform against the almighty Alabama, the kings of college football," he says, "how much higher could I ever perform?"

So, with Swinney's blessing, Dodd took the leap. He trained on campus for the combine and his pro day so that he could finish those final nine hours. He'll get his sociology degree this spring. And when he returns to Taylors and his little cousins swarm him, he can tell them that a college degree isn't just for other people.

Meanwhile, Venables will hold up Dodd, a projected mid-first-round pick, as an example of hope when he encounters a freshman who still needs to learn the game's finer points. "His maturation, his growth and his improvement—I've never seen anything like it," he gushed in March as he watched Dodd move, fluidly as a defensive back, at his pro day workout. "Did you see those hips?"

"He could have come back another year," added Swinney, "but he went and earned this opportunity." The hunk of raw material had been chiseled. He was the spitting image of an NFL first-rounder.

DOWNLOAD the SI app from Google Play or the iTunes store, then personalize to get scores, breaking news and alerts for every Andy Staples story.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MID-FIRST-AND A SECOND-ROUND PICK? ROUGHLY the career earnings of a U.S. engineer.

PHOTO

Photograph by Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

TIGER PAUSE? With three sacks of Coker in Clemson's championship game loss, Dodd spectacularly capped a season in which he went from unknown to potential first-round pick.

PHOTO

SCOTT DONALDSON/ICON SPORTSWIRE

TWIN PEAKS Like Dodd, Ragland (far left) and Jones (middle) had their best showings in the playoffs. Unlike Dodd, both players stayed, with disparate results.

PHOTO

ROBERT BECK

[See caption above]

PHOTO

TODD ROSENBERG

[See caption above]

TWO ILLUSTRATIONS