‘I really wanted to play this season’: Why opting in to Big Ten football became the rage for top NFL prospects

Shaun Wade already was expecting a big day on Sept. 16, no matter what happened around the world of football. It was his birthday. He was preparing to sign with an agent to celebrate the occasion and to formally commence his preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft.

The informal prep already had begun. He was trying to get a workout in that morning, in fact.

“It was hard, because everybody was blowing my phone up,” Wade told Sporting News. “My dad was blowing my phone up. People were trying to interview me. It was just a lot of stress.”

In addition to this being the day Wade turned 22, it became the day the Big Ten Conference turned around its decision not to contest a football season in the 2020 calendar year. The league would begin competing Oct. 24, which meant coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State Buckeyes would be active in time to pursue a College Football Playoff championship.

And that meant Wade had a decision to make: continue moving on with his plans to position himself for the draft or return to play his senior season at Ohio State as one of the nation’s elite cornerbacks.

“It was on my birthday when they announced they were going to play, and I just felt it was like a sign from God for me to play — to showcase your talent and just help your team win games,” Wade said. “I was just ready to come back and play with my brothers. And now I’m back and I’m looking forward to this.”

The pandemic that is defining this year has imprinted upon the lexicon many terms not commonly employed — epidemiologist, quarantine, coronavirus, PPE — and, for that matter, the word pandemic itself. To this, the world of sports has added at least one: “opt out.”

We have heard of athletes opting out of contracts containing language allowing them to chase even bigger paydays, but almost no one, ever, opted out of competing entirely. That, previously, was called “retirement.”

With concern about the pandemic rampant during the summer, nearly five dozen NFL players opted out of the 2020 season, two dozen players in Major League Baseball, and such NBA players as Avery Bradley of the Lakers and Davis Bertans of the Wizards. It became common in college football, as well, particularly when the Big Ten announced Aug. 11 that it would postpone its fall sports competitions, most likely to the spring.

When the league reversed course more than a month later, something surprising happened. Players began opting back in, and for the loveliest of reasons.

“When it got announced it was back on, I got a plane ticket immediately to go right back to Columbus, without even hesitation,” Buckeyes guard Wyatt Davis told Sporting News. “The NFL really had nothing to do with it. The way I look at it: If I do what I’m supposed to do and play how I’m supposed to play in order to help my team win, and then all that stuff will come.

“If I was really worried about going to the NFL, I would have left after my season last year. But I didn’t. I wanted to come back, win a national championship — and I believe we have the team to do it. So it was all purely driven off of Coach Day and the program that he has built here, with the culture and the brotherhood, and coming back and playing with my guys.”

Davis, Wade, Michigan tackle Jaylen Mayfield and Purdue wideout Rondale Moore have returned to their teams since the Big Ten announcement. It took the Pac-12 a little longer to declare its intent to return, with a seven-game season launching Nov. 7, but that was enough for California corner Camryn Bynum to announce his return. Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman is back with the Gophers and preparing for the season; because he signed with an agent after opting out, he must successfully navigate the process to have his eligibility restored.

All these young men are college football players, and they long to play college football. They plan to become professional football players, no doubt, and excellent performances at this level will help advance them toward that goal. Nearly all these players are projected in the mock 2021 first round published by 247 Sports: Bateman is top 5, Wade top 10, Moore top 15 and Davis top 25. Mayfield is listed as “one to watch.” Bynum is widely projected to be selected among the first 100 players.

But now, they are members of these teams they chose to join, and they have goals they wish to accomplish.

“Growing up, football was a big part of my life, and when that was taken away, it kind of put me in a weird situation,” Mayfield told SN. “When the opportunity presented itself for me to come back, a lot of players reached out to me. I really wanted to play this season, I thought it could do a lot for myself, and I wanted to come back and reach the goals we’d set for ourselves.

“It immediately struck me that I want to be back, and I want to play with the team. There’s so much I can benefit from, and so much I want to experience in another year with this team.”

As have so many athletes, these men have found 2020 to be a challenging year. Ohio State got in just three spring practices before the Big Ten suspended all athletic activities March 12 because of the pandemic. Michigan was set to begin four days later. Purdue was lucky enough to get in eight.

Campuses were shut down and football players were sent home, and it was difficult for most of them to find a place to train. When permitted to return to campus in early June for the purpose of safely conditioning and preparing for a season they expected to occur in some form or fashion, they maybe were out of sorts but at least were back in place.

Then came word from the Big Ten headquarters that football would not be taking place in the fall. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who had advocated for the season taking place, had to break the news to the Wolverines.

“He brought everybody in; we were supposed to practice that day,” Mayfield said. “Everybody was just so down. Everybody was in a state of shock. Football is all we’ve had since we were young, a lot of us, and we love to play the game. I don’t think anybody ever saw that actually happening, especially with everybody else around the country still playing.”

Moore electrified college football as a Purdue freshman with a season that included 114 catches, 12 receiving touchdowns, 231 rushing yards on just 21 attempts and selection as a consensus first-team All-American. His second season was not as glorious. He was reminded that football can be an unforgiving game. Moore injured his hamstring and played only four games all season, and the Boilers went just 4-8.

In practice this year, Purdue receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard told SN, Moore showed how delighted he is to be healthy again by ripping off a slant-and-go pattern that led to a long touchdown — and then executing a back flip in the end zone while wearing a full set of football pads.

“He was so happy to be back out there playing,” Shephard said. “He loves to compete. And to be quite honest about it, he’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. Having not played as much as he wanted to last season, there’s some doubters out there. He knows what he is capable of doing. His teammates know.”

Moore called Shephard soon after hearing the news about the Big Ten’s return. He had one question: What’s the schedule look like? Moore didn’t immediately commit to returning, but when he started asking questions about the playbook, it gave away his intentions.

Although he’d left West Lafayette, Moore never left Purdue. As he was working out regularly with a personal trainer back home in the Louisville area, Moore was taking a 27-credit load online to advance toward completion of his degree. He carries that work ethic onto the football field, as well.

“You’ve got some newcomers, some guys that just got with the team, and they had not seen his work ethic and how he goes about his performance,” Shephard said. “For them to see it, too, everybody’s play is being pushed to another level.”

When The Associated Press conducted its preseason college football poll Aug. 24, Ohio State received 21 first-place votes and ranked No. 2 behind Clemson. There was plenty of reason to believe the Buckeyes could achieve a second CFP title if all their top talent was in place — and if there were actual games to play.

When the second poll was conducted, and only active teams were included, OSU was gone from the top 25. The good news came soon afterward, though. Now the Buckeyes are having preseason “camp” at the same time as others are preparing for Saturday games. There are teams in the ACC that already have played four games. Clemson is unbeaten and could be 5-0 by the time the Buckeyes reach their first game day.

“It feels really strange, but with how the world is right now, it’s almost like you kind of get used to it,” Davis said. “The fact we can come into the facility each day, go out on that practice field and go to work, it kind of blocks all that out.

“There is a pandemic still going on. Coronavirus is still out there. Right now is probably when they were saying it was going to come back even harder. Honestly, it’s holding everybody accountable. It’s very hard to ask guys not to maybe go and see their girlfriend, go out to eat, go to a party in college when everyone else around you is doing that. But ultimately, it’s about what we want. And what we want is to play football.

“We were fighting and advocating for it, so now we have to make the sacrifices that come with that. Coach Day brings it up all the time, that we’ve got to go out there and make smart decisions. We have a very small window to make it to the CFP, and if guys start getting too comfortable we could easily lose that opportunity if we get games that get canceled.”

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