Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones surprised Ohio State fans after Saturday's loss by announcing they’d played their final home games for the Buckeyes. While their decisions weren’t entirely shocking, the timing of the news was. Most players keep announcements under wraps until after the season, but make no mistake — they’re thinking about the NFL now.
So with the final game of the regular season on the horizon, here are the biggest names to watch as NFL decisions loom for the ACC’s underclassmen.
Jalen Ramsey (CB, Florida State): Kiper has Ramsey as the No. 4 prospect on his big board, and it’s possible that stock could actually go up. He's proven himself as an elite corner and safety.
Kendall Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech): His junior season was cut short by an injury, but perhaps that’s all the more reason to leave. Add in the fact that there will be a coaching change at Virginia Tech and Fuller’s status as Kiper’s No. 3 corner in this year’s draft and No. 14 overall on his big board, and he’s as good as gone.
Shaq Lawson (DE, Clemson): Sure his predecessor, Vic Beasley, stuck around for his senior year and likely upped his draft stock because of it, but Lawson is a force of nature at the line of scrimmage, and he’ll be high enough on NFL draft boards to warrant leaving now. Kiper currently has Lawson as the No. 4 defensive end.
Mackensie Alexander (CB, Clemson): Alexander believes he’s the best corner on the market and from the beginning, he's been driven by a desire to improve life for his family. As Kiper’s No. 5 cornerback this year (with a possible national title chance to boost his resume), he’ll have a chance to do that at year’s end.
Tyler Boyd (WR, Pittsburgh): Boyd has thrived working with three different QBs in three years, and assuming Will Fuller stays in school as he’s said, there’s no reason to think Boyd won’t be one of the first five receivers off the board.
James Conner (RB, Pittsburgh): A season-ending injury in Week 1 is just a reminder of the tough life a running back lives, and he’s got plenty of film from a stellar 2014 to fall back upon. He should be fully recovered in time for the combine, too, so there’s no reason he needs to stick around if he thinks he’s ready to go.
Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green (S, Clemson): Alexander and Lawson get most of the hype on Clemson’s defense, but the two safeties have the attention of NFL scouts. Kearse is a bit more experienced and a bit more refined, so his departure seems more likely. He’s No. 3 on Kiper’s list of safety prospects, while Green is No. 5. There’s a good shot at least one decides to head to the NFL.
DeVonte Fields (LB, Louisville): Given his off-field issues, another year of good behavior at Louisville could be a benefit. From an on-field perspective, however, he has 10.5 tackles for loss in his last five games, proving he has the talent to be an impact player at the next level.
Wayne Gallman (RB, Clemson): Gallman isn’t likely to be a top pick, even among running backs, but he’s a hard runner who might be better off getting a paycheck for taking those hits. Next year, he’ll be competing for attention with Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and a handful of other elite backs, and it might make sense to cash in now.
Artie Burns (CB, Miami): With a coaching change imminent at Miami, Burns could decide he’d rather head to the NFL than risk his future on a new system. On the other hand, a new coaching staff could provide him an opportunity to better showcase his skills in 2016, upping his stock in a less crowded class of corners.
Keith Kelsey (LB, Louisville): He’s not among Kiper’s top inside linebackers, but that’s a list that also includes a few players dealing with injury issues. Kelsey has 18.5 sacks in the past two seasons and his numbers have improved every year he’s been on the field.
DeMarcus Walker (DE, Florida State): He wasn’t pegged as one of the nation’s elite pass-rushers entering the year, but Walker has gotten better each week and has worked his way into the conversation. He could be a first-rounder if he sticks around another year, but there will be some strong demand either way.
Josh Harvey-Clemons (S, Louisville): A year ago, two Louisville defensive backs bolted early. Charles Gaines went in the sixth round and Gerrod Holliman went in the seventh. Will that be enough to deter Harvey-Clemons, a more prototypical NFL safety, from following suit?
Mike Williams (WR, Clemson): Williams opened the season as a potential first-rounder, but a neck injury in Week 1 has sidelined him since, and with Deshaun Watson back for 2016, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to have a stellar season next year to remind scouts why they liked him so much to begin with.
Ron Thompson (DE, Syracuse): Thompson is still a bit raw and could benefit from another season, but with a coaching change impending and pass-rushers always highly valued at the next level, leaving early remains a possibility.
Stacy Coley (WR, Miami): After a dismal sophomore season, Coley has bounced back nicely in 2015, but his numbers still aren’t eye-popping, and his production has been inconsistent. He has one of college football’s best QBs throwing to him, so a standout 2016 could boost his stock considerably.