When Ja'Marr Chase became the highest-profile underclassman to opt out of the 2020 college football season, the implications immediately registered with Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi. Among its terrible accomplishments this terrible year, COVID-19 had essentially done away with prospects actually having to play football their final year to get to the NFL.
"No doubt," Narduzzi told CBS Sports. "Now we've opened it up for these agents who can continue to drill, drill, drill, drill, drill, drill. 'You had a bad at practice? Coach yelled at you a little bit?' All the sudden, 'I'm out of here.'"
No one is saying that's exactly what happened with Chase, LSU's Biletnikoff Award-winning All-American receiver. But there is little doubt Chase would still be in school as a rising junior if the coronavirus had not created an agent dialogue that went something like this:
You're already a top five pick in the draft. You've won a national championship. With the risk of COVID-19 and injury, you can only hurt your draft chances. Why play?
It was a bit of a Black Sunday for college football fans everywhere with two All-Americans opting out. Memphis sophomore running back Kenneth Gainwell followed Chase later in the day. That made it five former or preseason All-Americans who have left since the pandemic hit.
Seven of the top 20 players in the latest mock draft by CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Ryan Wilson have either opted out or likely played their last snap as collegians because they are highly rated draft prospects from the Big Ten or Pac-12.
Is this just the start of a new normal for college football?
"I think this could open the floodgates in the future," an NFL agent told Wilson.
A quick check of the CBS Sports opt out tracker revealed that 22 of the 55 Power Five players listed came from Big Ten and Pac-12 schools that aren't playing until next year. At least five of those left to pursue a professional career. All of early entrees face the possible prospect of going 21 months without playing a football game.
"Football is not like basketball where you can go get a pickup game and go play," Narduzzi said. "You can't have a pickup football game. We used to do that when we were 10 with flags. … This is a game I truly believe you have to play. Whether it's LSU or anybody else, it will be a year and a half before you play.
"You don't want to go into an NFL camp rusty."
For the schools impacted, they hope this offseason is a one-off. NFL Players Association rules dictate that college players be three years out of school before becoming eligible for the draft. Until COVID-19, the assumption -- barring injury or a redshirt season -- was players had to play those three years.
Now, it might not matter. Highly-rated prospects could leave without playing their third year and still be highly-rated prospects.
Chase knows he will arrive in the NFL at one of its most coveted positions at the moment. An average of 3.3 receivers have been picked in the top 30 of the draft in the last 10 years. That includes 10 top-10 picks. Chase has rated as high as the No. 2 overall pick. The last receiver to be picked that high was Calvin Johnson by the Lions in 2007.
If this is a trend, we already how it started. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) and Leonard Fournette (LSU) opted out of their bowl games in December 2016 to preserve their health prior to the draft.
Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa took it a step further a couple years ago. After a core-muscle injury early in 2018, Bosa eventually ended his college career and began preparing for the draft despite doctors projecting that he could have potentially been healthy enough to return late in the season. This as the Buckeyes were competing for a Big Ten title and national championship.
One veteran draft analyst couldn't blame the San Francisco 49ers defender, concluding: "If that's the math, what do I have to lose? Bosa went second overall."
Cloying agents remain a problem in general. Alabama coach Nick Saban has long complained about the December battle he has with agents sniffing around the program convincing his players to leave early.
Saban countered by showing those players a study that depicted one network's early mock drafts as "highly inaccurate" regarding Alabama players. That study showed that, over the last 10 years, Bama's actual draft selections were a cumulative 700 picks lower than projected.
Fighting those agents might be a losing battle. Their presence will increase. The NCAA has adopted Rice commission recommendations suggesting more agent interaction in basketball. When name, image and likeness legislation is likely adopted in January 2021, coaches and administrators will almost certainly have to deal directly with marketing agents.
But by leveraging the threat of COVID-19, agents have lured players out for the draft earlier than ever. LSU sources were upset Chase left after his father had said in early August his son was staying in school. Those same sources said, over the last few weeks, agents hammered away at Chase's resolve.
Obviously, Chase was the best receiver in the country in 2019 and would have been a centerpiece to the 2020 offense while Myles Brennan eased into the quarterback job. The losses from just eight months ago when the Tigers finished one of the greatest seasons ever are now significant. Both coordinators (Joe Brady, Dave Aranda) are gone. Joe Burrow was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, one of five Tigers selected in the first round.
LSU officials are also concerned Chase's departure may cost the program an APR point. If Chase had opted out before classes began on Aug. 24, the program would be in better shape. APR measures semester-by-semester retention and ultimately is used calculate graduation rates. Schools can lose postseason eligibility for APR abuses.
A couple of days before the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their seasons, Pittsburgh's Jalen Twyman was looking forward to his second season as a starter. As a redshirt sophomore, the defensive lineman from Washington, D.C. was the first Pitt interior lineman to lead the team in sacks (11) since Aaron Donald in 2013.
At the time, Twyman was one of the biggest names to opt out. That has changed. His decision wasn't impacted by COVID-19. There were personal issues within his family compelling him to leave early.
Curtis Gainwell told the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Sunday that the pandemic played a role in his son Kenneth's decision as the family has lost four members who contracted the coronavirus, including an uncle whose funeral was over the weekend. Gainwell added that his son has not yet decided whether to enter the 2021 NFL Draft.
Trey Sermon had his choice of playoff teams. As a junior in 2019, Sermon saw his playing time diminish at Oklahoma. A Nov. 9 injury ended his season. That allowed Kennedy Brooks to ascend while Sermon became eligible right away when he transferred to Ohio State. Brooks recently opted out, leaving the Sooners with a legitimate hole at running back.
The NCAA has already declared athletes must be allowed to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Earlier this month, it allowed all fall sports athletes an extra year of eligibility regardless of whether they played this fall.
Narduzzi may not know Brooks or whether he'll ever play in the NFL, but he knows what happened.
"We just opened the gate for [agents] to do whatever they want to," he said.