Even as the world of Big Ten football remains paused, the 2021 NFL Draft inches closer with each passing day.
For the Michigan football team, that puts a handful of players in a difficult spot. Most players continue to train in Ann Arbor as they look forward to the program’s combine this fall and a potential winter or spring season, but tackle Jalen Mayfield and defensive back Ambry Thomas each declared for the NFL Draft earlier this month. A number of other upperclassmen such as Aidan Hutchinson, Cam McGrone, Nico Collins, Kwity Paye, Carlo Kemp, Nick Eubanks and Chris Evans will have the chance to follow suit.
On Thursday, Hutchinson admitted he still hasn’t arrived at a draft decision. In the meantime, the junior defensive end will remain in Ann Arbor with his teammates.
“That (2021 NFL Draft) decision will be made in the future,” Hutchinson said on a Zoom call. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. Decisions will be made. Jalen made his decision — I’m really happy for him. I hope that he’s able to fulfill all his dreams and go in that first round, but for me, I still have some decisions to make.”
Until some of the moving parts fall into place, Hutchinson won’t be able to make a final call.
“It all depends on when we play,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve got to play football soon, since last year I wouldn’t have played. If you count the years, it would be two years (since I last played) if our season gets canceled. I can’t leave for the NFL without having played football for such a long time.”
A handful of Hutchinson’s teammates are in the same boat. Paye decided to return for his senior season after mulling the 2020 NFL Draft, while Eubanks and Kemp each exercised their fifth season of eligibility to return this fall. Evans, on the other hand, needs a season to prove himself after a one-year academic suspension kept him off the field in 2019.
Without a concrete Big Ten football plan, the eight months between now and the NFL Draft feel short. That spotlights players teetering on the edge of declaring, but it also quietly underscores the importance of leadership for upperclassmen intent on staying.
“(Motivation) has to come from within you,” senior fullback Ben Mason said. “From the guys who maybe don’t have that some days, you have to bring it out of them and really just explain to them, ‘Look, you’re on a team. Whenever we do get to play, you getting ready is only going to make the team better.’ ”
With a football-less September approaching, the Wolverines’ top priority remains preparing for the next time they take the field — whenever that may be.
“From the first day the season was canceled, it almost seemed like it wasn’t canceled,” Hutchinson said. “… We never really stopped practice. We had a couple days off after the season got canceled. Otherwise, we’ve been plugging away. When we had our team meeting and (Michigan coach Jim) Harbaugh announced that the season was canceled, he said it and was like, ‘Alright, let’s go practice.’ ”
For now, Michigan’s practices are rolling on without a clear light at the end of the tunnel. In theory, a winter season would be early enough to incentivize draft-eligible players to participate, whereas a spring season calendar may sway some players to sit out in favor of independent draft preparation.
It remains to be seen whether or not a winter or spring Big Ten season, which would require a massive logistical undertaking, will materialize. And if it does, NFL Draft decisions could reshape the Wolverines’ roster before they take the field next.