TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama tailback Eddie Lacy, cornerback Dee Milliner and right tackle D.J. Fluker are entering the NFL draft after helping lead the Crimson Tide to a second straight national title.
Lacy and Milliner announced their plans to skip their senior seasons Friday at a news conference. Fluker couldn’t be there for the announcement because he was traveling.
It’s another exodus of talented underclassmen for a team that has won three of the past four national championships. Most of the four first-round picks in each of the past two drafts that left Alabama were underclassmen.
“I appreciate what they’ve done for the University of Alabama but we also acknowledge the fact that from a business standpoint, these guys are making good decisions about their future and what they can do,” coach Nick Saban said.
Unlike recent groups of departing juniors from Alabama, only Milliner is pegged as a sure first-round pick.
He was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist and unanimous All-American after recording two interceptions and 22 pass deflections. He and guard Chance Warmack, who was a senior, are projected as the Tide’s top current prospects.
“I think while I was here, I met all the goals and team affirmations that I set for myself as a freshman by winning a championship, becoming an All-American, just being part of a team that always loved to win,” Milliner said. “I think I fulfilled all my goals and am ready and prepared to go to the next level.”
Lacy was MVP of the national championship game against Notre Dame after rushing for 140 yards and scoring two touchdowns. He said he wasn’t 100 percent healthy all season until the title game Monday night, but Lacy still ran for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
“We don’t have a lot of years to play this position, so you have to go while you can,” Lacy said. “I would love to come back. This is a great place. We have the best fans, but I really didn’t want to risk coming back and not having such a good year or maybe even risking injury. I’ve had my share of injuries this year. I feel like you’ve got to get out while you can.”
Lacy thinks he “made a pretty solid statement” in the title game, when he made a spin move into the end zone on a TD catch and on another run pushed 248-pound linebacker Danny Spond away with one hand.
Lacy was recruited in the same class as Trent Richardson, last year’s No. 3 pick by Cleveland, but redshirted and then spent two seasons as a backup. He’s not widely projected to follow Richardson and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram into the first round. Lacy said he was projected as a second- or third-round pick in feedback from the NFL, but was impressive in the finale. Ordinarily, Saban only recommends projected first-round picks leave early.
“I’m fully supportive of what Eddie’s doing,” Saban said. “It’s a little bit of a different situation than we’ve had in the past, but it’s a little bit unique as well. Every one of these situations is unique to that particular individual and what his situation is. “
The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Fluker started 35 games for the Tide and was a second-team Associated Press All-American.
He was one of the Tide’s top-rated signees in 2009 but came in overweight at about 395 pounds and was redshirted.
“I certainly feel like this year has been his best year as a player, and I feel that he’s made a good decision about what he wants to do,” said Saban, adding that Fluker has improved as much as any player on the team.
The mammoth Fluker, who wears a size-22 shoe, said in a statement that leaving early “is never an easy decision when you are playing at a place like Alabama.”
“’’These four years in Tuscaloosa have been the best four years of my life and I appreciate everyone who helped me along the way,” he said.
Quarterback AJ McCarron, All-America linebacker C.J. Moseley and guard Anthony Steen have already said they’re returning for their senior seasons. Saban didn’t rule out other juniors possibly declaring for the draft before Tuesday’s deadline.
The Tide does have promising players who have logged plenty of playing time behind Lacy and Milliner, especially. Two freshmen — tailback T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 touchdowns) — and cornerback Geno Smith saw significant action.
“You’ve got people that are going to go to the NFL each year and you’ve got people behind them that are going to do the same things when their time comes,” Milliner said.