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UCLA underclassmen have big decisions to make about entering the NFL draft

UCLA underclassmen have big decisions to make about entering the NFL draft

UCLA Coach Jim Mora, right, shares a light moment with defensive lineman Kenny Clark after the Bruins’ 24-23 victory over BYU earlier this season.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Every now and then, UCLA defensive lineman Kenny Clark walks to his locker to find a sandwich waiting for him there.

It is a simple concoction, just some bacon and mayonnaise, and it is made with care by Clark’s fellow defensive lineman, Takkarist McKinley.

McKinley knows Clark must soon make an important decision. Should he stay for his senior season at UCLA? Or should he enter the NFL draft, where he is projected to be an early-round selection?

The decision is up to Clark and his family, McKinley said, so McKinley doesn’t want to apply too much pressure. The food is just a nudge, a way to say “ ‘Please stay, don’t go,’ ” McKinley said. It can’t hurt, so long as it doesn’t leave Clark hungry.

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“He’s a big guy, so I’ve got to put a little extra on it,” McKinley said.

Clark is one of several UCLA underclassmen to apply for an NFL draft evaluation, a nonbinding assessment of where a player can expect to be taken should he leave school. For UCLA, it is a list that includes left tackle Conor McDermott, right tackle Caleb Benenoch and receiver Thomas Duarte. Already, right guard Alex Redmond and linebacker Myles Jack have left school to enter the draft.

The toughest decisions probably belong to Clark and running back Paul Perkins.

Clark has said he is focused on UCLA’s last game, the Foster Farms Bowl against Nebraska on Saturday, and that he has yet to make a decision. As he weighs his options, he said, agents are hovering like vultures.

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“It’s crazy how many calls I get a day, a week, how many calls my mom gets,” Clark said. “It’s hard, and it’s overwhelming, but I’m not really worried about agents right now at all.”

Clark told reporters this week that he was graded as a likely second-round pick in his evaluation from the NFL. This season, he has 64 tackles, nine for loss, five sacks and five pass breakups.

Last month, when the ESPN broadcast crew watched film to prepare for UCLA’s game against USC, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said, “It was very obvious who their best player was on the defensive side.” It was Clark.

“I’ve heard some people say first round,” McShay said. “It wouldn’t shock me.”

Clark has maintained he is occupied by the task at hand. He says he is trying to ignore a decision that probably will be worth several millions, enough money, it was pointed out to McKinley, to buy Clark all the sandwiches he desires.

“Uh, my sandwich is pretty good,” McKinley replied.

Perkins’ decision is more fraught. Typically, NFL teams select only running backs they view as can’t-miss talents. In 2013 and 2014, no running backs were taken in the first round. Perkins is considered a talented, shifty running back, but his size raises durability questions.

For that reason, another season probably won’t change his draft status significantly. McShay said that raises a question: is an extra season at a demanding position worth the punishment?

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“The amount of hits you take, it’s hard to ever say it’s a bad idea for a guy to come out,” McShay said. “I don’t think he’s going to be a first- or second-round pick, so the conventional wisdom is to say go back to school and continue to show what you can do and continue to develop. But it’s a tough decision.”

Perkins also received an NFL evaluation, but he said the feedback is not very helpful.

UCLA Coach Jim Mora typically discusses the draft with individual players either after the regular season or, schedule permitting, after the bowl game. At this point, he said, no player on the roster has indicated he won’t return.

Any early departure, beyond Clark or Perkins, would be a surprise. McDermott and Duarte would be late-round picks, if they were selected at all. And Benenoch can improve his stock with more experience.

“Benenoch really looks the part, has the tools,” McShay said. “I think he needs another year at school. I really do.”

Each player has different reasons to return. Perkins, for instance, is less than 1,000 yards away from becoming UCLA’s all-time leading rusher.

Would that be a factor in his decision?

“Absolutely,” Perkins said. “And to beat USC.”

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zach.helfand@latimes.com


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