USC opens the 2016 season against Alabama, and will do it without star linebacker Su’a Cravens.
Cravens, a junior, announced Wednesday that he would forgo his final season of eligibility and make himself available for the 2016 NFL draft.
“After considering all the options and looking into the future, I feel it is in MY best interest to forego my Senior year and declare for the 2016 NFL draft,” Cravens wrote on Twitter. “Playing in the NFL has been a lifelong dream and I feel the opportunity at hand is too good to pass up.”
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Cravens is a three-year starter. He earned Freshman All-American recognition at safety in 2013 and was a two-time All-Pac-12-Conference selection at linebacker.
Cravens, who is expected to play safety as a pro, has 141/2 tackles for loss, including 51/2 sacks, and has intercepted two passes for a Trojans team that overcame the firing of Steve Sarkisian to win the Pac-12 Conference South Division.
USC plays Wisconsin in the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
“Happy birthday to my father Kevin turning 50 today,” Cravens wrote. “You’ve truly made me the man I am today.”
USC Coach Clay Helton, at a Holiday Bowl news conference on Wednesday night in San Diego, told reporters: “It’s his time. Any time that you have the opportunity to be a first-round draft pick with the attributes that he has not only as a player to be able to — whether it’s a free safety, a nickel Sam, an inside linebacker, he’s going to be a valuable commodity, and like I told him, ‘If you said no, I was packing your bags for you.’”
Current and former teammates took to social media to congratulate Cravens, who came to USC from Vista Murrieta High.
“Congrats to one of my best friends taking that next step and making that NFL dream come true! All love to my brother,” linebacker Michael Hutchings wrote on Twitter.
“You Deserve this more than any1!!!!” safety Chris Hawkins wrote on Instagram.
“Congrats on the declaration bro… Watched you grow from a pup man, you earned this opportunity!” New York Jets safety Dion Bailey wrote on Twitter.
USC offensive lineman Zach Banner, who is draft-eligible, announced Sunday that he would return for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 Banner is a two-year starter at right tackle and also started one game at left tackle. Offensive lineman Chad Wheeler, a three-year starter at left tackle, and tailback Justin Davis also are draft-eligible.
Cravens’ early departure continues a trend at USC.
After last season, defensive lineman Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, running back Javorius Allen and receiver George Farmer bypassed their final seasons and turned pro.
Williams and Agholor were first-round draft picks by the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
The Baltimore Ravens selected Allen in the fourth round. Farmer was not drafted but he signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent and is now on the Seattle Seahawks practice squad working as a defensive back.
Offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Matt Kalil and Marcus Martin, defensive linemen Nick Perry and Jurrell Casey, and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are other USC players in the last six years who turned pro before completing their eligibility.
UCLA also has experienced early exits.
Bruins linebacker Myles Jack declared he would make himself available for the draft not long after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in late September.
Defensive tackle Kenny Clark is contemplating the decision, while running back Paul Perkins, offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch and receiver Thomas Duarte also are draft-eligible.
In November, Cravens said he would consider his academic situation, football, “the whole situation in its entirety,” before deciding to turn pro or return for a final season.
“I’m not going to go out to the draft if I’m a third-round draft pick,” he said. “I’m not going to be stupid and chase money and break my leg and then what? I’m back here with no eligibility to play.
“I’m not going to think about it until the season is over.”
The regular season ended with the Trojans’ first victory over UCLA since 2011.
In the days leading up to that game, NFL scouts told The Times’ Sam Farmer that Cravens projected anywhere from a first- to third-round draft pick.
One described him as a tweener, a college outside linebacker who will be more of a strong safety in the pros. Another said Cravens’ top-end speed was a question, “so it will be interesting to see how he runs in the spring.”
Cravens’ departure, coupled with senior Anthony Sarao exhausting his eligibility, leaves the Trojans with two returning starting linebackers.
Freshman middle linebacker Cameron Smith along with Cravens led the team in tackles despite missing the last three games because of a season-ending knee injury.
Smith was voted the freshman defensive player of the year by Pac-12 coaches and on Wednesday was named a Freshman All-American by the Sporting News.
Junior Scott Felix, who has 51/2 tackles for loss, including four sacks, has started 10 games this season, but freshman Porter Gustin has started the last two.
Sophomore Uchenna Nwosu is regarded as a possible replacement for Cravens, along with freshman John Houston Jr., who redshirted this season while rehabilitating a back injury suffered in high school.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter: @latimesklein
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