Opting out of 2020 college season not much of an option for some 2021 NFL Draft prospects

University of Pittsburgh defensive end Rashad Weaver brushes off the question without hesitation, scoffing a bit with a half-chuckle.

Like any other college player, the Panthers star can opt out of the 2020 football season due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic without losing his scholarship or a year of eligibility. But Weaver is among the 2021 NFL Draft prospects coming off a season-ending injury who believe proving their recovery to NFL clubs in 2020 is paramount, even in a pandemic.

Opting out? What's that?

"It's not an option," he told me this week.

Top prospects who've already opted out to prepare for the 2021 draft include Penn State LB Micah Parsons, Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley, Miami DE Gregory Rousseau, Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman, Wake Forest WR Sage Surratt and one of Weaver's teammates on the Pitt D-line, Jaylen Twyman.

The key difference between them and Weaver? All six played lights-out in 2019 as first-team all-conference picks, while Weaver missed the season after suffering an ACL tear during practice in fall camp. His stock for the 2021 NFL Draft now depends not only on his play this fall, but also on the ACC season navigating the pandemic without being wrecked by COVID-19 outbreaks resulting in canceled games.

"I was having a good (2019) camp and I thought I was where I needed to be to up my draft stock and be able to leave after my junior season like I planned on. It was a one-year hiccup, and I can't have a two-year hiccup," Weaver said. "I'd rather not be in NFL [interviews] trying to answer questions about film from 2018 when I know I'm a better player now."

Weaver isn't nearly alone.

One of the most highly touted linebackers for the 2021 draft, Alabama's Dylan Moses, is in the same position after missing all of 2019 with an ACL tear.

"It's very important. I want to be able to put some punctuation on the back end of my career at Alabama," Moses said during a recent Zoom call with reporters.

Other prospects rebounding from injuries who could benefit from a fall season spared by coronavirus-related cancellations include Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace, Duke CB Mark Gilbert, Cincinnati S James Wiggins, North Carolina CB Patrice Rene and Texas Tech OG Jack Anderson.

The raised stakes for these players -- through no fault of their own -- is not lost on NFL scouts.

"You have to feel bad for all the kids in that spot," said an AFC area scout. "If they can't play, the medicals (medical reports) on those guys will stand out more."

Gilbert needs the 2020 season perhaps as much as anyone. He's coming off not one but two seasons missed due to injury. Gilbert played just two games in 2018 before a severe injury to his left hip cost him the rest of the season plus all of 2019. If COVID-19 outbreaks were to sink the ACC season, NFL scouts would have to dig all the way back to 2017 for his best film -- a first-team All-ACC sophomore campaign in which he led the league in passes defensed with 21 (six INTs, 15 pass breakups).

After such a long layoff, Gilbert understandably has his recovery -- not the NFL -- top of mind, despite the importance of this season to his football future.

"I wouldn't say my focus is on the NFL right now. I'm blessed to simply be able to run again," Gilbert told me on Thursday.

Gilbert returned to the field briefly in March, on a limited basis, before Duke spring drills were canceled after three practices. He can only hope his team won't have to shut down again this fall. Already, an ACC opening game between Virginia Tech and North Carolina State has been postponed two weeks after a cluster of Wolfpack student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

"One slip-up, whether it's from somebody on the football team or even a student, it can cause a spike in coronavirus cases, so it's definitely going to be a challenge," Gilbert said.

Wallace was the most dynamic receiver in the Big 12 Conference in 2018, but he tore his ACL last November during a non-contact drill in practice. He opted to return to Oklahoma State instead of entering this year's draft, in part to prove his health to NFL teams.

"You never know what can happen in one season. Guys can come out and have a Joe Burrow year," Wallace told me. "It's important for guys in my position to get this year in and show what they can do. It's really important. Guys like me have to show they're the same guy they were."

Rene, who lost an uncle to COVID-19 in May, summed it up via Twitter earlier this month: "Not only do I want to play, I NEED to play. This is it for me and a lot of other players who are in the same position I am. Let's find a way to make it happen!!"

Unfortunately for Rene, pleas for protocol compliance haven't been met with good news on the North Carolina campus, either. UNC ceased in-person classes last week due to outbreaks among students.

Weaver breathed a sigh of relief earlier this month when the ACC announced, on the very day the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences postponed their fall football seasons, that it would continue to follow its medical protocols in preparation to play.

He's pleased with what he's seen so far from Pitt students when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing, but he knows neither his adherence to protocols alone nor Pitt's as a whole will deliver him the season he needs -- it will take the whole conference.

"We're doing our best to bunker in the hole. I'll really be in the house. … I can't risk missing games or having to sit out two weeks (in quarantine)," Weaver said. "You try to explain to freshmen that seniors and other guys with a chance to leave need this year. You try not to be rude about it, but still the message has to be clear. … Through the whole season, we've got to keep these protocols and hope every school does it right. I won't get real relief until we finish playing all our games, because it's week by week. It's minute by minute."

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