Record-setting sophomore will gain early entry

Updated: January 19, 2004, 7:07 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Two seasons into what already has been a standout college career, Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald early this week will be declared eligible for the 2004 NFL draft, league sources have told ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

Because he is a true sophomore, Fitzgerald has not been considered eligible for the draft based on the NFL rule that prevents players from entering the draft until three NFL seasons have "elapsed" -- language that has evolved into a league policy stating that players must be three years out of high school.

However, the NFL is verifying that Fitzgerald indeed earned enough credits at a military school he transferred to during his senior year of high school to qualify for the draft, sources have told Mortensen. In that case, Fitzgerald would meet the league requirement of being three years removed from his prep graduating class, and thus be eligible to enter the draft.

"We received a letter from a lawyer representing Mr. Fitzgerald last week," NFL vice president Joe Browne told The Associated Press on Sunday. "We have asked for additional info to clarify his draft status."

Fitzgerald submitted his application for the draft ahead of last Thursday's deadline for underclassmen to declare whether they'll return to school or enter the draft, the sources told Mortensen. Fitzgerald has been projected as a top 5 pick in the April draft.

Fitzgerald finished second to Oklahoma senior quarterback Jason White in Heisman Trophy voting (1,481-1,353) last month. Fitzgerald, who set an NCAA record with touchdown catches in 18 straight games, was trying to become the first sophomore to win the award.

Fitzgerald finished the regular season with 87 catches for 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns, but Pittsburgh finished 8-4. He caught at least one touchdown pass in all 12 games -- tying Randy Moss' single-season NCAA record.

He also set seven Big East records while leading the nation in receiving yards per game (132.9), total receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and total touchdowns.

It is not know if Fitzgerald's receiving draft clearance will impact suspended Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's lawsuit challenging the NFL's early-entry rule. A decision in that case is expected by Feb. 1. Alan Milstein, Clarett's lawyer, has argued that Clarett technically meets the standard of the actual rule because he graduated high school early -- in December 2001 before that particular NFL season had elapsed -- but that the policy should be dumped anyway on anti-trust grounds.

Another of Clarett's attorneys, Percy Squire, said Clarett wants to play for Ohio State next season. Squire said Friday that Clarett always has wanted to return to the Buckeyes, but filed the lawsuit because he did not know whether he would be allowed to play for them again.

Information from ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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