Shelton, Crowder opt for NFL draft

Louisville: Running back Eric Shelton has decided to give up his senior season to make himself eligible for the NFL draft in April, ESPN.com's Pat Forde has learned.

Shelton rushed for 938 yards, a 6.4-yard average, with 20 rushing touchdowns, helping Louisville to a one-loss season and a Liberty Bowl victory. Shelton also had six catches for 35 yards this past season.

Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft -- and until Jan. 19 to withdraw their names.

Florida: The Gators' best defensive player won't
be around for the Urban Meyer era. Linebacker Channing Crowder will forgo his final two years of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound sophomore from Atlanta was third on the team in tackles last season with 73 despite missing three games
with a sprained arch in his right foot. He finished his career with
179 tackles, including 13 for a loss.
He also had two sacks, three fumble recoveries, two forced
fumbles and one interception.
"This has been a very difficult decision for me to make," said
Crowder, who led the nation in tackles by a freshman with 106 in
2003. "I felt like it was best for me and my family to pursue a
professional career."
Crowder joins running back Ciatrick Fason as the team's lone
early draft entries. Fason, who has a wife and two children,
announced in mid-December that he was turning pro.
Meyer, who led Utah to a 12-0 season, is the new Florida coach.

Georgia: In a true hardship story, inside linebacker Odell Thurman decided Wednesday to forgo his senior year and turn pro, ESPN.com's John Clayton has learned.

Thurman, a 6-1, 240 pound junior, is responsible for five brothers and sisters who are currently being cared for by his grandmother in Monticello, Ga. His mother passed away when he was 11, and before the first game of last season, Thurman lost his father.

Though Thurman preferred to stay in school, the economic pressures of caring for his family weighed in and necessitated this decision. As a fast inside linebacker on a great Georgia defense, Odell has the chance to go in the first round of April's NFL draft.

The 21-year-old linebacker, who hopes to run in the 4.4. to 4.5 range at the scouting combine in February in Indianapolis, has been at Georgia for two years after transferring from the Georgia Military Academy in 2002. He had been a red-shirt at Georgia in 2001 before going to the Military Academy.

Thurman was a preseason All American and a Butkus Award finalist. He played eight games last season and had 59 tackles, two sacks and 10 quarterback pressures. He led the team in tackles despite missing three regular season games. In 22 starts at Georgia, he had 180 tackles and eight-and-a-half sacks.

Maryland: Junior linebacker/defensive end Shawne Merriman, one of the ACC leaders in sacks and tackles for loss over the past two seasons, will bypass his senior season of eligibility to enter the 2005 NFL draft. Merriman, who has filed the pertinent paperwork with the league, announced his decision Wednesday.

He met with Ralph Friedgen on Tuesday and has the blessing of the Terps head coach.

"We wish him the best and hopefully he will make us proud on the
next level," Friedgen said.

"It's something I had been thinking about for a long time," said Merriman, a fierce pass rusher who posted 8 sacks each of the last two seasons. "In terms of talking it out with my family and stuff, I kind of made the decision on my own, but I've got great support."

Merriman did participate in the evaluation service offered to underclass players by the NFL, in which personnel directors and scouts review him and make an assessment of his potential draft status. Their recommendation was that Merriman figures to be a first- or second-round selection.

Part of the appeal of Merriman, who is only 20 years old and checks in at 6-feet-4 and 262 pounds, is that he is the kind of hybrid "edge" player so many teams are seeking these days. Merriman played principally at linebacker but also lined up at defensive end in "nickel" situations. One scout told ESPN.com Tuesday night that he felt Merriman could play either of the outside linebacker spots or end in the NFL, and acknowledged that the Maryland standout is a "very rare" player.

"He's a pup who should become a big dog," said the scout, who works for an AFC club, but who is precluded by league rules from discussing underclass players for attribution, until they are officially accepted into the draft pool.

Information from ESPN.com's Pat Forde, John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli -- as well as from The Associated Press and SportsTicker -- was used in this report.