Three Gators enter NFL draft

Updated: January 11, 2010, 7:59 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has three more underclassmen headed to the NFL and one junior sticking around another season.

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, safety Major Wright and center Maurkice Pouncey announced their intentions Monday, joining cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Aaron Hernandez in leaving school early.

Guard Mike Pouncey, however, plans to return for his senior year. His decision should give the Gators four returning starters along the offensive line.

"Mike has a great future ahead of him," offensive line coach Steve Addazio said in a statement. "I believe he will be the top returning offensive lineman in America. Coming back just gives him another opportunity to grow as a player and as a leader and will help him increase his positional versatility. Without question, Mike's future is very bright."

Dunlap, Wright and Maurkice Pouncey are hoping for the same things -- at the next level.

Dunlap, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound junior from North Charleston, S.C., led the Gators with nine sacks in 2009. He is projected as a first-round pick despite his arrest on drunken-driving charges in early December.

"Carlos has all of the physical tools to be successful at the next level," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I believe if he continues to grow and mature he will have a very long career in the NFL. He provided matchup problems for opposing teams and was a big part of our success during the last several years. We wish him the best of luck."

Wright, a 6-foot, 205-pound safety, told ESPN.com's Joe Schad, "I looked at the pros and cons and prayed with my family about it. I will be a leader. I will lead by example for whatever team drafts me."

Wright told Schad that Coach Meyer's pending leave of absence did not play a role in the decision.

"You don't want to die over football," Wright said. "He needs to take care of his health and his family. But it really didn't play any role in my decision."

Wright was tied for second on the team with three interceptions and had 32 total tackles.

Maurkice Pouncey, a 6-foot-5, 318-pound junior from Lakeland, Fla., was awarded the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center in 2009. He is projected to be a second-round pick.

"Maurkice has all the tools to succeed in the NFL," Addazio said. "There is no doubt in my mind that he will be a great player at the next level. I wish him nothing but the best because has been like a son to me."

The Gators could lose one more junior to the NFL. Safety Ahmad Black is still weighing his options.

Dunlap's decision looked like a no-brainer -- until his Dec. 1 arrest. He was considered one of the nation's top pass-rushers and possibly a top-10 pick. But his draft stock dropped slightly after police found him passed out behind the wheel at an intersection days before the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Dunlap was suspended indefinitely following his arrest. He was reinstated three weeks later and finished with two sacks in a 51-24 victory over Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.

"It's only a mistake if you don't learn from it," Dunlap said Monday at a news conference in the mayor's office of North Charleston City Hall. "What's happened has happened. It's 2010 now and I'm ready to move on and better myself from day to day."

Surrounded by his family and his pastor, Dunlap said the departure of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong had nothing to do with his decision. He also said he hopes to be so impressive during workouts over the next few months that scouts, coaches and general managers move him to the top of their draft boards.

"If God's willing, I hope to go No. 1," Dunlap said. "I don't want to hold no limits to where I can go. I've gotta prove it and I've got to work and I've got to train. But of course, want to start at 1."

The defensive MVP of the national championship game in 2009, Dunlap finished his college career with 19.5 sacks. He is tied for 10th on the school's all-time list.

If given a choice, Dunlap said he would love to play for the Carolina Panthers.

"I was born and raised in Carolina so Carolina, of course, has to be my favorite team," he said. "I wouldn't mind going to the Carolina Panthers. Julius Peppers is a great defensive end and I wouldn't mind trying to follow in his footsteps."

Information from ESPN.com's Joe Schad and The Associated Press was used in this report.