ATLANTA — Few life experiences can be as humbling as knowing just when the time has arrived for one to depart from all familiarity and chart new territory.
Just ask Jonathan Dwyer.
“This (was) one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make,” he said.
With his voice shaking slightly, the Georgia Tech junior running back read from a prepared statement Monday, informing the world of his ground-breaking choice to leave the Institute and begin the next phase of his football-playing life.
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But he wasn’t alone.
Joining Dwyer on the bright stage of an afternoon news conference just a flight of stairs and a few short steps from the Yellow Jackets’ Bobby Dodd Stadium locker room, fellow juniors Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett also confirmed their decisions of leaving Georgia Tech in favor of entering April’s NFL draft.
Their announcements came just two days after junior receiver and West Laurens product Demaryius Thomas also told reporters that he was forgoing his senior season and booking a spot in this spring’s selection process.
None have signed with an agent, although Morgan is preparing to sign with Creative Artists Agency.
“The main thing was just the opportunity of playing at the next level,” Dwyer said. “When I got my information back from the NFL and saw where I was projected, I realized that it was the best fit for me to have the opportunity to go play at the next level and live the dream that I’ve always wanted to do since I was 5 years old.”
Learning that NFL insiders predicted him to be a late first-round, early second-round pick, Dwyer knew he had to go.
While it was his sophomore season that rightfully put Dwyer on the map, his junior year helped solidify any debate that he could be a future professional star.
One year after being named the ACC’s player of the year, Dwyer rushed for the exact same yardage this season as he did in 2008, notching 1,395 yards to go along with his 14 rushing touchdowns.
“Coming to Georgia Tech was easy. It was the right place for me,” Dwyer said. “(Monday’s decision) did not come easy, and it is very important that I have the support of family, friends and teammates, and my fans, because y’all are so important to me.”
Among those key pieces helping Dwyer lead the Yellow Jackets to an 11-3 record, an ACC championship and an Orange Bowl berth was Morgan.
Rushing off the defensive line, Morgan had a conference-leading 12.5 sacks in addition to his 55 total tackles. Long regarded as one of the best players to come through Georgia Tech, draft experts have been predicting the junior to be a first-round lock since the end of last season.
Latest projections have Morgan as a potential top-five pick. With new labor agreement guidelines on the horizon that could directly impact high draft picks, Morgan’s choice to leave Georgia Tech may have been less nerve-wracking than Dwyer’s.
“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily an easier decision, but it was an easier transition, having that knowledge of possibly being a first-round pick,” Morgan said, before acknowledging that the labor rules — which could greatly lessen rookie signing bonuses beginning with the 2011 draft — were a concern of his.
While Dwyer and Morgan had the type of statistically strong seasons that many anticipated, in the eyes of some, Burnett fell somewhat short of that mark.
After coming down with seven interceptions as a sophomore, Burnett only had four this season and was nagged by injuries. But none of that could sway him away from leaving Georgia Tech early.
“I just sat down with my family, and most importantly, I just prayed,” Burnett said. “And when I prayed, I just came up with a decision and I felt at peace with that decision. So I feel confident in my decision.”
In front of a room filled with family members of each player as well as current and former players, Dwyer was the only one of the three who admitted having entertained thoughts of coming back.
“The only reason why I ever thought about coming back was to play with these guys, my class, one last season,” Dwyer said, “and the fact that if everybody came back, we’d have a national championship team.”
Despite the departures of the three juniors, remaining Yellow Jackets believe the pieces are still there for that kind of program to continue to emerge.
“Those were the captains,” sophomore offensive tackle Nick Claytor said. “Besides (quarterback) Josh (Nesbitt), they had the weight on their shoulders, but now we’re going to take their stead on. We’re going to lead this team to do great things. It’s not over. There’s no way it’s over. We want another ACC championship, but it’s time to get a bowl win and a BCS bowl win. It doesn’t stop here.”
Like the four draft hopefuls, Claytor was part of the team’s 2007 recruiting class. A class that declared its goals early of becoming the best to step on campus, the group has accomplished those hopes, Dwyer said.
“We lived up to the hype,” Dwyer said. “It shows we have talent and that it will continue next year and for years to come. Our class set a standard for what every class should (do) by coming in with a goal and achieving it.”
As a result of that closeness, don’t expect the departed members of the 2007 class to completely cut ties with their brethren still at Georgia Tech.
“We look at each other as a family, so I don’t look at it as me leaving Joshua Nesbitt or Brad Jefferson because we’re always going to be together when we’re old and gray,” Burnett said.
Morgan had a more concise view.
“It’s not good bye, it’s see you later,” he said.
So where does the trio go from here?
Dwyer heads to Dallas on Wednesday to begin training with the Michael Johnson Performance Center, while Morgan boarded a plane following the news conference for Arizona’s Athletes’ Performance Institute. API founder Mark Verstegen is a former assistant director of player development at Georgia Tech.
Burnett will find a place in Atlanta to train.
The journey is far from over, and uncertainly rests at every turn, but the step is one Dwyer knows he had to take.
“I remember I told my mom at the age of 5 years old, and my dad, that I was going to play pro ball, and it’s kind of shocking and emotional the fact that the opportunity is here,” he said. “It’s kind of scary at the same time.
“Hopefully I can just go out there and do what I’ve been taught as a kid.”