Luke Staley is probably my favorite college football player of all time that never played for South Carolina. A stud running back nicknamed “Luke Yardwalker”. I am guessing the majority of the people who read this will have never heard of Luke Staley. The 2001 Doak Walker Award winner and consensus All-American never played a meaningful snap in the National Football League.
So, why am I writing this? I am writing this because the 2022 NFL Draft will mark the 20th anniversary of the year Luke Staley was drafted. And with me being a part of the relaunch of Draft Countdown, I thought it would be fun to take a look at why I truly liked Staley as a prospect back then. I want to look at why I ignored the signs that he wouldn’t make it in the NFL. I also wanted to look at how that has changed (if any at all) how I view running backs or prospects in general today.
But first, we need to learn about the BYU Cougars legend and what led up to his NFL career never getting off the ground.
LUKE STALEY: EARLY CAREER
Staley emerged out of small-town Tualatin High School in Oregon. He was a three-sport star for the Timberwolves, including running a time of 11.03 in the 100-meter dash. Staley was named the Gatorade and USA Today Player of the Year in the state of Oregon his senior year. He averaged over 300-yards per game in the playoffs. Despite this, Staley was not heavily recruited outside of the state of Oregon and by BYU. He chose the Cougars likely because of his upbringing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
As a freshman, minor injuries limited his playing time but you could see the promise. Staley amassed 771 scrimmage yards and 13 scores. During his sophomore season, Staley played in every game but only saw his production slightly improve. After a 6-6 season, legendary coach LaVell Edwards retired and was replaced by Louisiana Tech coach Gary Crowton.
2001: A LUKE ODYSSEY
It was after the takeover by Gary Crowton, that the BYU offense took off, led by Luke Staley. Staley averaged 8.1 yards per carry as a junior. In 11 games he rushed for 1596 yards and scored 24 TDs. He added another 334 yards receiving, 32 catches, and four scores.
I still remember sitting in my cousin’s apartment in Hattiesburg, MS. A bright-eyed, world in front of him 22-year-old, marveling as Luke Staley dashed through the Utah defense for 197 yards and two touchdowns. And then being sad a week later when he left the Mississippi State game with a broken ankle. It was the last time I would ever get to see Luke Staley in a BYU uniform. BYU was 12-0 after that game. Without Staley to control the game, the Cougars were destroyed by Hawaii and then QB (now Washington State head coach) Nick Rolovich. Rolovich threw 8 TDs and had 543 yards passing in the Warriors 72-45 win.
Despite the multitude of injuries during his career, including the broken ankle the ended his 2001 season, Luke Staley declared for the 2002 NFL Draft. He recovered enough to allegedly run a sub 4.5 forty at a private pro day for NFL teams. But that was all he was able to do as he had a shoulder injury as well.
The internet was a relatively new thing for me. I lived in a rural part of the Mobile area that didn’t have wide-range internet access at this time. So, young Brian didn’t really have much of an idea on how to truly evaluate players, what those injuries would mean. However, that didn’t stop me from doing mock drafts on spiral notebooks. Making player rankings based on the few games I was able to see. And what I saw was Luke Staley being one of the best football players I had ever seen. So much so, I thought he was the best running back in his draft class. A draft class that would produce players like Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Deshaun Foster, and others.
Staley would be the 22nd RB taken in 2002. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round, 214th overall. I cried out “WHAT A STEAL!” Detroit has finally replaced Barry Sanders! Of course, this is not how that story ended. Unfortunately, the story ended for Luke Staley how it almost always ended. A knee injury during the 2002 preseason would place him on injured reserve. Staley would be waived the next year and his career would be over.
LUKE AFTER FOOTBALL
Luke Staley has had surgery after surgery since his playing days ended. 23 total as of 2016. In 2017, Staley had his jersey retired by BYU. He has since lobbied the BYU hierarchy to calm down the way it enforces its draconian honor code. BYU has since somewhat relaxed parts of it.
Staley seems to have settled into a nice post-football life. Per his LinkedIn page, he is currently an Award-Winning Sales Representative & Account Manager in Biotech, Infusion, & Pharmaceuticals for Sage Therapeutics in Salt Lake City.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
Well, thanks for asking! When I evaluated Luke Staley as a prospect 20 years ago, I knew very little. As the years ticked off like the hairs on the top of my head, I grew wiser. 11 years later, I would finally make all of my evaluations official when I founded Deep Fried Draft.
I have come to realize that what happens on the field, while still being the largest piece of the puzzle, isn’t the only thing. Injuries matter. Consistently being injured matters even more. Unfortunately, the percentages overwhelmingly say if you are injured in college often, it isn’t going to get much better for you at the NFL level.
I have learned that just because you love a player in college, you shouldn’t blow their ranking up sky high and ignore common sense.
As I enter the next phase of my draft evaluation career at Draft Countdown, I hope to continue to get better at this process. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a wonderful college career like the one Luke Staley had at BYU. It just means maybe you don’t rank that player as the top RB prospect and top-10 overall player. For now, I am going to watch these 2001 highlights again on YouTube and revel in my favorite NFL Draft miss.