First non-seniors to compete in Senior Bowl

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MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- The NFL has cleared two non-seniors to compete in the Senior Bowl for the first time, opening the door to a wider pool of draft prospects for future games.

Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said Saturday that fourth-year junior offensive linemen D.J. Fluker of Alabama and Justin Pugh of Syracuse received that clearance. Both have graduated.

"This is a breakthrough moment for the Senior Bowl game because the league allowed us to bring in these two players who graduated in December and were on campus for four years and their coach supported their candidacy for the Senior Bowl," said Savage, a former Cleveland Browns general manager. "The reason we wanted to do this was because in the past there have been a number of fourth-year juniors who had graduated who were not allowed to play in the Senior Bowl."

Savage said players who would have qualified last year included Baylor's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III and Alabama All-America linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Both were first-round draft picks.

"It would have certainly made the Senior Bowl potentially a better game," Savage said. "It would have given those players an opportunity to not only be rewarded but have an extra evaluating period for NFL scouts."

He said the Senior Bowl isn't interesting in admitting third-year juniors, or early draft entries who haven't graduated.

Savage said the Senior Bowl approached the NFL last June "about possibly breaking new ground" and then went back to the league with a small group of candidates for the game.

He said the NFL granted permission to include Fluker and Pugh this week.

Fluker was a second-team All-American right tackle who helped the Crimson Tide to two straight national titles. He played for nearby Foley High School, but is nursing a calf injury and won't play.

Pugh started every game he played at Syracuse and was an All-Big East selection the past two seasons. He'll play with his former quarterback, Ryan Nassib, on the North squad.

"We felt like that we put a lot of time and energy into getting this done and he was deserving of the recognition of being one of this duo of players that will always be remembers as the first two juniors," he said.