Redshirt junior defensive tackle Christian Covington has decided to forgo his senior year and declare for the NFL Draft. Covington is a native of Vancouver, Canada and three-year starter for the Owls. He is on track to graduate in May.

Covington is projected to be a late round draft pick by CBSSports.com after missing most of the season due to injury. On Nov. 1, he sustained another injury when he dislocated his left kneecap against Florida International University. This injury required surgery and sidelined him for the remainder of the season. 

In the seven games he played this season, Covington recorded 20 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks. In his 2013 All-Conference USA season, Covington recorded 59 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and four sacks, including a memorable sack of Texas A&M University quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. 

At the time of injury, his timetable for return was six months, which would keep him out of play until April. He projects to be unavailable for the NFL Combine in February and Rice’s Pro Day, which is usually held in March. 

The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Covington entered the 2014-15 season as a consensus All-Conference USA selection. Early mock drafts and draft projections expected him to enter the draft after this season. He received some late first round and second round chatter from various draft analysts including CBS Sport’s Dane Bugler, who compared his skill set to that of former Florida State University defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. After the injury setbacks that he suffered this year, however, his spot in mock drafts has fallen significantly. Draftsite.com projects him as a 5th round pick. He is currently rated the seventh best defensive tackle in the draft by CBS Sports. 

Covington asked for an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which issues one of three grades to underclassmen prospects — first- round projection, second-round, or a recommendation to stay in school for another year. According to the Houston Chronicle, Covington received a recommendation to stay in school for another year. The change is part of an effort from the NFL to urge underclassmen to stay in school longer after an all-time high of 98 underclassmen declared for last year’s draft. 

In an official statement released by Covington, he thanked the football program, his coaches, friends and teammates for his time at Rice.

“I want to thank Rice University and the Rice football program for the honor and privilege of suiting up for the Owls,” Covington said. “My four years at Rice have marked some of the best years of my life, and I am truly blessed to have been able to attend such a prestigious university with amazing people and play with such incredible teammates.”

Covington, whose decision to forgo his senior year could cost him a significant difference in his draft selection and rookie contract, said his choice was not easy or taken lightly by him.

“The decision for me to leave was not an easy one,” Covington said. “Through the help of a lot of prayer and the help of family, my decision to declare became clear.”

For the Rice football team, this means another starting spot to fill for Defensive Coordinator Chris Thurmond, who will lose seven other defensive starters to graduation. According to Thurmond, Covington’s departure will be a setback for the team, but the defense will adjust and prepare for next season with other personnel.

“We’ll just continue to move forward,” Thurmond said. “ Any time you lose good players, it is just something that is part of the business and something you have to deal with.”

Thurmond, who learned of Covington’s decision in the days following the 30-6 victory over Fresno State University in the Hawai’i Bowl, said he believes that Covington is ready for the challenges of the NFL.

“Christian is a talented guy,” Thurmond said. “He has good athletic ability and I’m sure he’ll make a place for himself.”

If Covington is selected in the NFL draft, which will be held April 30 through May 2, it will mark the fourth consecutive year that a Rice player is selected. Covington is the first player to leave early for the draft since tight end James Casey in 2009.