ATLANTA — Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech lost three more stars to the NFL on Monday.
All-America defensive end Derrick Morgan, 1,300-yard rusher Jonathan Dwyer and hard-hitting safety Morgan Burnett held a joint campus news conference to announce they'll enter the draft with a year of college eligibility remaining.
They followed the course set by Georgia Tech's leading receiver, Demaryius Thomas, who said Friday he'll enter the draft rather than return to the Yellow Jackets for his senior season.
"The best fit for me is going to play at the next level," said Dwyer, who was the ACC player of the year in 2008. "This is a dream I've had since I was 5 years old."
The exodus of top players comes after Georgia Tech's first outright ACC title since 1990 and a trip to the Orange Bowl, where the Yellow Jackets lost to Iowa 24-14.
"We were part of something special," Morgan said. "We did a lot of great things this year, a lot of things that previous teams didn't accomplish. We'll go down being part of a special team in Georgia Tech history."
Morgan emerged as one of the top defensive players in the country as a junior and is a certain first-round pick — possibly in the top 10. He had 12.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles behind the line and was named ACC defensive player of the year.
"I'm not going to say it was necessarily an easy decision, but it was easier ... having that knowledge of being a possible first-round pick," Morgan said. "At the end of the day, I made a lot of good friends here at Tech and it's hard leaving them."
Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards and 14 touchdowns this past season after a sluggish start, decided to turn pro after NFL experts told him he should be picked late in the first round or early in the second.
Georgia Tech has not had two first-round picks in a draft since 1979, when running back Eddie Lee Ivory was selected 15th and receiver Kent Hill went at No. 26.
Burnett isn't rated nearly as high as his three teammates by the NFL scouts, coming off a bit of a disappointing season for a defense that gave up big yards. Still, he led the Yellow Jackets with four interceptions, ranked second with 85 tackles and could have value to a team looking for a combo safety.
"During the season, I didn't get caught up in whether I wanted to leave or not. I was just thinking championship, championship," Burnett said. "I didn't want to get into my thought process until after the Orange Bowl. I felt at peace with my decision. I felt confident with my decision."
Despite losing four key players, the Yellow Jackets should return a strong nucleus for 2010: eight starters on defense and seven on offense, including quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
Stephen Hill, a 6-foot-4 receiver coming off a promising freshman year, is expected to step in for Thomas, who put up 1,154 yards receiving in Georgia Tech's run-oriented offense. Anthony Allen, who started at running back for Louisville but moved to A-back after transferring to the Yellow Jackets, likely will slide in to take Dwyer's spot in the backfield.
"We've got guys with a lot of experience, a lot of talent," said another A-back, Roddy Jones, who attended the announcement by his three departing teammates. "The cupboard is by no means bare."
The bigger questions will come on the defensive side. Coach Paul Johnson already fired coordinator Dave Wommack and has been talking with former Virginia coach Al Groh about taking over a unit that surrendered 360 yards and nearly 25 points a game.
The Yellow Jackets could be bolstered by the return of three players who were injured for most of '09 — safety Cooper Taylor, end Robert Hall and linebacker Kyle Jackson. But it won't be easy to replace Morgan & Morgan.
"Those are two big shoes to fill," linebacker Brad Jefferson said. "Other guys have got to beef up, get their feet big enough to slide in there."