Replacing the stars: How programs will fill the void
Spring football is underway at some programs and many teams have some big shoes to fill with departed stars. Here are 10 big-time players that, at least to me, leave the biggest holes on their team with significant question marks regarding their replacement.
Mark Pszonak contributed to this report.
Next up: With the Watson era complete, this will be an interesting season for the Tigers. It is likely that Kelly Bryant will be the starter at the beginning of spring camp, but how long will that last? Look for Zerrick Cooper, who redshirted in 2016, to push for the starting job and gain the nod at the beginning of the 2017 season. Incoming freshmen Hunter Johnson and Chase Brice will also make a push, but Cooper is the most likely to start the opener against Kent State in September.
2017 help: Johnson enrolled for the spring semester because he knew he would have a chance to become the starter this fall. And while that may not happen this year, he will definitely push whomever is named the starter until he takes control of the position. Also, while Brice is often overlooked because of Johnson, he should be taken very seriously, as he will arrive in Death Valley with a great deal of skill, potential and will be very eager to prove himself.
Farrell’s take: Clemson possesses an embarrassment of riches, but I don’t see a DeShaun Watson in here. Hunter Johnson is a five-star talent as a pocket guy but will need a year or so of seasoning and work avoiding turnovers, so it’s Cooper until one of the young guys – Johnson, Brice or 2018 mega-star Trevor Lawrence – takes over.
Next up: While there will be a big push for the talented incoming freshmen to see early playing time, Jacques Patrick has earned the right to be the immediate starter for the Seminoles. As with many of the other players on this list, replacing Cook will be a difficult feat, but Patrick should be able to ease the transition after rushing for 664 yards and nine touchdowns in his first two seasons in Tallahassee.
2017 help: This may be a sooner rather than later situation, but both Khalan Laborn and Cam Akers will arrive in Tallahassee looking to make an immediate impact. While both have the ability to do that, Akers is more likely to see the field first. Physically, he has looked like a college back since his sophomore year in high school, so that transition should be made easier for him. Plus, with an impressive first step and great burst, Akers will be pushing for playing time from day one.
Farrell’s take: Akers and Laborn are the best one-two punch I’ve seen in the same class at running back, but Patrick is ultra-talented as well. One thing I am sure of – one of these guys will be a superstar.
Next up: With Garrett and Daeshon Hall moving onto the NFL, both defensive end spots are actually open for the Aggies. While Jarrett Johnson will be returning with the most experience, it is redshirt freshman Justin Madibuike who will be expected to make the biggest immediate impact in 2017. The former four-star and Rivals250 recruit has impressed the coaching staff, so while a great deal will be expected of him, he does have the skillset and potential to produce this fall.
2017 help: Tyree Johnson and Jayden Peevy will arrive at College Station with the greatest expectations at the position, but with Peevy likely making a move to the interior at some point this job will go to Johnson. He is not even close to Garrett athletically, but after some time in the program he should be able to adjust to the speed and rigor of the SEC. Also worth noting is incoming junior college end Micheal Clemons, who is raw but freaky athletic.
Farrell’s take: There is no Garrett here, but that makes sense as he is a once-in-a-decade athlete. Watch out for Clemons - he doesn’t have a ton of experience, but he’s very athletic.
Next up: Replacing a player who broke Reggie White’s career sack record at Tennessee will not be easy. On top of that, the Vols also lost defensive end Corey Vereen, who along with Barnett combined for 20 sacks in 2016. In steps Jonathan Kongbo, the No. 1 JUCO recruit in the nation in 2016. Kongbo experienced his fair share of struggles last season, so it will be vital for him to reach his potential quickly. Former five-star Kyle Phillips really needs to step up his game as well, and Darrell Taylor has potential.
2017 help: The highest-rated defensive end coming to Knoxville is LaTrell Bumphus, but for now it seems as though the Vols will be utilizing him at tight end. With Bumphus moving over to the offensive side of the ball, the incoming defensive end with the most starting potential is Matthew Butler. With some depth issues at the position Butler may be rushed along a little faster than the Vols want, so his development will be interesting to watch during summer camp.
Farrell’s take: Kongo is an athletic freak but raw as we all know, and it is clear that the Vols need to make a big-time defensive end a huge priority in the 2018 class. They took many in 2017, but the jury is out on how talented they are, so an elite pass rusher is needed.
Next up: Replacing the only FBS player who had over 700 yards both rushing and receiving last season and totaled 15 touchdowns will not be an easy feat for the Buckeyes. There are no prime candidates, but Demario McCall may follow the same pattern that Samuel did. Samuel backed up Ezekiel Elliott in 2015 before bursting onto the scene last season, so with McCall backing up Mike Weber in 2016, it might be his turn to flourish in 2017.
2017 help: This is where losing Tyjon Lindsey to Nebraska hurts, as he would be the obvious choice here. While not as dynamic in the open field as Lindsey, J.K. Dobbins brings more power and size to the position, though he is coming off injury. Dobbins does bring versatility, which is what Urban Meyer looks for in players like Samuel, and previously, Percy Harvin.
Farrell’s take: Meyer gets the most of out of his players and could use a few different guys in Samuel's role, although it will be hard to replace his production. The big question will be whether it will be a few years before Ohio State finds someone as productive as Samuel, because players like him don’t come along every year.
Next up: It is important to note that it is highly unlikely that any one player will be able to replace Jackson, but if anyone has a chance for the Trojans it will be Jack Jones. He should continue to improve at cornerback this fall, while it is quite possible that he will also return kicks and punts. So can Jones also play offense like Jackson did? Similar results are unlikely, but don’t be surprised to see Jones get on the offensive side of the ball for at least a few plays in 2017.
2017 help: It is difficult to find a player that is similar to Jackson, but Greg Johnson will arrive at USC with the most potential to do so. He played all over the field in high school, so his versatility will give him the potential to play offense, defense and/or special teams for the Trojans. It will be interesting to see what position he starts his collegiate career at and how he is brought along.
Farrell’s take: Jones was a five-star and Johnson is a terrific athlete, so the versatility that USC has become used to with Jackson will continue as long as these guys continue to develop.
Next up: There are a few scenarios here, but the most likely will see Jonah Williams slide over from right tackle to left tackle. Williams, who amazingly started 15 games last fall as a true freshman, has the ability to slide over to the left side seamlessly. JUCO five-star Elliot Baker is likely to get a long look, too, but it seems more reasonable that he will take over the right side if Williams slides over to the left.
2017 help: Since Alex Leatherwood has an outside chance of pushing for playing time at left or right tackle this season, he is obviously the player to watch down the line at the position for the Tide. Not many offensive linemen come into the SEC physically prepared for the week-to-week competition, but Leatherwood is definitely one of these. While he may be ready to play this season, if Williams does slide over to the left and Baker takes over the right, the Tide staff may be very tempted to try and redshirt Leatherwood. Oh, and let’s not forget about Jedrick Wills, another five-star offensive lineman.
Farrell’s take: Like Clemson at quarterback and FSU at running back, Alabama has an embarrassment of riches at offensive tackle. I can say this with confidence – Alabama will not have a problem replacing Robinson.
Next up: At this point I don’t think anyone knows who will be the starting quarterback for North Carolina when they open their season at home against Cal in September. The Heels are recruiting graduate transfers Malik Zaire (Notre Dame) and Brandon Harris (LSU) and then have Nathan Elliott, the backup last season, plus Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, who both redshirted in 2016. Focusing on who is on the roster right now, while Elliott is the only one with game experience, which was limited, it is more likely that Surratt will be the starter come September.
2017 help: The Tar Heels actually did not sign a quarterback in February, so their future lies with either Surratt or Byrd. Both have the skillset to lead the Tar Heels in the future and are more comparable to what Marquise Williams brought to the offense prior to Trubisky.
Farrell’s take: Surratt is a talented kid and would be the guy I’d keep an eye on. He could be very, very good in Larry Fedora’s system. Even if they land one of the grad transfers, he will be tough to beat out.
Next up: While Leonard Fournette is the bigger name to replace, the Tigers have Derrius Guice, who is more than capable of taking over and has proven that already. So replacing Adams will be a bigger issue in Baton Rouge, especially since safeties Dwayne Thomas and Rickey Jefferson are also gone. John Battle is likely next in line, especially since he saw time late in the 2016 season when Jefferson went down with a broken leg.
2017 help: Battle will likely get the start in September, but everyone is expecting JaCoby Stevens to come in and make an immediate impact. The Tigers have a good history of true freshman safeties coming in and excelling, namely Adams and Eric Reid, so don’t be surprised if Stevens is next in line. The Tigers are also bringing in Grant Delpit and Todd Harris at the position, so the competition should be fierce right away.
Farrell’s take: The safety haul for LSU was ridiculous this year, but the depth on the current team is lacking a bit, so look for one or two of the young guys to see time next season. Adams is a special player and hard to replace, but Stevens could be the next freak at the position.
Next up: You can make a case that Quincy Wilson is just as important to replace as Tabor, but either way it’s a position that will be vital for the Gators to resolve this spring and summer. Most likely to step up is Duke Dawson, who possesses a great deal of experience. Like Tabor and Wilson, he also flirted with leaving early for the NFL, so his return to Gainesville was well received. Along with Dawson, Chauncey Gardner should have an opportunity to shine this fall after he became a starter at the end of the season due to injuries at the position.
2017 help: While Wilson is moving onto the NFL, his younger brother, Marco Wilson is making his way to Gainesville. His future at cornerback may come sooner than later, as there is definitely an opportunity for him and a few other incoming freshmen to make an early contribution. Wilson is the one who brings the most to the table with C.J. Henderson not far behind.
Farrell’s take: The Gators are not lacking for talent at cornerback on the roster or in the 2017 class, so this position should be loaded for years to come.