Each and every year we wish goodbye and good luck to some of college football’s brightest stars. Be it the star quarterback, game-changing wide receiver or ferocious linebacker, teams every season have to turn over some of their top talent and hope other plays can step up and fill their vacated shoes. Sometimes these players flourish under the spotlight while others crumble under the weight forced upon them (Hello 2011 Auburn Quaterbacks!!!). As we continue our cross-country look at the landscape of college football as we approach the opening weekend of 2012 (only about 4 months away), we target some players who will look to do just that. They’ll be asked to step in and fill the role filled by some of college football’s brightest stars from a year ago. They’ll all almost certainly fall short of the production from their predecessor but they hope to set the foundation if they’re around for multiple years for a productive few years down the line. Comments or feedback are encouraged, feel free to leave it at the bottom down below or get at me on Twitter: @BDohertyTSHQ1.
As a follow up if you’re new to the website or just missed stuff prior, you can check out my post National Signing Day Top 25 by following any of the following links:
Also Parts 1-3 of the offseason preview that preceded this one can be found below:
So as teams across America wrap up their spring practices with their annual spring game over the last few weeks and head towards summer workouts, lets look at 10 players/groups that will have the most eyes on them in 2012 to replace some of college football’s brightest stars from a year ago.
Replacement: Nick Florence
Replacing: Robert Griffin III
While Andrew Luck was taken with the first overall pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, it was Robert Griffin III who claimed college football’s most prestigious award this past season, becoming the 77th winner of the Heisman Trophy and first from Baylor. Griffin came into the season perceived as a stat-producing QB on a middle-tier football team and wasn’t even included in many Heisman lists pre-season. Yet he took a Baylor team that was predicted to finish 6th in the Big 12 to a 10-win season, national ranking and bowl victory in his collegiate finale. Beyond his on field production he became the most recognizable athlete at the school as the school’s most accomplished football player. For a program that has never had sustained success with only 6 conference titles and 18 bowl games in its 116 year history, losing a player of that magnitude could take years to replace. In steps senior QB Nick Florence. Florence saw his most playing time as a true freshman after injuries to Griffin III and Blake Szymanski gave him the full-time gig. The high point came in an upset win at Missouri where he set the (at the time) school record for passing yards with 3 TDs. However, since that time it has been the RGIII show and Florence patiently waited for this moment. Florence had offers coming out of high school but rated as simply a 3-star. It came down to two schools when he chose Baylor over Purdue. Not only will Florence be asked to replace one of the school’s biggest icons but he’ll be asked to do it without the services of wide receiver Kendall Wright and RB Terrance Ganaway, the two biggest weapons for RGIII last season. Florence had a strong spring game this year finishing 14 of 18 for 183 yards and 3 TDs. It’s no secret Baylor will be asked to score points and to do so in bunches with a defense that left a lot to be desired in 2011 and isn’t projected to be a whole lot better in 2012. Then again, we all know the Big 12 style of football by now. If you’re not scoring, you’re not winning. However, as a 4th-year senior who has had some collegiate starting experience before, there’s a lot worse scenarios Baylor could have been placed in. Florence will undoubtedly hear the whispers and cat calls if things don’t go well, but Baylor football did something in 2011 it hadn’t done in quite some time. This isn’t Alabama, Texas, or Ohio St. we’re talking about here and that should be remembered regardless of where Baylor finishes the year.
Oklahoma State Pass/Catch Tandem
Replacement: Clint Chelf vs. J.W Walsh vs. Wes Lunt & WR Tracy Moore
Replacing: Brandon Weeden & Justin Blackmon
The Oklahoma State Cowboys went from the despair of just missing out on the BCS title game this season to the despair of having to wave goodbye to the most lethal pass-catch combo in college football over the last two years. Brandon Weeden, the former minor league baseball player who returned to college football at the age of 24 and Justin Blackmon, the freakishly talented junior WR who was taken with the 5th overall pick in the first round last Thursday by Jacksonville, combined for 35 TDs and over 3000 yards in the air together the past two seasons. Together they lit up nearly every opposing defense that stepped across from them and led the Cowboys to their first Big 12 title in program history in a season-ending blowout of rival Oklahoma at home. Blackmon will leave school as trailing only Rashaun Woods in receptions, receiving yards, and TDs in school history. However that didn’t stop Mike Gundy when asked before this past year’s Fiesta Bowl to declare Blackmon as, “the best player to play here since Barry Sanders.” Weeden immediately becomes an interesting story to follow as his age coming out of college will certainly hinder his draft stock and it’ll be intriguing to see where he ends up. So where do the Cowboys turn in 2012 to replace two of the biggest contributors to their 3rd ranked offense from a year ago? While it is important to focus on their replacements, it is increasingly likely that we’ll see returning junior RB Joseph Randle become the face of the offense. With over 1200 yards and 24 TDs a year ago in a pass-first offense, the Cowboys will likely look to give him more carries, specifically early in the year while they work on fine-tuning Gundy’s pass-heavy offense with whomever wins out in the QB battle. Redshirt junior Clint Chelf, redshirt freshman J.W Walsh and freshman Wes Lunt have been competing throughout spring and coming out of the spring game it still appears to be a three-horse race as all 3 quarterbacks threw two touchdowns in the recent spring game with Walsh the lone signal-caller to go over 300 yards. An announcement on the starter is expected to come tomorrow (Wed, Apr. 25th) and it will be interesting whether Gundy goes with the redshirt junior Chelf or trusts one of the younger guys to give them the ball. Lunt is the only one of the three who has graded out as a pro-style QB and may be the most natural fit for Gundy’s system while Walsh and Chelf are both deemed more dual-threat . At wide receiver the Cowboys were decimated by graduation a year ago in their receiving corps and Tracy Moore will be the leading receiver back in the fold who will likely have to prepare himself to be the #1 WR. However, keep an eye on Charlie Moore who exploded in the spring game catching 9 passes for 243 yards and 3 TDs. With only 3 catches in 6 games a year ago for Moore, it’s worth noting Justin Blackmon himself only had 20 catches and 2 TDs in 10 games as a freshman so the chance for an explosion or breakout season is always possible in this offense. Still, regardless of when Mike Gundy announces the starter, it will be a position worth monitoring throughout the offseason seeing as if one guy was that strong a candidate to start already, they wouldn’t need to discuss the 3 options.
Update: Wes Lunt has been named the starter coming out of spring.
Boise St. QB
Replacement: Joe Southwick
Replacing: Kellen Moore
No big deal for Joe Southwick. Just go out and replace the winningest quarterback in FBS football history next season. O yea, it’s been a couple years since we’ve been to the BCS too so if you don’t mind getting our program back there as well, it’d be greatly appreciated. That’s the mountain junior signal caller Joe Southwick will face when he starts the Broncos season opener at Michigan St on August 31st, a team who just so happened to dominate the Big Ten in every defensive category just about a year ago. Say what you will about Kellen Moore as a quarterback, hell Yesh and I debated about it on this website, but while I question his level of success, at the end of the day Southwick will follow up the most successful era of Broncos football ever. Kellen Moore wasn’t just a winning QB, he was a prolific QB. We’re talking about a player who was a Heisman finalist in 2010 from a school like Boise. It takes a special type of play on the field and even more impressively, the national notoriety to garner that invitation. With a 50-3 record the last four years, expectations for the program have sky-rocketed and with the recent extension Chris Petersen signed, it is expected those great days will continue. Well someone has to lead them there and one of the key people expected to do that in 2012 is Joe Southwick. Southwick has throw 54 passes in his college career with 2 TDs and 1 INT. Boise St. will be one of the least experienced teams in America next season with the massive departures from their 2011 team. They’ll challenge themselves in the non-conference schedule again, and while TCU has departed for the Big 12, there will still be some challenges presented in league play. Southwick passed his first test with flying colors in the Broncos spring game on April 14th, accounting for three of the game’s four scoring drives including a Kellen-like TD drive to end the game that gave the offense the win. I’ve mentioned already in this offseason preview that I believe the Broncos take a step back this year and that regardless of record they won’t be the top-10 caliber team they’ve been in recent years. Let’s see if Joe Southwick and the Broncos can make me eat my words on this site once again…
Boston College MLB
Replacement: Sean Duggan
Replacing: Luke Kuechly
There really wasn’t a whole lot that went well for Boston College in 2011 and it started early when star running back Montel Harris never could quite recover from his prior season’s knee injury. As a result a limited offense already was hindered even more and it showed on the field with erratic quaterback play and very little from the ground game. As a result it wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone that they finished the season 108th nationally in offense and limped to a 4-8 record when all was said and done. If there was a lone bright spot for the Eagles it was the standout play of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly who was drafted 9th overall this year by the Carolina Panthers in the NFL draft. A 3-time All-American, he left the Eagles program on about as high a note as a defensive individual could leave it cleaning up national awards including the Butkus and Lombardi awards, each presented to the nation’s top linebacker. If that wasn’t enough to add to his ACC defensive player of the year award, he was named the recipient of the 19th annual Bronco Nagurski award given to the player judged to be college football’s most outstanding defensive player. The nation’s leading tackler each of the past two seasons, Kuechly alone couldn’t cover up the deficiencies on Boston College’s defense from a year ago that saw prolonged times on the field and ranked 68th in the country as a unit. Coming into 2012, it will be one of the biggest questions the Eagles face despite belief on the staff and from other college football writers that their linebacker core will again be strong. Asking one man to replace the production of a 3-time All-American is extreme and unrealistic and while Sean Duggan’s name is the one listed atop the MLB position on the Eagles current depth chart, there’s a lot more names that will help in trying to fill the void left by one of college football’s brightest stars in recent years. S0 between now and the start of the season expect to hear a lot of updates and critiques on the progress of the Eagles’ linebacker unit which will only grow louder with each missed tackle next season. Here’s to hoping they find some new young talents to rise up.
Arkansas WR Core
Replacement: Cobi Hamilton/Julian Horton/Javontee Herndon/Marquel Wade
Replacing: Jarius Wright/Joe Adams/Greg Childs
CRUSH ALERT!!! Anyone who has read my stuff over the last two years knows I have a crush on Arkansas. In fact I bring it up nearly every time I talk about them and it won’t change here as I’m devastated that I will not be able to watch the trio of WRs that depart from Arkansas after last season on Saturdays anymore. Wright, Adams and Childs were each selected in the 4th round of this year’s NFL draft and will look to continue terrifying secondaries into the future. Despite a breakout season his sophomore year and a very strong beginning to his junior year before he suffered a season-ending injury, Greg Childs really fell off in 2011 for Arkansas as he again only played in 8 games but didn’t find the end zone and only caught 21 passes. Stepping up into the leader’s role was Jarius Wright who led the team in receptions, yards and TDs with 66 catches for 1117 yards and 12 TDs, earning All-SEC 1st team honors in the process and leading the Hogs to an 11-win season. Rounding out their trio was Joe Adams, who despite 54 catches for over 600 yards and 3 scores as a slot receiver, was better known for his punt return skills, including this ridiculously awesome TD that I still say is play of the year against Tennessee. I’ve maintained for a few seasons now that the system in place at Arkansas will produce with any receiving core as long as a legitimate quarterback is there to throw it around and with Tyler Wilson in place for 2012, I still believe that is the case. Cobi Hamilton is the only returning WR of the new bunch that had a significant impact last season, catching 34 balls for 542 yards and 4 scores. He’ll move to the top of the pecking order and the senior will be counted on to assume that top-dog role. Not to be overlooked however is TE Chris Gragg who was used somewhat frequently last year and had a big spring game this year with 9 catches for 130 yards and 2 scores. While Arkansas will still have a plethora of weapons at Wilson’s disposal, don’t overlook Gragg’s importance to the passing game this year. Also, the return of 2010 All-SEC RB Knile Davis to the backfield will almost certainly help improve the nation’s 77th-ranked rushing attack from a year ago and take some of the pressure off Wilson to throw so much. Arkansas is my crush that I always check out while I’m supporting my Clemson Tigers, but low and behold, my theory will be put to the test this year with Bobby Petrino gone. WOOO PIG SOOOOOOIEEEE!!!!
Replacement: Xzavier Dickson/Trey Depriest/Adrian Hubbard
Replacing: Courtney Upshaw/Donta’ Hightower/Jerrell Harris
Going up against Alabama’s defense last season was essentially 3-4 hours of torture, both physically and mentally. The Crimson Tide defense finished the year 1st overall in the nation, including 1st against both the pass and run. They gave up 106 points in 13 games. My Clemson Tigers gave up 70 in the Orange Bowl. However, as is par for the course in Tuscaloosa, everything comes back to championships and so when they walked off the field 9-6 losers against LSU on November 5th at Bryant-Denney stadium, it wouldn’t matter much. When Alabama did get another crack at LSU in the national championship game, their defense left one final print on an all-time great defensive season pitching a 21-0 shutout and not allowing LSU to cross midfield until only minutes remained in the game. The linebacker core wasn’t the sole reason for Alabama’s defensive stranglehold on all opponents. After all Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron were both selected in the first round of the NFL draft out of Alabama’s secondary. Their front 3 was far from a weak link on the number 1 run defense. However, their departing trio of Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and to a (much) lesser degree Jerrell Harris were the backbone of Alabama’s defense and captained a suffocating, blitzing defense that feasted on opposing team’s mistakes. Hightower was a captain and finalist for a number of national defensive awards. He was named a consensus 1st-team All-American by numerous publications and led the team in tackles. Courtney Upshaw split time between 1st-team and 2nd-team All-American depending on where you looked and also was nominated as a finalist for multiple national defensive player awards. He led the team with 8.5 sacks and perhaps the most ridiculous stat of all, had 38% of his tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Their relentless pressure on the quarterback, ability to step up and take on ball carriers and in some cases their ability to drop back into coverage gave head coach Nick Saban an uncanny amount of athleticism to devise his defensive schemes around and goes to reiterate the level of talent he’s been bringing into Alabama. The next young core of linebackers will have their work cut out for them but what must keep the Tide fans smiling is all 3 will be sophomores next year. Xzavier Dickson saw limited time last year but was a strong 4-star recruit coming out of high school in Georgia. Trey Depriest was considered the #1 middle linebacker by Scout in his recruiting class and the #6 national prospect overall from Ohio. Adrian Hubbard saw action in eight games a year ago but had marginal production with only nine tackles in limited playing time. He was highly touted for his ability to rush the passer coming out of high school as a recruit. There’s not a whole lot to the book on these linebackers yet, but we just saw 3 Alabama linebackers get picked up by NFL teams (Harris as an undrafted free agent) and in 2010 it was Rolando McClain. Do we really have a lot of doubts Alabama will have success with at least one or two of these linebackers?
South Carolina DE
Replacement: Jadeveon Clowney
Replacing: Melvin Ingram
The Gamecock pass rush is in good hands in 2012 as South Carolina will have two talented defensive ends back in the fold to continue getting pressure on the quarterbacks, something they did better than the majority of college football a year ago. While senior Devin Taylor will resume his position at one DE where he started all 13 games last year, Clowney will now have the reigns on the other side, a spot where he and Ingram each got plenty of snaps at a year ago. Ingram used his breakout 2012 season to move into the first round of the most recent NFL draft where he was selected 18th overall by the San Diego Chargers, perhaps even lower than some expected. Ingram recorded 10 sacks along with 15 tackles for loss in his swan song season in Columbia but it was perhaps his performance against Georgia early in the season that gave the brightest glimpse into the unique playmaker the Gamecocks had. Ingram took a fake punt return back for a score and later recovered a fumble (from a Clowney sack) which he also took the distance, showing not only can he keep points off the board, he can also throw some up there as well. While the talent of Ingram can’t be ignored, honestly, the loss isn’t as devastating as some other names on this list despite his status as a 2011 first-team AP All-American, simply because of what the Gamecocks have coming back at the position. Clowney’s name shouldn’t be news to anyone like some others on this list are. He was the consensus #1 national recruit in the country a year ago when he chose his 18th birthday to announce he was going to South Carolina over both Clemson and Alabama. His first season on the scene didn’t disappoint either as Clowney recorded 36 tackles, 8 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, a debut that earned him a spot on the first-team All-Freshman group by just about every major college football publication and outlet. On top of that he was named SEC freshman of the year and a 2nd-team All-SEC member by the league’s coaches. Clowney is the rare case on this list of a player who is replacing a star that is already a well-known and established college football player. If he can improve upon his numbers in 2012, there will be some asking “Melvin who?” and it won’t just be all-freshman teams he’s getting named to. Clowney is an immediate SEC Defensive Player of the Year Candidate and has All-American potential even as a sophomore.
Replacement: Brandon Ford
Replacing: Dwayne Allen
If I told someone coming off the 2010 season that Clemson’s Dwayne Allen would win the John Mackey award for the nation’s top TE in college football in 2011 I would have gotten either a lot of raised eyebrows or a lot of cadence counts and high fives because Clemson has some massive homers. Nonetheless Dwayne Allen accomplished just that last season, as well as naturally earning 1st-team All-American honors from essentially every major website with a vote except for CBSsports. His season wasn’t simply elite, it was historic for a Clemson Tigers TE as no former Tigers had ever been nominated for the Mackey Award and he topped the school’s TE records for receptions, receiving yards and TDs. Coming off a 2010 season where he had a mere 33 catches and 1 TD, there weren’t a whole lot of people pointing to Dwayne Allen as a breakout player nationally entering the season. Yet with the addition of Chad Morris as offensive coordinator and the ever-inconsistent Kyle Parker giving way to Tajh Boyd at the quarterback position, there was quite a bit of excitement about what the new offense would bring and did it ever live up to the expectations. The Tigers ranked 24th nationally including the 21st best passing attack in the country a year ago. The offense guided the team to its first league title in two decades and had them as high as #5 in the BCS standings. However, despite the loss of Dwayne Allen to the 2012 Tigers football team, the offense leaves few concerned with their potential. Chad Morris has reiterated time and time again throughout last year and this offseason that the offense didn’t come close to implementing 100% of what he has in store and with another year of offensive talent coming in, the expectations won’t drop. With all-purpose freshman Sammy Watkins back for his sophomore year after joining Allen on the first-team All-America a year ago and the continued coming out party for DeAndre Hopkins, the “lesser” of Clemson’s two talented wideouts, the offense remains in good hands. Still, the TE position needs to be filled and it will be the task of Brandon Ford to step in for the departed Allen. Ford is far from a player that must be “broken in” as the TE got into 7 games last season, catching 14 passes for 166 yards and 2 scores. In a Clemson offense that is loaded at the WR position as mentioned and returns senior back Andre Ellington to the fold to compliment Boyd and the Clemson offense on the ground, Brandon Ford won’t have to shoulder much of a load at all in 2012. In a system as fast and electric as Clemson’s offense, simply getting enough snaps should see a spike in production from Ford in 2012 and for the sake of myself and Tigers fans everywhere hopefully even more victorious Saturdays.
Replacements: Ryan Groy/Rob Havenstein/Casey Dehn
Replacing: Kevin Zeitler/Peter Konz/Josh Oglesby
Death, Taxes and Wisconsin’s Offensive Line. Is there a more dull or repetitive position in all of college football to talk about than the front 5 of Wisconsin? In fact it was in this part of my 2011 CFB preview last year that I wrote about the Badgers need to replace Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy. Ho-hum, all Wisconsin did was put Kevin Zeitler on the first-team All-Americans team and Peter Konz on the second-team. Wisconsin just comes off like the rich, spoiled child who scans the country like the kid scans a candy store and instead of telling mom all the candy he/she wants, Wisconsin just points to the soon-to-be All-American offensive linemen they want. Did you know in the last 6 NFL drafts Wisconsin has had at least one offensive linemen taken in the first three rounds 4 times. They’re consistently a goldmine for front 5 talent at the next level. Peter Konz was named a finalist for the Rimmington Trophy given annually to the nation’s top center which was ultimately won by Michigan’s David Molk. If you want an idea of just how easy it is to run behind this bunch consider the 2011 season Montee Ball just turned in that made him a Heisman finalist. Now let me remind you that in 2010 Wisconsin had 3 backs approach 1000 yards on the season and Ball actually tied John Clay (who missed the last 3 games) for fewest of the 3 at 996. With 18 TDs that same season, it’s hard to fathom those numbers would be miniscule when compared to his 2011 season, yet that is exactly what happened. Ball sprinted away from James White in the carries department to the tune of 307 carries for 1923 yards and 33….read that again…33 TDs. Add in his 6 reception TDs and Ball tied Barry Sanders for the most single-season TDs in NCAA history. The track record is there. Ball and White are back this year and Danny O Brien is a strong candidate to be the starting quarterback when all is said and done. So you plug in three new linemen and call it a day. What is there to know? It is offensive linemen we’re talking about so I won’t bore you with the minor details, but what the heck….you’ll know their names by the end of next year most likely anyways as they’re getting named for awards.
Replacement: Brett Nottingham vs Josh Nunes
Replacing: Andrew Luck
Be honest. For a moment you thought I forgot all about Andrew Luck and the QB competition going on up at Palo Alto didn’t you? The NFL’s #1 draft pick this year and one of the most highly touted prospects to come from the college ranks in recent memory, Luck took the Cardinal program to heights it had not experienced in decades, since the early 70′s under head coach John Ralston. The Cardinal won the Orange Bowl to complete a 12-1 season in 2010 and followed that up last year with another 11 win season and trip to the Fiesta Bowl where they fell to Oklahoma St in OT. Luck was a Heisman runner-up each of his last two seasons becoming only the 4th player to finish second in the voting twice. Despite the tough loss to end the season Luck did collect some hardware along the way winning the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of The Year award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award as well as splitting first-team All-America with Robert Griffin III on various voting websites and outlets. He broke his own school record for TDs this past season with 37 while eclipsing John Elway’s career TD passes mark. He set school records for career total offense, wins by a starting quarterback and career winning percentage. He set PAC-12 career records for passer efficiency and completion percentage. Basically, Andrew Luck was fantastic. But enough telling everyone what they already know. Who takes over in 2012? Believe it or not, Stanford is still grasping at straws to come up with that answer coming out of the spring game although the race has been narrowed down to two candidates. Brett Nottingham, Luck’s primary backup last season, and Josh Nunes have gone back in forth with Nottingham expected to be the favorite although it was Nunes who came out of the spring game with more action and reps. Coach David Shaw was adamant in his stance that the QB play coming out of the spring game was not up to his standards and you have to think some of that is caused by the Picasso-like work Luck painted all over college fields the last two seasons. Neither has much collegiate experience at all even despite some lopsided scores in the past two seasons that would lead to them getting mop-up duty. Nunes threw 2 passes, completing one for 7 yards in 2010 and didn’t attempt a pass last season. Nottingham threw only 8 passes in the 6 games he played including one TD. With Stepfan Taylor back as an all-conference back from a year ago, he’ll almost certainly get the bulk of the offensive play calls until Shaw is comfortable with what he sees on the field from his signal caller. Although he better adjust his expectations for the QB play, because to quote former Celtics coach Rick Pitino: “Andrew Luck ain’t walking through that door.”
There you have it. With 120 teams in FBS college football, there’s obviously a lot of stars from last year that were excluded for the sake of keeping this writeup tolerable. Check back in a few weeks as I’ll go through the top Non-AQ teams in the country coming into 2012 and keep checking out TSHQ’s NFL draft breakdowns as well as MLB and NHL playoff content. You stay classy now.