Vetting the Replacements
August 25, 2014 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
For FBS schools across the land, a new college football season begins later this week. And with the new campaign, fans know that new names will emerge to provide storylines for our own pigskin appetites. Sure, some stars stay behind to provide a base of expectation. But for the ones that moved up, and on, from the college ranks, how will those gaps be filled?
That's something all coaches have to ask, whether leading their first recruiting class in a new location (Charlie Strong, James Franklin, Chris Petersen, Craig Bohl, etc.) or their 21st. I looked (arbitrarily) through some of the biggest transitions on the college scene and settled on a few that may deserve watching during the season (again, arbitrarily).
Last season belonged to Florida State's Jameis Winston. But despite the freshman leading the Seminoles to the program's third national championship (while picking up the Heisman to boot), the nation's most exciting player was the previous Heisman winner. Life after Johnny Manziel begins on Thursday night, when Texas A&M heads to South Carolina. And it will be up to sophomore Kenny Hill to keep the Aggies' momentum going.
The good news is that Kevin Sumlin has been through this situation before? Wasn't the shine supposed to dull for the coach when he left Houston and Case Keenum's eligibility behind?
This was quite the year for college quarterbacks. Several left their impressions, along with rather large gaps to fill. Blake Bortles, Aaron Murray, Connor Shaw, Teddy Bridgewater, and Tahj Boyd all left their marks. However, the one guy who basically carried his team's offense in his frame was Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch. He finished third in the Heisman voting. His arms and legs accounted for nearly 66% of the team's 7,277 yards (3rd in FBS). The reigns change hands over to redshirt junior Matt McIntosh. The new Huskies signal-caller will be hard-pressed to reproduce the success of the last two years (24-4 overall with an Orange Bowl berth). But who thought we'd be praising Jordan Lynch just two years ago?
In today's NFL, offensive weapons are as important as hybrid linebackers or physically imposing corners. The running back that can pass catch or the wideout that can double as a kick return threat only add that much more value to a team's arsenal. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Toledo's Dri Archer fit into the categories for this year's Draft class. However, nobody was as sought after as Clemson's Sammy Watkins. The dynamic junior is expected to pay huge dividends for Buffalo. But who might repay those dividends back at Clemson?
Without Watkins and Martavis Bryant, Adam Humphries is the leading receiver to return for the Tigers. But it might be redshirt sophomore Germone Hopper who receives the biggest benefit from the openings. Humphries will probably get the punt retuning duties, but we will find out who gets the chance to return kickoffs, and Hopper should be in the mix for that honor.
Last season, Blake Bortles was the name you thought of when it came to UCF. Okay, maybe it was coach George O'Leary first ... or that defensive unit before that, but Bortles was up there. However, don't forget about the contributions Storm Johnson made to the Fiesta Bowl champions. The tailback's 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns provided offensive balance and sustained time-draining drives.
This season, O'Leary appears to look to William Stanback for those clock-chewing runs. The sophomore produced when he got touches last season (443 yds, 4.2 ypc, 6 tds as a freshman). It'll be interesting to see how much his opportunities increase with a new starting QB running the offense.
Defensive Front Seven
Jadeveon Clowney was a man in a college kid's body during his three years at South Carolina. Even though his production dropped during his junior season, Clowney was still physically dominant enough to be the top overall pick. Replacing him (whether through actual impact or imposed will) will be an ongoing process for the Ol' Ball Coach, and probably one that will require many efforts instead of one. Part of that accumulation falls of the shoulders of Darius English. He'll try to work with fellow sophomore Gerald Dixon to create a destructive pass-rushing duo. So, why did I choose English as the one to watch over Dixon? A little more similar in stature to Clowney ... that's all.
Khalil Mack probably wasn't on many radars two years ago. By the time 2014 rolled around, he rose to the level of "best prospective athlete" by some of us amateur scouts. And his senior-year stats only backed up the increased hype (100 tackles, 56 solo tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks). But, as good as Mack was last year, the cupboard wasn't left completely bare at the University of Buffalo. While the defensive line and backfield need to be re-stocked, the linebacking core is intact with three seniors leading the way. Adam Redden had an impressive junior-year stat-line of his own (65 tackles, 37 solo tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks in just 10 games). If he can improve on those numbers, Redden might find himself inching up the 2015 draft board.
Louisville lost quite a lot from last season's team. I've already mentioned Bridgewater. Their leader also moved on (we'll get to that in a moment). However, a more subtle, and possibly more substantial, loss was not one, but both of their safeties. Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith made up the entirety of the AAC's all-conference first team safety core. Although we give more attention to the guys who cover the split ends of the football world, having talented and experienced defenders in the middle of the backfield is key to any above-average defense. There's not a lot of experience at safety, with no seniors available to step in on the roster.
Yes, replacing a quarterback is crucial. Yes, replacing a head coach is critical. However, if you have to rely on two pass defenders where four are necessary, your team could have some issues.