Alabama, Florida among 10 teams with huge shoes to fill in 2009
Florida may be No. 1 again, but it needs to replace Percy Harvin's production
Boston College didn't just lose a force in LB Mark Herzlich, it lost a leader
Top 10 teams Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State and Texas must also fill holes
In this way, college football never changes. Season after season, teams lose exceptionally talented players to graduation, injuries and the NFL. And season after season, untested players must step in and step up to fill the void.
Sometimes, the transition is smooth. Last season, Arkansas faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing two NFL running backs, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Michael Smith didn't completely erase all the memories of Wild Hog glory, but he emerged to become one of the top backs in the SEC.
Sometimes, though, the quest for a replacement proves futile. Ricky Jean-Francois was Glenn Dorsey's heir apparent at LSU, but a groin injury sidelined him for much of 2008, and the Tigers were never able to replace Dorsey's presence or production.
Here are the 10 teams with the biggest shoes to fill this season.
Who's gone: OT Andre Smith
Who's next: James Carpenter, D.J. Fluker
Alabama won't miss the drama Smith caused during bowl and combine seasons, but it will sorely miss his presence on the line. Last week, coach Nick Saban said Carpenter showed this spring he can "at least be a functional lineman." If that less-than-glowing praise doesn't undermine the juco transfer's confidence, Fluker's creeping shadow might. Fluker would have to make serious strides to beat out Carpenter for the starting spot, but the job will ultimately be his. The hulking 6-foot-6, 350-pound freshman is a true mountain of a man, but he's only played left tackle since 2008 and simply hasn't gained enough experience to start yet. That said, Smith started as a true freshman, and some Tide fans can't help but expect the same from Fluker.
Who's gone: LB Mark Herzlich
Who's next: Dominick LeGrande
It's hard to overstate how much Boston College lost when Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, sidelined Herzlich. The Eagles didn't just lose an All-America linebacker and ACC Defensive Player of the Year; they lost a bit of themselves. Stepping in for the bearded, eye-black-wearing strongside force will be a daunting task for LeGrande. The sophomore saw limited time in the secondary as a freshman, and though he's undersized, a lack of depth at the position (captain Mike McLaughlin is still out with a torn Achilles) makes him the likeliest replacement. Redshirt freshman Nick Clancy could also challenge for the spot, but it's more likely he'll see time at weakside, where Brain Toal's departure also left a hole. For BC's sake, let's hope what LeGrande and Clancy lack in experience they make up for in athleticism. If they don't, the Eagles will spend 2009 living in the shadow of one of the best linebacking corps of 2008.
Who's gone: WR/RB Percy Harvin
Who's next: Andre Debose and Jeff Demps
SI.com's Andy Staples declared in January "Harvin was a once-in-a-generation player who can't be replaced." Of course, the Gators will still try. Much of the Gainsville contingent has dubbed new arrival Debose "Harvin 2.0," but that's a lot of pressure to place on a true freshman, especially one who's been nursing a bum hamstring all summer. Still, the Gators saw Harvin-type speed and playmaking ability when they recruited Debose and will surely give him his share of touches at receiver (the only true hole for the defending champs) and running back. The weight won't rest fully on Debose's still-scrawny shoulders, though. Demps, a sophomore tailback who displayed breakaway speed as a freshman, will also get a crack at filling what coach Urban Meyer calls the "Percy position." Since it's unlikely either Debose or Demps will amass 600-plus yards receiving and 600-plus more rushing as Harvin did, a "Percy platoon" might develop.
Who's gone: QB Matthew Stafford, RB Knowshon Moreno
Who's next: QB Joe Cox, RB Caleb King
Whenever a team loses its starting quarterback and running back, it's potentially debilitating. When the players in question are both first-round NFL draft picks, it can cause an offensive identity crisis. Georgia fans are crossing their fingers Cox steps into Stafford's shoes the way D.J. Shockley, also a fifth-year senior, did for David Greene in 2005. One thing's for sure: throwing to star receiver A.J. Green will make Cox's job a little easier. King, meanwhile, will have to replace Moreno, the man of many jukes and hurdles. King, who an optimistic Georgia fan once called "the next Herschel Walker" carried the ball 61 times in '08 for 247 yards, and though he may not run with Moreno's acrobatics, he will benefit from playing behind an experienced offensive line. Plus, he'll have help from Richard Samuel. And Carlton Thomas. And Dontavius Jackson. And Washaun Ealey. You get the point.
Who's gone: LB James Laurinaitis
Who's next: Austin Spitler
While Laurinaitis was busy leading the Buckeyes in tackles three straight seasons, earning All-America honors and winning the Butkus and Lombardi awards, Spitler was waiting his turn. If such a dependable force hadn't resided in front of him, the senior would have started sooner. But this year Spitler will get the chance to step up as a playmaker and leader on a team that lost Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Malcolm Jenkins on D.
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