With lockout looming, several star players return to school
Andrew Luck, Justin Blackmon headline players returning to school for 2011
Auburn, Virginia Tech, LSU were hurt most by underclassmen departures
Alabama lost weapons on offense, but bring back stacked defenses
The number of underclassmen leaving for the NFL this year appears to be about the same as usual. At first glance, the impending lockout didn't seem to have an effect one way or the other. Guys who wanted to turn pro, turned pro.
However, the number of All-America-caliber players who elected to put off the pros for another year is truly astounding. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma counterpart Ryan Broyles -- all would seemingly have little left to prove in the college game -- but we warmly welcome them back. All told, five of the top six Heisman vote-getters from 2010 are returning (Luck, Oregon running back LaMichael James, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, Blackmon and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, a second-year player), which certainly raises the star power for 2011.
Some obvious candidates (Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett) cashed in, while several projected mid-round picks made puzzling decisions. Some teams made out like bandits. Others weren't so fortunate.
Auburn: Not that we didn't see it coming, but both Heisman winner Cam Newton and consensus All-America Nick Fairley are taking their talents to the NFL. The new reigning champs were already set to lose four of their five starting offensive linemen, three other key defensive linemen and defensive stalwarts Josh Bynes and Zac Etheridge. None will be easily replaced.
Virginia Tech: Remember when the Hokies' backfield was so deep you didn't know how they'd divide the carries? That's a distant memory after third-year sophomores Ryan Williams and Darren Evans both declared. Williams turned pro despite running for just 477 yards during an injury-marred season. Tech still has rising junior David Wilson (619 yards), but with quarterback Tyrod Taylor graduating, the Hokies could have used the added backfield experience.
Pittsburgh: Sorry, Todd Graham. The Panthers' new coach will be without two of their top weapons of the past two years, running back Dion Lewis (1,061 yards) and receiver Jonathan Baldwin (53 catches, 822 yards). Fullback Henry Hynoski threw his hat in the ring, too. Graham does inherit one particularly familiar name -- Lewis' backfield mate Ray Graham (922 yards, eight TDs) -- but will need to stock up on receivers to run his preferred spread offense.
Illinois: Despite its modest record, Ron Zook's team seems to lose its brightest stars to the NFL almost annually. This year was no exception, with top-five rusher Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards, 17 TDs), leading tackler Martez Wilson (112 tackles) and emerging defensive tackle Corey Liuget (12.5 tackles for loss) all declaring. Illinois finished last season 7-6, its first winning record since 2007. Here's hoping they don't suffer the same fate they did when Rashard Mendenhall left early.
UCLA: Rick Neuheisel, 4-8 in his third season, already has his work cut out for himself in resuscitating a long-stagnant offense. Now he'll go into next season without his two best defensive players, linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore, both of whom were named second-team All-Americas last season by various publications. Both were extraordinary playmakers. New leaders will have to emerge on a unit that plummeted from 32nd to 94th nationally in total defense last season.
LSU: All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson's departure was a no-brainer. Running back Stevan Ridley's was a bit more surprising and potentially damaging. The junior emerged out of obscurity to rush for 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Tigers will now bank on rising sophomores Spencer Ware, who rushed for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl in his first significant action of the season, and Michael Ford.
Oklahoma: Bob Stoops only had two names to worry about, Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis, and they both stayed. Broyles (131 catches, 1,622 yards, 14 TDs) has a realistic shot to break the NCAA's career receptions and yardage records. Lewis (109 tackles) was the leader of OU's defense. With both in the fold, the Sooners will likely return 18 starters -- including third-year quarterback Landry Jones -- and potentially start the season No. 1.
Oklahoma State: It wasn't entirely surprising that 27-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden (4,277 yards, 34 TDs, 13 INTs) elected to stay, but the return of Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon (111 catches, 1,782 yards, 20 TDs) was downright stunning. The Cowboys do lose renowned offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and star running back Kendall Hunter, but the presence of such an accomplished passing tandem will make the next coordinator's job easy.
Stanford: You had us at Andrew Luck. His decision to put off a potential No. 1 overall selection changes the outlook for Stanford's 2011 season. Now new coach David Shaw has a Pac-10 championship contender on his hands. And it doesn't hurt that tight end Coby Fleener and guard David DeCastro never entertained NFL thoughts, either. Apparently, only Jim Harbaugh.
Ohio State: Apparently Jim Tressel's mandated pre-bowl pledge was in fact iron clad, because quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan "Boom" Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and tackle Mike Adams all returned despite facing a five-game NCAA suspension. So, too, did center Mike Brewster. The Buckeyes will need all the help they can get offensively while breaking in seven new starters on defense.
Notre Dame: In a recurring theme, star receiver Michael Floyd (79 catches, 1,025 yards) turned down what many assumed to be a first-round selection to return for his senior year, a huge coup for second-year coach Brian Kelly. The Irish did lose tight end Kyle Rudolph, but Notre Dame played the last seven games of 2010 without him, winning its last four. The return of injured quarterback Dayne Crist to go with Floyd and running back Cierre Wood gives Kelly ample veteran talent for 2011.
Alabama: Running back Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and defensive end Marcell Dareus are all huge losses, but we all knew they were leaving long ago. Nick Saban's team returned all of its other potential draft entrants, including linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and safety Mark Barron. The Tide will have holes to fill on offense but their defense will be loaded.
Oregon running back LaMichael James: After briefly wavering on his previously announced decision in the days after the BCS title game, James, who's rushed for 3,277 yards in two seasons, will make another run at the Heisman.
Arizona receiver Juron Criner: After catching 82 passes for 1,233 yards (ninth nationally) and 11 touchdowns, the junior joined the trend at his position by staying in school.
Texas A&M receiver Jeff Fuller: The school's career leader in touchdown receptions (29) has the body for the NFL (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) but, like Von Miller last year, will be back in College Station.
Nebraska DT Jared Crick: A two-time All-Big 12 selection, Crick, who had 9.5 sacks last season, will return along with LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard to give the Blackshirts a nice veteran nucleus.
Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins: The three-year starter and projected first-round pick pleasantly surprised Gators fans by returning for the start of the Will Muschamp era.
Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers: After posting three straight 1,000-yard seasons, Quizz is leaving Corvallis despite brother James, a medical redshirt, returning for another year.
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: "The Legend" had nothing left to prove, and a lot of money awaiting him, after throwing for 7,493 yards and 62 TDs in two seasons in Fayetteville.
Georgia receiver A.J. Green: It's a shame we were deprived of four games his junior season, but Green still finished with 166 catches for 2,619 yards and a whole lot of highlights in three years.
Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert: Despite posting lower production as a junior (3,186 yards, 16 TDs, nine INTs), the strong-armed two-year starter is coveted by the pros.
Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: One of the nation's most enjoyable players to watch last season, the Lott Trophy winner leaves having notched 36.5 tackles for loss in two seasons.
Kentucky WR/KR/QB/RB Randall Cobb: The Wildcats' all-purpose threat finished second nationally with 184.3 yards per game. It will be interesting to see how an NFL team deploys him.