Sizing up the biggest holes to fill entering spring practice
For additional spring practice coverage, check out the March 4, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
It's college football's annual cycle: As key upperclassmen leave for the NFL, teams are left with major holes to address. And each situation can be different when it comes to replacing departed standouts, from relying on impact freshmen to developing role players into stars.
With spring practice kicking off across the nation, here's a look at 20 teams with holes to address -- and the guys who might have to step up.
• Who's gone: LG Chance Warmack, C Barrett Jones, RT D.J. Fluker
• Who's next: Nick Saban's offensive line was the best in the country in 2012, helping the BCS champion Crimson Tide set a school record for offensive yards (6,237) and produce two 1,000-yard rushers, T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. But with Warmack, Jones and Fluker gone, replicating that success won't be easy. The good news for 'Bama is junior Cyrus Kouandjio returns after starting every game at left tackle as a sophomore, and senior Anthony Steen will reprise his role at right guard. But the rest of the line will include some new faces. Sophomore center Ryan Kelly and junior left guard Chad Lindsay will look to assume more responsibility this spring, while juco signee Leon Brown and junior Austin Shepherd will try to establish themselves at right tackle.
• Who's gone: WR DeAndre Hopkins
• Who's next: Hopkins was Tajh Boyd's favorite target last season, and he broke the Tigers' single-season receiving record with 1,405 yards. Now, for Boyd to live up to his dark horse Heisman hype, a different wideout will have to take Hopkins' place in 2013. The most obvious candidate is Sammy Watkins, who dazzled as a freshman in 2011 before going through an up-and-down 2012 campaign. But don't count out junior Martavis Bryant. Despite catching only 10 passes last year, he amassed 305 receiving yards and four scores. He's certainly one to keep an eye on this spring.
• Who's gone: DT Sharrif Floyd, SS Matt Elam
• Who's next: The Gators will rely on some fresh faces across the defensive line. Floyd led the team with 13 tackles for loss and three sacks, but his exit could mean an even more featured role for tackle/end Dominique Easley, who will be back for his senior season. In the secondary, Elam was a first-team All-America after pacing Florida with four picks. Junior-to-be Jabari Gorman will get a shot at replacing Elam, but, come fall, so will some younger names: The Gators recently landed four defensive back signees, including five-star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
• Who's gone: DE Bjoern Werner, DE Cornellius Carradine
• Who's next: The anchors of Florida State's ACC-leading defense, Werner and Carradine finished with a combined 24 sacks in 2012. Now, the 'Noles will likely go young at the position, with Mario Edwards Jr. entering the spring as the favorite to fill their void. Giorgio Newberry also performed well as a redshirt freshman last season, as he saw action in all but two games backing up Werner. He should take on a more prominent role in 2013.
• Who's gone: LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree
• Who's next: Georgia's offense returns plenty of key pieces in 2013, but the Bulldogs' defense must replace the heart of its unit. Jones led the nation with 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss, while Ogletree paced the Bulldogs with 111 tackles despite missing four games for violating the team's substance abuse policy. Mark Richt whiffed on a few key linebacker prospects on National Signing Day, but early enrollees Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter could make a splash this spring as the Bulldogs look to fill out a young linebacking corps.
• Who's gone: QB Collin Klein
• Who's next: Klein helped engineer Kansas State's near-BCS title berth in 2012, cementing his name in the K-State record books in the process. (He finished first in career rushing touchdowns (55), first in career total touchdowns (84) and third in passing efficiency (141.05).) Redshirt sophomore Daniel Sams will get the first look at replacing the Heisman finalist, but Sams has only thrown eight passes in his K-State career. All eyes will be on highly touted juco quarterback Jake Waters, who led Iowa Western Community College to a national title last season.
• Who's gone: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery
• Who's next: LSU's defense will be in rebuilding mode after losing several key players from the nation's eighth-ranked total defense, but Mingo and Montgomery might be the departures that sting the most. Still, Les Miles has a way with defensive linemen; he signed seven such prospects in his latest recruiting class. Early enrollee Christian LaCouture will have a chance to showcase his skills at both ends of the line this spring.
• Who's gone: QB Denard Robinson
• Who's next: The departure of Denard Robinson once seemed scary for Michigan fans, but thanks in part to Shoelace's elbow injury midway through 2012, the future of the position now appears to be in good hands. Backup Devin Gardner filled in for the senior and started the team's final five games, finishing with a 3-2 record with 11 touchdowns and five picks. Gardner also punched in seven rushing scores during that stretch, and with a full offseason of work as the starter, he has all the makings of dangerous weapon for the Wolverines.
• Who's gone: RB Le'Veon Bell
• Who's next: Bell carried the ball 382 times in 2012 -- more than any other player in the country -- and finished among the top 10 in Spartan history in career rushing touchdowns (33) and rushing yards (3,346). But Bell decided to leave for the NFL early, and the rest of the Michigan State backfield is heavy on inexperience. Chelsea, Mich., native Nick Hill, who recorded just 21 carries last season, will be under a spotlight to step up this spring.
• Who's gone: LB Manti Te'o
• Who's next: The fake girlfriend hoax aside, Notre Dame will surely miss Te'o's production. The Heisman runner-up registered 113 tackles and seven interceptions in 2012. Rising junior Jarrett Grace will enter the spring as the frontrunner to replace him, but that doesn't guarantee the job next fall. The Irish also managed to haul in some intriguing young talent on defense, including Fort Wayne, Ind., signee Jaylon Smith. Smith won the Butkus Award as the nation's top high school linebacker -- the same award Te'o garnered during his prep career.
• Who's gone: QB Landry Jones
• Who's next: Jones became the Big 12's all-time leader in passing yards (16,646) during his prolific Sooners' career, and his departure signifies a major shift on the offensive side of the ball. The leader to fill his shoes is Blake Bell, a rising redshirt junior used last season in the red-zone Belldozer package. Bell doesn't have significant game experience -- he has yet to throw a touchdown pass at Oklahoma -- but his two years of studying the offense give him the inside track for the starting job.
• Who's gone: RB Kenjon Barner
• Who's next: Barner waited three seasons behind Ducks' star LaMichael James, and the senior made the most of his time as the starter in Eugene. Barner rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2012. Now, backfield mate De'Anthony Thomas becomes the obvious choice to pick up the slack. Thomas' electrifying skill set makes him a game-breaking talent, but he's yet to prove he can shoulder a full workload. Fellow backs Byron Marshall and Ayele Ford will look to impress this spring before touted recruit Thomas Tyner arrives on campus in the fall.
• Who's gone: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders
• Who's next: Lattimore left for the NFL after suffering a gruesome knee injury, and senior Kenny Miles wrapped up his Gamecocks' career after the Outback Bowl. Heading into spring practice, Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson will look to prove themselves in Steve Spurrier's suddenly wide-open backfield. Meanwhile, the departure of Sanders opens the door for wideout Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with seven touchdown catches last season. Tight end Rory Anderson, whose five touchdown grabs is second only to Ellington among South Carolina returnees, should also see a larger role in the offense.
• Who's gone: RB Stepfan Taylor
• Who's next: Taylor leaves Palo Alto as the Cardinal's career leader in rushing yards (4,300), rushing touchdowns (45) and 100-yard games (21). In fact, he tallied more rushing touchdowns in 2012 (13) than the rest of Stanford's roster combined (10). This spring, junior Anthony Wilkerson will look to emerge as the favorite to replace Taylor (Wilkerson had 50 carries for 224 yards and one touchdown last year), but he'll have to work quickly. David Shaw and staff have expressed a willingness to install a running back-by-committee approach.
• Who's gone: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Cordarrelle Patterson
• Who's next: The Vols have plenty of offensive firepower to replace following the exits of Bray, Hunter and Patterson, but new coach Butch Jones used his first recruiting class to add depth to the quarterback position. Freshman Joshua Dobbs and fellow newcomer Riley Ferguson could compete for the starting job if neither Justin Worley nor Nathan Peterman locks up the spot during spring practice. The production at wide receiver may be harder to duplicate. With the Vols' top four receivers departing, look for Alton "Pig" Howard to step up before signee Marquez North arrives in Knoxville this summer.
• Who's gone: DE Alex Okafor
• Who's next: Okafor capped his Longhorns' career with a 4.5-sack performance against Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl, and he led Texas with 18 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks last season. Mack Brown will need somebody to make up for that lost production. Rising senior Jackson Jeffcoat could become that player after finishing with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks despite missing half the season with a pectoral injury, but other candidates could also benefit from strong springs. Reserve defensive ends Cedric Reed and Reggie Wilson boast experience to fill Okafor's void.
• Who's gone: OT Luke Joeckel
• Who's next: The eventual Outland Trophy winner, Joeckel helped protect Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and paved the way for an Aggie offense that finished third in the FBS in total yardage. But A&M caught a break when fellow offensive tackle Jake Matthews opted to return to school, and the rising senior should use this spring to cement his status as the perfect fit to slide into the left tackle spot vacated by Joeckel.
• Who's gone: QB Matt Barkley
• Who's next: Barkley's senior season didn't pan out as expected after he passed on the 2012 NFL draft to return to school. Even so, Barkley's veteran leadership in L.A. won't be easy to replace. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek filled in for an injured Barkley at the end of last season, but he was hardly efficient in his first two career starts -- he tallied two touchdowns and five interceptions in losses to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Look for top-rated freshman quarterback Max Browne, an early enrollee, to make a strong run at the starting job this spring.
• Who's gone: QB Geno Smith, WRs Stedman Bailey, WR Tavon Austin
• Who's next: The Mountaineers lose three key cogs from their high-flying offense with the departures of Smith, Bailey and Austin. Smith's 163.9 passer rating ranked fifth in FBS, while Bailey led the nation in touchdown catches (23) and Austin amassed 2,760 all-purpose yards. Chavas Rawlins, Ford Childress and Paul Millard will compete to replace Smith under center, while wideout Mario Alford -- one of the nation's top-ranked juco prospects -- has the talent to become one of the Mountaineers' top 2013 weapons through the air.
• Who's gone: RB Montee Ball
• Who's next: Wisconsin loses the NCAA's career touchdown leader in Ball, the latest star from a Badgers program with a history of prolific running backs. But new coach Gary Andersen inherits a Wisconsin roster with no shortage of depth in the backfield. James White will be a senior after backing up Ball last season, and rising sophomore Melvin Gordon showed promise in his freshman campaign. White, in particular, could use this spring as a launching pad. He rushed for 806 yards and 12 touchdowns behind Ball in 2012 and averaged 6.4 yards per carry -- more than Ball did in any of his four seasons in Madison.