College football: Who's set to replace departed stars on top teams in 2017?
The 2017 NFL draft is in the rearview mirror and we now know where some of college football's elite 2016 performers will start their professional careers. Where does that leave their former schools? They're now searching for players to fill that lost production.
Here are who some of the 2017-18 contenders will look toward to step up this season:
Clemson | Who will replace Deshaun Watson?
Watson's 2016 stats: 67.0 completion percentage, 4,593 passing yards, 629 rushing yards, 50 combined TDs
How do you replace a two-time Heisman finalist with 116 career touchdowns who's led you to consecutive national championship games? It'll be a tough task for Dabo Swinney and defending champion Clemson.
Kelly Bryant appears to be the frontrunner to fill the hole under center, having the most experience out of a young quarterback group. The rising junior appeared in four games last season, completing 6 of 9 passes for one touchdown in limited action.
Bryant has a similar build as Watson, standing at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and possesses a similar ability to extend plays with his feet and create big plays in the run-pass option. Just take a look at this 59-yard touchdown run in mop-up duty against Miami (Fla.) two years ago:
The jury's still out on whether Bryant can keep turnovers to a minimum and fill the leadership void left by Watson's departure. He'll also be left with a depleted arsenal of offensive weapons with running back Wayne Gallman and three of the Tigers' top four receivers from last year in Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett leaving for the NFL. Of course, the return of Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and national title hero Hunter Renfrow do give Kelly plenty of reliable options to lean on.
Alabama | Who will replace Jonathan Allen?
Allen's 2016 stats: 69 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, one TD
The Crimson Tide broke its program record with 10 student-athletes selected in the 2017 NFL draft. Seven came from the defensive side of the ball.
This annual transition hasn't seemed to affect Alabama in the past, who's produced 11 first-round draft picks over the past five years while maintaining one of the most consistent defensive units in the nation. But the loss of Nagurski Award winner Jonathan Allen leaves a sizable gap in the pass rush. In his place steps rising senior Da'Shawn Hand.
Hand's experience is a sure advantage in his transition to a more prevalent role in Alabama's 3-4 defense. He has seven career sacks and finished with 21 tackles in 2016. Now free from being buried behind superstar talent on the depth chart, Hand looks poised to become the Tide's next breakout star on the line.
Hand did not play in Alabama's 2017 spring game for "precautionary" reasons due to back issues, according to coach Nick Saban. Saban said it shouldn't be a lingering issue, but it's something to keep an eye on as the regular season nears.
Hand will likely be joined by rising senior Josh Frazier and rising junior Da'Ron Payne on the line.
Ohio State | Who will replace Curtis Samuel?
Samuel's 2016 stats: 771 rushing yards, eight rushing TDs, 865 receiving yards, seven TD receptions
Lack of consistency at wide receiver plagued the Buckeyes last season, despite their run back to the College Football Playoff. But Samuel provided versatility out of the backfield and out wide with more than 1,600 yards of offense and 15 total touchdowns. Samuel finished first on the team with 74 receptions and was a valuable safety net for returning starting quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Now Samuel heads to Carolina to help out Cam Newton, leaving Ohio State searching for another lightning rod on offense. The return of top rusher Mike Weber (nine touchdowns) for his sophomore season certainly helps. But another name to remember will be junior Parris Campbell.
Campbell will likely slide into the dual halfback/wide receiver role Samuel mastered in his three years in Columbus. Campbell carried the ball just four times last season — one went for a touchdown against Rutgers — and he averaged a reception per game and 9.3 yards per catch in his 13 games as a reserve in 2016.
Campbell's touches this year should skyrocket, and Ohio State will need for him and others to produce around Barrett if the Buckeyes' hopes of reaching a third CFP in four years come true.
Michigan | Who will replace Jabrill Peppers?
Peppers' 2016 stats: 72 tackles, four sacks, one interception; 170 yards from scrimmage, three TDs; one punt return touchdown
The Wolverines have positions to fill all over after having a nation-high 11 players selected in this year's draft. With hyper-versatile Jabrill Peppers' departure, they have three aspects on the field to replace alone.
Peppers saw time as a safety, linebacker, wide receiver, running back, wildcat quarterback, punt returner and kick returner in 2016. His mix of speed and strength made him one of the team's soundest tacklers (third on the team) and most dynamic playmakers (four touchdowns). With all the roles that Peppers fit in Michigan's offense and defense, Jim Harbaugh will turn to multiple returnees to fill in the gaps.
Josh Metellus will likely see a lot of time at safety, considering he stepped in as a starter in place of an injured Peppers for the 2017 Orange Bowl. The rising sophomore posted 15 tackles and a sack in eight games. He saw time at both safety and linebacker but has been used mostly at safety so far during spring practices.
Meanwhile, Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow provide intriguing options at the "viper position" — a hybrid between linebacker and safety. Hudson enters his second year after finishing with eight tackles in 12 games while Glasgow, a walk-on, will be a junior.
On special teams, running back Chris Evans will compete with others for punt and kickoff return duties. Evans finished with one each in 2016, returning them 15 and 26 yards, respectively.
Washington | Who will replace Sidney Jones and Kevin King?
Jones/Kings' combined 2016 stats: 83 tackles, four interceptions, 19 pass deflections, two forced fumbles
Washington's biggest strength last year was perhaps its seasoned secondary, which corralled 19 interceptions last season. Kevin King and and Sidney Jones were cornerstones out wide while Budda Baker was a steadying presence at safety. All three will now get ready to play in the NFL.
Ezekiel Turner, a junior, will step up in Baker's absence after picking up an interception and forced fumble in regular playing time last year. There's less certainty in how the new corners will fare.
Rising junior Jordan Miller and reshirt freshman Byron Murphy have gotten the first shots at the starting jobs this spring. Miller has two career interceptions and a pass deflection in his first two seasons. Murphy will get his first taste of real college football this fall but has made made his presence felt in spring ball so far while practicing with the first team.
Washington lost top receiver John Ross III to the draft as well but returns plenty of offensive firepower with quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and receiver Dante Pettis. Now the Huskies hope its backend of the defense doesn't lose a step from last year as they look to return to the Playoff.
Oklahoma | Who will replace Dede Westbrook?
Westbrook's 2016 stats: 80 receptions, 1,524 receiving yards, 17 TDs; one punt return TD
Oklahoma fans have reason to celebrate quarterback Baker Mayfield's return to school, but he'll be without his top target in the passing game in fellow Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook.
Westbrook accounted for 37 percent of Mayfield's passing yards and 40 percent of his touchdowns through the air. That's a lot of production to replace.
Mark Andrews is the leading returner for the receiving corps and looks to step in as the No. 1 option in what will be his junior season. Andrews finished with 31 receptions for 489 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. In the Sugar Bowl against Auburn, Andrews had three catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in an Oklahoma victory.
Andrews was expected to break out last season with the departure of Sterling Shepherd in 2014, but a lingering shoulder injury limited his effectiveness. He still started 11 of 13 games, but it was Westbrook who quickly emerged as one of the nation's top receivers instead. Now healthy, it looks like it's Andrews' time to shine in 2017.
Florida State | Who will replace Dalvin Cook?
Cook's 2016 stats: 1,765 rushing yards, 19 rushing TDs, 488 receiving yards, one receiving TD
Last year, the biggest preseason question mark for the Seminoles came under center, where redshirt freshman Deondre Francois was thrown into the fire. Francois responded, showing toughness and leadership in a season that ended with an Orange Bowl victory.
Heading into 2017-18, the uncertainty lives within the backfield, following Dalvin Cook's second round selection by the Minnesota Vikings. Jacques Patrick now enters the fold as a first-time starter in his junior season.
Patrick was second behind Cook with 61 rushing attempts for 350 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. While Patrick's workload will be significantly higher this year, it's unlikely to see him match Cook's 288 touches from last season. Instead, the power back will be the experienced headliner in a young and potentially deep corps.
Florida State will be tested right out of the gates with a potential top-5 matchup against Alabama at a neutral site in Atlanta. That's a tall order for any rushing offense. We'll see how Patrick responds to this first real test.
USC | Who will replace JuJu Smith-Schuster?
Smith-Schuster's 2016 stats: 70 receptions, 914 receiving yards, 10 receiving TDs
The chemistry developed between Sam Darnold and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second half of last year was fun to watch. Now Darnold begins his second season with an array of receivers that together hope to carry the Trojans to new heights in this upcoming season of raised expectations.
Shifty junior Deontay Burnett is the returning leader of the group and looks to create havoc in the slot. Burnett saw increased action with an injury to Steven Mitchell, who is also returning, and looks to build on his 56-catch season a year ago.
Outside the numbers there is less experience but no loss of talent with underclassmen Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns as well as redshirt junior Jalen Greene. Greene and Pittman combined for 14 catches as reserves last year while Vaughns will see action for the first time after redshirting in 2016. The sample size is small but the potential for the group is great.