June 8, 2010

With stars gone, teams have big shoes to fill

The upcoming college football season doesn't feature a whole lot of returning star power.

Defending national champion Alabama brings back reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, but he's the only returning player who finished in the top six of the balloting.

The winners of last season's Chuck Bednarik Award (Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh), Biletnikoff Award (Notre Dame WR Golden Tate), Butkus Award (Alabama LB Rolando McClain), Walter Camp player of the year award (Texas QB Colt McCoy), Lombardi Award (Suh), John Mackey Award (Florida TE Aaron Hernandez), Maxwell Award (McCoy), Outland Trophy (Suh), Rimington Trophy (Florida C Maurkice Pouncey), Ted Hendricks Award (TCU DE Jerry Hughes), Ronnie Lott Trophy (Hughes), Jim Thorpe Award (Tennessee SS Eric Berry) and Doak Walker Award (Stanford RB Toby Gerhart) have left the college ranks. That leaves plenty of new faces stepping into huge roles.

Here's a list of the players across college football with the biggest shoes to fill.

12. Iowa OTs Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics
The particulars: Reiff: 6-6/300, Soph.; Parkson (S.D.) High. Zusevics: 6-5/295, Jr.; Arlington Heights (Ill.) Prospect
The predecessors: Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway
The buzz: The defense got most of the credit for Iowa's success last season, but a veteran offensive line also played a vital role in getting the team to the Orange Bowl. Iowa's chances of living up to high expectations this season depend in large part on how well the Hawkeyes can restock at each end of that line. Bulaga finished his college career as the 2009 Big Ten offensive lineman of the year before the Green Bay Packers drafted him in the first round, while Calloway earned second-team All-Big Ten honors each of the last two seasons and went to the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round. Reiff started 11 games as a redshirt freshman last season, but seven of those starts came at guard. He did start at left tackle in a critical victory over Penn State, which raises confidence that he can handle that spot on a full-time basis. Zusevics, who also played volleyball in high school, was a second-teamer and special-teams performer in 2009.
11. Central Michigan QB Ryan Radcliff
The particulars: 6-2/202, Soph.; Fairview Park (Ohio)
The predecessor: Dan LeFevour
The buzz: After throwing just eight passes as LeFevour's backup last season, Radcliff heads into the summer as the favorite to replace the man who set an FBS record with 150 career total touchdowns (102 passing, 47 rushing, one receiving). Radcliff exited spring practice as the front-runner to win the job, but he still must win a competition that now includes Grossmont (Calif.) Community College transfer Brandon Fricke, who signed with Central Michigan two weeks ago. Radcliff went 25-of-41 for 229 yards with an interception in the spring game. He ended his high school career second on Ohio's list in career passing yards (11,038) and career touchdown passes (139). He also played baseball and basketball in high school and was drafted in the 34th round by the Colorado Rockies.
10. Fresno State RB Robbie Rouse
The particulars: 5-7/185, Soph.; San Diego Madison
The predecessor: Ryan Mathews
The buzz: Rouse is carrying a heavy burden on his 185-pound frame. Rouse, a 5-foot-7 sophomore, has the tough task of stepping in for Mathews, who rushed for 1,808 yards and led all FBS players with 150.7 rushing yards per game last season before going to the San Diego Chargers as the 12th overall pick. The 6-foot, 218-pound Mathews could run over WAC defenses, but Rouse is a smaller back who must rely on a different approach. Rouse rushed for 479 yards and four touchdowns on 82 carries while backing up Mathews last season. He also showed some big-play ability by producing runs of 48 and 24 yards in the scrimmage that closed spring practice.
9. Cincinnati WR Vidal Hazelton
The particulars: 6-2/210, Sr.; Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy
The predecessor: Mardy Gilyard
The buzz: After catching 61 passes for 888 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, Armon Binns figures to inherit Gilyard's role as the Bearcats' big-play receiver with All-America aspirations. But he won't exactly be replacing Gilyard since he started alongside him last season. The most intriguing candidate to fill Gilyard's spot in the lineup is Hazelton, a former five-star prospect who sat out last season after transferring from USC. Hazelton arrived at USC as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2006 recruiting class, but he never quite lived up to billing. He caught 50 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns in 2007 but had just six receptions for 38 yards while struggling with injuries in '08. If he can stay healthy and make the most of his fresh start, Hazelton certainly has the skills to thrive in Cincinnati's system. The combination of Hazelton, Binns and D.J. Woods (51 catches for 640 yards last season) should cause Big East defenses plenty of headaches all season.
8. Alabama CBs Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott
The particulars: Kirkpatrick: 6-3/190, Soph.; Gadsden City (Ala.). Scott: 5-11/193, Soph.; Prichard (Ala.) Vigor
The predecessors: Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson
The buzz: Butkus Award-winning LB Rolando McClain and DT Terrence Cody were the best-known players to leave Alabama's defense after the 2009 national championship season, but Arenas and Jackson could prove tougher to replace. Jackson went to the Houston Texans in the first round of the draft and Arenas was picked by Kansas City in the second round after they helped Alabama rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Their departures will force the Tide to break in two new starting cornerbacks. What Kirkpatrick and Scott lack in experience, the two former five-star prospects make up for in potential. Kirkpatrick was the No. 11 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Scott, a converted wide receiver, was the No. 28 recruit in the 2008 class. They should benefit from playing in a secondary that includes SS Mark Barron, an All-America candidate who picked off seven passes last season.
7. TCU DE Braylon Broughton
The particulars: 6-6/272, Jr.; Dallas Hillcrest
The predecessor: Jerry Hughes
The buzz: TCU has a standout linebacker (Tank Carder) and an exceptional safety (Tejay Johnson), so the Horned Frogs again should boast one of the nation's top defenses as long as they can rush the passer. But will they be able to continue harassing quarterbacks effectively without Hughes? After recording a total of 26.5 sacks in the past two seasons, Hughes went to the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the draft. Returning starter Wayne Daniels likely will emerge as the Frogs' top pass rusher in Hughes' absence, but Broughton is the most likely candidate to fill Hughes' spot in the starting lineup. That's putting quite a bit of pressure on someone who is looking for his first career sack.
6. Tennessee SS Darren Myles
The particulars: 6-1/186, Soph.; Atlanta Carver
The predecessor: Eric Berry
The buzz: Myles made just seven tackles as a freshman last season, but his role figures to expand quite a bit this fall. Tennessee must find a replacement for Berry, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs with the fifth overall pick in the draft after winning the 2009 Jim Thorpe Award. The Vols aren't expecting Myles to match the production of Berry, who returned 14 career interceptions a total of 494 yards -- 7 yards shy of former Florida State star Terrell Buckley's NCAA record. Myles will be used in a different way as Tennessee adapts to a new system under former Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Don't be surprised if FS Janzen Jackson emerges as Tennessee's big-play performer in the secondary. But it's Myles who will be filling Berry's spot in the starting lineup. Myles arrived at Tennessee as the No. 9 safety and No. 133 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class.
5. Clemson RB Andre Ellington
The particulars: 5-10/180, Soph.; Moncks Corner (S.C.) Berkeley County
The predecessor: C.J. Spiller
The buzz: Spiller, one of the most explosive performers in ACC history, ended his career with 7,588 all-purpose yards to rank second all-time among FBS players. Ellington won't be expected to match that kind of production, but his track record suggests Clemson will continue to run the ball just fine. Ellington, who figures to share carries with junior Jamie Harper, gained 491 yards on 68 attempts for a remarkable 7.2 yards per rush while backing up Spiller last season. Ellington's ability to return kicks and catch passes out of the backfield also should bring back memories of Spiller, whose versatility made him doubly dangerous to ACC foes. Ellington isn't quite in Spiller's caliber, but he's about as close to an ideal replacement as anyone could find. The progress of Ellington and Harper becomes even more critical if quarterback Kyle Parker signs a pro baseball contract with the Colorado Rockies, who drafted the two-sport athlete in the first round Monday.
4. Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor
The particulars: 5-11/213, Soph.; Mansfield (Texas) High
The predecessor: Toby Gerhart
The buzz: Senior Jeremy Stewart and sophomore Tyler Gaffney also should help in trying to replace Gerhart -- the 2009 Heisman runner-up -- but Taylor has the most upside of the returning running backs. He ran for 303 yards and two touchdowns on 56 carries last season. He ran for 62 yards on eight attempts against USC and rushed for 63 yards on six carries against Arizona State. Taylor may not be quite as bruising a runner as Gerhart -- who is? -- but the former four-star prospect showed plenty of potential while rushing for 4,792 yards and 67 touchdowns during his three-year high school career.
3. Nebraska DT Baker Steinkuhler and Oklahoma DT Jamarkus McFarland
The particulars: Steinkuhler: 6-6/290, Soph.; Lincoln (Neb.) Southwest. McFarland: 6-2/296, Soph.; Lufkin (Texas) High.
The predecessor: Steinkuhler: Ndamukong Suh. McFarland: Gerald McCoy.
The buzz: We've included these two rivals as one package item because their predecessors made 2009 the year of the defensive tackle in the Big 12. Suh was the No. 2 overall pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2010 NFL draft after winning the Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy last season. McCoy was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the third overall pick in the draft. Steinkuhler's name already is well-known around Nebraska because he's the son of 1983 Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Dean Steinkuhler. Rated as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, Steinkuhler made 17 tackles as a redshirt freshman last season. Even without Suh in the lineup, Nebraska should be able to clog up the middle with Steinkuhler and All-America candidate Jared Crick. McFarland, the No. 36 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, delivered 2.5 sacks in a backup role as a true freshman. Don't expect him to produce McCoy-like results right away; he will need time to grow into his expanded role. But he should get better as the season wears on and eventually could emerge as a top-flight tackle.
2. Texas QB Garrett Gilbert
The particulars: 6-4/212, Soph.; Austin (Texas) Lake Travis
The predecessor: Colt McCoy
The buzz: Stage fright won't be a problem for Gilbert as he steps in for the winningest starting quarterback in FBS history. Gilbert already appeared on college football's biggest stage when he replaced an injured McCoy in the BCS Championship Game. Gilbert threw four interceptions in the 37-21 loss to Alabama, but he also passed for 186 yards and two touchdowns while showing many of the skills that made him a five-star prospect. Gilbert ended his high school career with Texas state records in career passing yards (12,540), single-season passing yards (4,851), single-season completions (360) and single-season attempts (556). He threw for 138 touchdowns -- the second-highest total in state history -- and ran for 1,424 yards and 32 more TDs in high school.
1. Florida QB John Brantley
The particulars: 6-3/218, Jr.; Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic
The predecessor: Tim Tebow
The buzz: College football won't be quite the same without Tebow, the most analyzed and idolized player of his generation. But the Gators should be in good hands with Brantley, who capped a brilliant spring by going 15-of-19 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the Gators' spring game. Brantley is a much more conventional quarterback than Tebow, whose unpredictability flummoxed opposing defenses the past few seasons. Brantley won't be running over linebackers or throwing jump passes, but he could make sure Florida's offense remains equally effective. Brantley, who has a strong arm, was an impressive 36-of-48 for 410 yards with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in spot duty last season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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