6 College Football Teams That Will Struggle to Replace Talent Lost to NFL Draft
Earlier this month, programs across the nation basked in the glory of their former stars as they were selected in the 2014 NFL draft.
From Jadeveon Clowney to Michael Sam, we spent three days watching highlights, charting draft risers and fallers and wondering how the new draftees would fit in at their new professional homes.
Here’s the other side of the equation: those left behind. Every NFL draftee leaves a large hole on his former college roster, ready to be taken by another player in need of coaching, encouragement and some polish.
Here is a look at six college teams that were hit hard by the NFL draft and will struggle to replace the talent lost to the pros.
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*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly.
It should be no surprise that the national champions received plenty of attention from NFL teams. Seven Seminoles were drafted—four in the first three rounds. They were led by junior receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who became a breakout star in FSU’s run to the BCS national title game.
Benjamin caught 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns (including the game-winner in the national title game) and created serious mismatches for opposing cornerbacks with his height and speed. He was the Carolina Panthers’ first-round selection.
FSU also lost Kenny Shaw, who caught 54 passes for 933 yards and six touchdowns, but does return Rashad Greene, who led the Seminoles with 76 receptions for 1,128 yards and nine scores.
The Seminoles’ leading rusher, Devonta Freeman (1,016 yards, 14 touchdowns) was a third-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, while junior James Wilder Jr. (563 yards, eight touchdowns) declared for the draft but was not selected.
FSU does return rising senior Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 touchdowns), who was impressive as the Seminoles’ No. 2 back behind Freeman, and backups Mario Pender and Ryan Green also return, with 5-star freshman Dalvin Cook a key addition.
The biggest concern revolves around receivers to join Greene as primary targets for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
6’2”, 200-pound senior Christian Green has speed and strength and is an option to replace Benjamin, as is 6’4”, 200-pound sophomore Isaiah Jones. Both are largely unknown quantities.
6’0”, 193-pound senior Scooter Haggins, 5’7”, 178-pound sophomore Kermit Whitfield and 5’9”, 177-pound Bobo Wilson are battling to replace Shaw in the starting lineup.
Haggins is coming off a redshirt season after missing all of 2013 with a stress fracture in his knee. Whitfield has elite, game-breaking speed, as he displayed with a 100-yard kickoff return late in the fourth quarter against Auburn that gave the Seminoles their first lead of the game.
Florida State also has several high-profile receiver recruits arriving this fall in 5-star Ermon Lane (rated as the nation’s No. 24 overall recruit by 247Sports), 4-star Travis Rudolph (rated as the nation’s No. 6 wideout by 247) and 4-star Javon Harrison (rated as the No. 16 athlete by 247).
“It’s important that he learns a whole new group of receivers,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said this spring on a teleconference. “We have to develop two or three more while also keeping a great bond with Rashad and (tight end) Nick (O’Leary).”
On the defensive side, FSU must replace free safety Terrance Brooks (a third-round pick of the Ravens), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (a Ravens second-round pick), fellow safety Lamarcus Joyner (a second-round pick of the Rams) and linebacker Telvin Smith (a fourth-round pick of the Jaguars).
Junior Terrance Smith is the only returning starting linebacker.
Joyner will be replaced by rising sophomore Jalen Ramsey, while P.J. Williams, the national title game’s defensive MVP, figures to play an increased role in the secondary as well. Sophomore Nate Andrews figures to be the other starter at safety.
It would be foolish to doubt the Seminoles, given how well they have recruited under Fisher. But there’s no doubt that they will have to answer some questions with new players stepping into more prominent roles this fall.
Louisville had only four players selected in the NFL draft, but this was a case of quality over quantity. Three of those players were first-round selections, including one of the highest-profile players in program history.
Junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was a huge reason why the Cardinals went 23-3 over the last three seasons, which included a Sugar Bowl rout of Florida, the program’s second BCS victory.
Last fall, Bridgewater threw for 3,970 yards with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, completing 71 percent of his passes. He was selected No. 32 overall by the Minnesota Vikings and is expected to compete for the Vikes’ starting job this fall.
The difficult task of replacing him falls to sophomore Will Gardner, who claimed the job during spring practice. Gardner has the body of a pocket passer (6’5”, 230 lbs), but he also has some mobility. He completed eight of 12 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns last fall in backup duty.
New Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said on a recent ACC teleconference that Gardner “just kind of came in and took over.”
“Will Gardner, he's just young,” Petrino said. “He doesn't have a lot of experience playing in a game, but he certainly believes he's the leader of the team just by the way he goes about his business on a daily basis.”
Louisville also must replace several key cogs from a defense that ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense last fall. Safety Calvin Pryor was the No. 18 selection overall, the New York Jets’ first-round pick, and linebacker Marcus Smith went eight picks later to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Their production will be hard to replace. Pryor, a hard-hitting safety, had 75 tackles, five interceptions and three pass breakups last fall, while Smith, the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, had 42 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as a defensive end.
In addition, the Cardinals’ leading tackler, linebacker Preston Brown, was a third-round pick of the Buffalo Bills.
Louisville and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham return only four starters from last season’s stingy defense. It’s hard not to imagine the defense taking a step back as it moves from the AAC into the tougher ACC, where Clemson and Florida State loom in the Atlantic Division.
For the second consecutive season, the Tigers were the hardest-hit program by the NFL draft. NFL teams plucked nine LSU players in the seven-round draft, five in the first three rounds (a number which would likely have been higher had senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger not torn his ACL in the regular-season finale against Arkansas).
Les Miles’ bunch lost key players on both sides of the ball, and while LSU reloads rather than rebuilds, it could see some growing pains in those positions this fall.
At wide receiver, Odell Beckham was the New York Giants’ first-round pick, No. 12 overall. Fellow junior wideout Jarvis Landry followed 51 picks later to the Miami Dolphins.
Big defensive tackle Ego Ferguson and talented-but-troubled tailback Jeremy Hill were also second-round selections, going to the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. Offensive guard Trai Turner was a third-round selection of the Carolina Panthers, with Mettenberger finally coming off the board in the sixth round to the Tennessee Titans. LSU tailback Alfred Blue was also a sixth-round pick, going to the Houston Texans.
In addition, Ferguson’s fellow junior defensive tackle, Anthony Johnson, declared for the draft but was not selected.
Beckham and Landry leave big holes in the Tigers’ receiving corps. They combined for 136 receptions, 2,345 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Hill was a bruising back who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns on 201 carries, while Blue added 343 yards and a touchdown.
LSU’s leading returning receiver, Travin Dural, had seven catches for 145 yards and a touchdown in 2013. The Tigers’ returning runners are more experienced. Terrence Magee had 626 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, while Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven TDs) also returns.
The biggest concern might be at quarterback. Sophomore Anthony Jennings rallied LSU after Mettenberger tore his ACL, leading a late game-winning touchdown drive.
But Jennings struggled in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He was pushed hard in spring practice by early-enrollee freshman Brandon Harris.
Miles will likely push several key recruits into big roles early. At receiver, expect 5-star prospect Malachi Dupre and 4-star prospect Trey Quinn to see the field quickly. And at tailback, LSU signed the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, per 247Sports, in Leonard Fournette. He has excellent size, speed and power and will make an immediate impact.
Notre Dame slipped from 2012’s BCS national title game trip, but the Fighting Irish still garnered plenty of interest from NFL teams with eight selections in the seven-round draft.
Standout left tackle Zack Martin was the draft’s No. 16 overall selection, going to the Dallas Cowboys. It’s unclear exactly where he’ll fit in on the Dallas offensive line (tackle, guard or center), but he does leave a hole in the Irish’s line.
6’5”, 318-pound Ronnie Stanley emerged as Martin’s replacement this spring, and he should be capable. A replacement also must be found for left guard Chris Watt, a third-round pick of the San Diego Chargers. Connor Hanratty (who started four games at guard last fall) and Matt Hegarty are the leading candidates.
The bigger questions are on the defensive line, where end Stephon Tuitt was a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive tackle Louis Nix was a third-round pick of the Houston Texans.
Tuitt piled up 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons, while Nix was a key space-filler and run-stuffer.
Notre Dame will look at 6’3” sophomore Isaac Rochell (who could be a defensive tackle or end in the new 3-4 scheme), as well as injury-plagued senior Chase Hounshell and true freshman Andrew Trumbetti. Sophomore Sheldon Day (33 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman) is a breakout candidate.
At tackle, expect 6’5”, 305-pound Jarron Jones to get a serious look, as well as Tony Springmann (who missed 2013 with a dislocated knee).
At wide receiver, replacing T.J. Jones, 2013’s leading receiver, is a major concern. Senior Davaris Daniels had 49 receptions for 745 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior but was suspended for an academic matter and hopes to return this fall. Beyond Daniels, Chris Brown (16 receptions, one touchdown) is the leading returning wideout.
In addition, standout tight end Troy Niklas was a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, a key loss. Senior Ben Koyack had 14 receptions and three touchdowns last fall, but he will need to improve as a receiver and blocker to keep the Irish’s strong tight end tradition alive.
The Buckeyes fell just short of two consecutive undefeated seasons under coach Urban Meyer, starting last season 12-0 before falling in the Big Ten title game to Michigan State and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
That talented run was reflected in the NFL draft, as six Ohio State players were selected.
Those who departed left some serious holes behind. Let’s start with tailback Carlos Hyde, a third-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers. Hyde piled up 1,521 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a powerful, punishing force—the top tailback talent in the draft.
How will he be replaced? Possibly with a backfield by committee. Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, a 225-pound masher, averaged 8.1 yards per carry as a freshman. Senior Rod Smith (6’3”, 238 lbs) and redshirt freshman Brionte Dunn (6’0”, 222 lbs) will also see time, but Hyde will be tough to replace.
The Buckeyes also must replace a pair of key defensive stalwarts in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. Shazier was the draft’s No. 15 overall pick, plucked by the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Roby went No. 31 overall to the Denver Broncos.
Shazier was one of the most productive linebackers in college football last fall, playing all over the field with 143 tackles, six sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and four fumbles forced. Roby had 69 tackles and three interceptions.
5’10”, 197-pound junior Armani Reeves (10 tackles, four pass breakups in 2013) figures to step into Roby’s old role, while sophomore Trey Johnson (11 tackles in 2013) is the favorite to replace Shazier. Johnson was highly recruited, earning offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame, but it’ll be tough to replace Shazier’s leadership and overall production.
Ohio State must also replace a trio of offensive line starters in tackle Jack Mewhort (a second-round pick of the Colts), center Corey Linsley (a fifth-round pick of the Packers) and undrafted offensive guard Andrew Norwell.
Meyer’s group has plenty of talent left, but losing such high-level talent at key spots won’t be easy to replace.
Texas A&M had only three players drafted, but all three were first-round selections within the first 22 picks.
Left tackle Jake Matthews was the No. 6 overall selection, going to the Atlanta Falcons. Talented wideout Mike Evans went a pick later to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And quarterback/controversial lightning rod Johnny Manziel went No. 22 overall to the Cleveland Browns.
Matthews spent only a year at left tackle after moving over from right tackle to replace Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 by Jacksonville.
A&M hopes for similar success with Cedric Ogbuehi, who will move from right to left tackle this fall to replace Matthews. Ogbuehi received a first-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee but opted to return for another season of college football and should fit in nicely.
The biggest concern, of course, is how the Aggies will replace Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and one of college football’s most electric players.
Last fall, Manziel threw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores.
Entering fall, it will be a two-man battle between sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.
Of the two, Hill is more like Manziel. He is an athletic dual-threat quarterback capable of winning games in a number of different ways.
Allen was rated by 247Sports as the nation’s top pro-style quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect. Hill was suspended for much of spring practice following an arrest on public intoxication charges, but he is expected to go through preseason practice with the team.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told the The Dallas Morning News that both players "are going to continue to compete into and through two-a-day practices.”
Either way, replacing Manziel’s electric nature won’t be easy.
Evans was one of the best receivers in college football, making 69 catches for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns. A&M also loses graduated senior Derel Walker (51 receptions, 818 yards, five touchdowns) and Travis Labhart (51 receptions, 626 yards, eight touchdowns), but it does return senior Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions, 858 yards, seven scores).
The biggest key? Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, a former highly touted signee who redshirted after suffering a knee injury in the 2013 season opener against Rice (where he caught a 71-yard touchdown). Seals-Jones is fast and athletic, and A&M will need him to develop a connection with the new starter to keep the offense humming as it did last fall. Early enrollee Speedy Noil will also play a big role.