College Football Players Set to Replace Top Opt-Outs
The 2020 college football season is different. That much, during this roller coaster of a year, is not a shocking statement. But as dozens of Football Bowl Subdivision programs return to the field, some rosters are missing key names.
Between health considerations, the unpaid nature of the sport and a variety of possible factors, several top players have opted out of the season.
While we lament the absence of these stars, the players stepping into a starting role sometimes get overlooked.
One team is filling the void of four potential starters. Other programs are without an All-American-caliber talent. The most notable replacements are two former Pac-12 players who carried 5-star billings into college but have since transferred.
The list is subjective because it considers perceived talent of the player who opted out and his expected significance to the 2020 college football season.
Armani Chatman, CB, Virginia Tech
Opted out: Caleb Farley
Caleb Farley was the first key player who chose to sit out the 2020 season and focus on the 2021 NFL draft. Last year, he intercepted four passes and earned first-team All-ACC recognition for the Virginia Tech Hokies.
His absence created a major unexpected void for a defense also replacing longtime coordinator Bud Foster.
And the defensive backfield solution may have two parts.
Armani Chatman had 22 tackles and two pass breakups as a freshman. At least initially, it seemed he'd be the answer. Devin Taylor then transferred from Illinois State, where he broke up 39 passes and had eight interceptions in the last two years.
No matter who starts, both Chatman and Taylor are likely to hold a regular role this season.
Devin Danielson, DT, Pitt
Opted out: Jaylen Twyman
Also a first-team All-ACC honoree last season, Jaylen Twyman gathered 12 stops for loss and had 10.5 sacks. The defensive tackle helped the Pittsburgh Panthers finish as the nation's seventh-best unit against the run.
They are now looking for Devin Danielson to provide a big impact in the middle of the defensive line.
Rodrigues Clark, RB, Memphis
Opted out: Kenneth Gainwell
Shortly before the season began, Kenneth Gainwell opted out. The Memphis Tigers have recent experience replacing a running back with 2,000-plus scrimmage yards—Gainwell himself did exactly that in place of Darrell Henderson—but it doesn't make the transition any easier.
Rodrigues Clark stepped into those incredibly large shoes, running for 105 yards and a touchdown in the 2020 opener. He even blocked a punt during the 37-24 win over Arkansas State.
Gainwell learned on the fly as a redshirt freshman, so Clark has plenty of time to develop. But after logging 26 carries mostly in garbage time last season, Clark is working to have his production outshine the lack of experience he offers.
LSU's Defensive Replacements
Opted out: Tyler Shelvin, DT; Kary Vincent Jr., DB
As if LSU didn't already have enough worries, a roster only returning a handful of starters lost several of those to opt-outs.
Defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin tallied 39 stops in 2019. And in the secondary, nickelback Kary Vincent Jr. ranked second on the defense with four interceptions last year.
LSU hasn't yet announced the depth chart, but Siaki Ika and Glen Logan are likely starters at D-tackle. Cordale Flott is expected to replace Vincent at nickel. All three players each had 15-plus tackles last year, so there is some experience within the group.
Fortunately for the unit, defensive end Neil Farrell Jr. reversed his opt-out decision and is expected to play. Nevertheless, Shelvin and Vincent are considerable losses for this defense.
Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU
Opted out: Ja'Marr Chase
After losing Justin Jefferson to the NFL, LSU needed a wideout to join Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. in the lineup. Racey McMath emerged as that third option.
But now that Chase is unavailable, the Tigers are turning to a true freshman. Kayshon Boutte will line up alongside Marshall and McMath for new quarterback Myles Brennan.
"I think that's locked in," head coach Ed Orgeron said, according to Brooks Kubena of The Advocate.
Boutte, a 5-star prospect, racked up 1,879 yards from scrimmage and 27 touchdowns as a senior in high school.
T.J. Pledger, RB, Oklahoma
Opted out: Kennedy Brooks
Rated a 4-star prospect in the 2018 class, T.J. Pledger arrived at Oklahoma with considerable hype. But as the Sooners relied on Kennedy Brooks, Trey Sermon and Rhamondre Stevenson, Pledger took a back seat. He's totaled just 40 carries in two years.
That's about to change dramatically.
Sermon transferred to Ohio State, and Brooks opted out. Barring a change, Stevenson—otherwise the likely starter—is serving the rest of a five-game suspension in 2020.
Granted, after winning the starting job over Marcus Major and Seth McGowan, Pledger did not play in the opener against Missouri State. But as long as his absence was only temporary, he should occupy the lead role in the upcoming weeks.
Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami
Opted out: Gregory Rousseau
Gregory Rousseau posted 15.5 sacks last season for the Miami Hurricanes, only trailing Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Young in the category. Replacing him with the former No. 1 overall recruit seems OK, though.
Out of high school, Jaelan Phillips signed with UCLA as part of the class of 2017. However, a couple of injuries limited him to 11 appearances with the Bruins. He played reasonably well—collecting 41 tackles with eight for loss and 4.5 sacks—but ended up leaving the school.
He headed to Miami, sitting out the 2019 season because of transfer rules. He transitioned to a starting role after Rousseau's decision, joining Temple transfer Quincy Roche in the lineup.
Phillips notched two tackles, two pass breakups and one hurry in his Miami debut, a 31-14 victory over UAB.
JT Daniels, QB, Georgia
Opted out: Jamie Newman
Perhaps it would've happened eventually; Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman may have struggled and forced the Georgia Bulldogs to change to JT Daniels. The competition is a whole lot less exciting—but far clearer—with only Daniels against D'Wan Mathis, Stetson Bennett and Carson Beck in tow.
Daniels initially signed with USC in the class of 2018 and quickly ascended the depth chart. As a freshman, the 5-star threw for 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In his sophomore debut, though, a torn right ACL ended his season—and USC tenure.
Kedon Slovis turned into one of the nation's most prolific quarterbacks, and then Daniels decided to transfer.
Granted immediate eligibility for his new team, Daniels still must be cleared medically. Provided that happens, he's the expected starter for Georgia's opener at Arkansas on Sept. 26.