<
>
Insider

Under-the-radar draft replacements

4/30/2012
Courtney Upshaw wasn't a first-round pick, but he was invaluable to Alabama's defense. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

WACO, Texas -- Enough already about Robert Griffin III and the impact his loss will have on the Baylor Bears football program. That's ground traveled and tread by now. What about the guy who snapped the ball to Griffin the past two seasons?

Bears coach Art Briles' eyes widen when Philip Blake's name comes up in conversation.

"That's right," Briles says, nodding. "The center, Philip Blake ... that's like a quarterback in our offense."

So, although most would know and note who the second overall pick in this past weekend's draft was, they likely missed Blake -- the Bears' "other QB" -- going to the Denver Broncos in the fourth round.

That was also the story at Stanford, where Andrew Luck was -- and is -- the obvious headline grabber, but three players key to his and the Cardinal's success went in the next 41 picks. Luck has all the tools, sure, but his college career was enhanced by right guard David DeCastro (pick No. 24), tight end/safety blanket Coby Fleener (No. 34, joining him in Indianapolis) and left tackle Jonathan Martin (No. 42).

Fleener caught 10 of Luck's 37 touchdowns in 2011, four more than any other teammate. DeCastro and Martin were staples in the old-school system just as much as Luck; they had started a combined 76 of 78 possible games the past three seasons. They were also the anchors of an O-line that paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged 5.29 yards per carry, good for 13th in the nation last season. (Baylor ranked one spot better, with 5.32 yards a pop.)

Fifth-year senior Sam Schwartzstein, at center, becomes the rock for the Cardinal line. David Yankey (6-foot-5, 302 pounds) and Kevin Danser (6-6, 288) had promising and somewhat surprising springs, but there's still time to sort out who will fill the canyons left by Martin and DeCastro.

Back to Blake. The bad news: In a sense, he is almost impossible to replace -- primarily because he was the center equivalent of Brandon Weeden. Blake, a Canadian who had a nomadic odyssey to Waco, will be 27 years old in the fall.

The good news: The Bears have sort of become "Center U.," at least judging by their past two starters. Blake's predecessor, J.D. Walton, will be his teammate again in Denver, where he was the Broncos' starting center. His successor is senior Ivory Wade, a converted right tackle who has made 33 consecutive starts -- 18 more than the next-closest Bear.

Receiver Kendall Wright, a first-rounder along with Griffin, is also gone. Briles hopes that Terrance Williams, currently Mel Kiper's top returning senior receiver prospect, will slip into those shoes. Williams, you might recall, was on the receiving end of Griffin's Heisman moment against Oklahoma. He will have help, too, in speedster Tevin Reese and all-around target Lanear Sampson. Briles also mentioned freshman Corey Coleman as someone who might be an instant-impact receiver this fall.

Here are a few other players (or groups of players) who might not have been first-rounders but will be sorely missed on their respective campuses:

Boise State Broncos defense

The Broncos had a school-record six players selected in the draft -- and that didn't include 50-game-winning quarterback Kellen Moore. It did include four defenders: linebacker Shea McClellin, pass-rushers Tyrone Crawford and Billy Winn, and safety George Iloka.

McClellin was sort of the banner guy, going 19th overall to the Bears, but don't discount the loss of Winn. Only once in 53 games was he held without a tackle, and that's a rarity for a lineman.

Boise is known by most fans nationally for its offense, but a lockdown defense has been just as important to the program's recent rise. In each of the past four seasons, the Broncos have ranked in the top 25 in the country in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency metric, so finding defenders to step up in these departed draftees' absence could end up being as essential for Chris Petersen's team as identifying Moore's successor at quarterback.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina Gamecocks

Jeffery was once thought to be the prize from this SEC up-and-comer, but questions about his weight and work ethic shoved him into the second day, while teammates Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram were first-rounders.

There's no questioning Jeffery's production in the Gamecocks' offense. His 3,042 yards, in three seasons, were the second-most in SEC history. Even with Steve Spurrier relenting to run more zone-read in this refined Fun 'n' Gun offense, South Carolina will need to find and locate playmakers.

Junior Ace Sanders has potential, but at 5-8, he doesn't represent the same kind of vertical threat as Jeffery. The same goes for another speedster, sophomore Damiere Byrd -- as well as Bruce Ellington, if the hoops point guard chooses to return to the football team. Senior D.L. Moore (6-5, 198) has had a quiet career, but he could be a go-up-and-get-it kind of target.

Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama Crimson Tide

Four Tide players, including three defenders, went in the first round -- but there was a lot of buzz about the one who did not. Pundits nodded approvingly Friday when Baltimore snagged Upshaw, a perfectly productive fit in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme the same way he was in Nick Saban and Kirby Smart's system.

Upshaw led the nation's top-ranked defense with 8.5 sacks. Putting Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower together was basically unfair. It's that tandem, really, that the Tide has to replace as the core of its defense.

Nico Johnson, a junior, is the new veteran anchor. And then there are a bunch of freshmen -- including Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard -- bubbling near the surface of the depth chart. Johnson and the youngsters have their work cut out for them; the Tide gave up 72.2 rushing yards per game last season, surrendering just three touchdowns (one to SEC teams) on the ground.