- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
With the NFL combine beginning Friday in Indianapolis, we thought it would be an appropriate time to establish which future pros will leave the largest holes for their former college programs. These were some of the more valuable players on their teams last season, and now the heat is on for those replacing college football MVPs.
A year ago, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III left the most glaring gaps, filled, eventually, at Stanford by Kevin Hogan -- but not before Josh Nunes struggled to find footing -- and, capably, at Baylor by Nick Florence. Alabama backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon provided a seamless transition from Trent Richardson. Oklahoma State is still looking for its next Justin Blackmon, who was the next Dez Bryant.
Who will it be this fall? Who will take over for names that had become most familiar to us? Here is a sampling.
1. Kansas State Wildcats quarterback
Out: Collin Klein
In: Daniel Sams
He might not be a big name this week in Indy, but Klein -- at least the way he played, generating offense when there weren't many capable options -- is going to be extremely difficult to replace at the college level. He accounted for 6,620 yards and 79 touchdowns, 50 of them on the ground, the past two seasons. For the number of times he had the ball in his hands -- 524 carries and 585 pass attempts his final two years -- Klein was extremely durable.
Sams did get a few reps as a redshirt freshman, both in blowouts and when Klein suffered a concussion late in the season. At 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, no one is going to mistake Sams for the 6-5, 225-pound Klein. But it's not as if 6-2 is shrimpy, and Sams, who averaged 7.3 yards on 32 carries (three touchdowns), has already demonstrated that he can be a dual threat, as well. Coaches I spoke with last fall said the development of players around Klein, running back John Hubert and receiver Tyler Lockett among those returning in 2013, helped K-State become a better team -- and the sense is that will help Sams ease into the job.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line
Are you really expecting the two-time defending champs to take a step back with the majority of their line moving on to the NFL? Alabama's peers are not.
"It's a factory, obviously," an SEC assistant grumbled to me during the January coaches' convention. "Doesn't matter who they lose, or at what position, they've got two more ready to go."
The coach was referring to the running back position, specifically, but it applies to the O-line, too.
The Kouandjio twins are the new Pounceys in the SEC. Cyrus, at left tackle, could be a preseason All-American and Arie will get a shot to compete for the guard spot vacated by Warmack. Steady veteran Anthony Steen will play the other guard spot.
Kelly played in nine games last season, earning SEC All-Freshman honors. When Jones missed practice in the weeks leading up to the BCS title game, teammates -- including quarterback AJ McCarron -- praised Kelly's work as an understudy. That unplanned extra work could be a blessing for the future of the Tide center-quarterback exchange.
So, no, do not expect much falloff from a line that loses Mel Kiper's top-rated guard, No. 2 center and No. 3 tackle. That's just the level on which Bama is currently operating.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels running back
Out: Giovani Bernard
Bernard, currently Kiper's No. 4 running back prospect, might have been the most unsung player in the game in 2012.
Consider that the Tar Heels, in Larry Fedora's first season, averaged 5.1 yards per carry (22nd in FBS). But in the two games Bernard missed with a knee injury? That number dropped to 3.5 and the team, by no coincidence, lost to Wake Forest and Louisville. Plus, Bernard caught 47 passes -- five of them for touchdowns, tying for the team lead -- and he returned two punts for scores.
It will take a collaboration to replace a player that versatile. At 6-2, 225 pounds, Blue is the big, bruising type. He will serve that same role, likely getting a few more carries while the next game-breaker-type surfaces.
Morris, a 5-10, 180-pound sophomore, has shown glimpses that it could be him. In the Louisville game that Bernard missed, Morris caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged 5.6 yards a carry, going for a high of 77 yards against Miami. Like Bernard, Morris was used in the return game.
Another player to watch: Durham's Khris Francis, the only back in the 2013 class, enrolled in January and could compete for early playing time. Francis is 5-9 and 195 pounds, so he does pack some power despite his height. A carry-share between those three in Fedora's fast-paced system could ease the burden of replacing Bernard.
4. USC Trojans quarterback
Out: Matt Barkley
In: Max Wittek
Even though Barkley didn't have his best season in 2012, causing his stock to slide (he's still Kiper's No. 1 quarterback, but he was at one time the overall No. 1), there was still a noticeable loss of energy when he was lost to a shoulder injury in November.
Wittek was not ready as a redshirt freshman, even with weaponry such as Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. But you can't blame him too much. The Trojans, disappointed not to be a title contender, were already in a barrel roll by the time he was forced into action. So do not automatically conclude the player you saw last fall will be the one you'll see this fall.
Still, if for some reason Wittek doesn't catch on, coach Lane Kiffin might look toward sophomore Cody Kessler or, perhaps, another Max. If Max Browne, who enrolled in January, can get a handle on the playbook and put some pounds on his 6-5, 214-pound frame, he could get true freshman snaps, a la Barkley.
Our recruiting analysts say Browne, who tied for second at the Elite 11 camp, physically reminds them of former Tennessee quarterback and native Californian Tyler Bray. Bray was equipped to play early in his career. We'll see about Browne.
5. Georgia Bulldogs linebacker
Out: Jarvis Jones
In: Jordan Jenkins
Jenkins made six starts at outside 'backer as a freshman, a nice fit as a complement to Jones on the other edge of the four-linebacker scheme. Kiper thought enough of Jenkins' start to rate him as an underclassman to watch, along with South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt.
So it's not as if Jenkins is specifically replacing Jones, since he was already a big part of the defense. He is, however, taking over as the next generation of UGA pass-rusher and havoc-creator from the outside of Todd Grantham's 3-4.
Jenkins' five sacks and 23 quarterback pressures were second on the team, to Jones and his All-America-worthy 14.5 sacks and 39 hurries. So expect to see a whole bunch of Jenkins' No. 59 in opposing backfields if he was that successful as a freshman.
In addition to Jones' departure, the Bulldogs will replace veterans Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson. Junior Amarlo Herrera returns and physically mature early enrollees Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin, with the benefit of a spring, could become factors for the inside positions.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker
Out: Manti Te'o
In: Jarrett Grace
Say what you want about his play in the BCS title game, or the debacle that transpired after the game, but Te'o -- still Kiper's No. 2 inside linebacker prospect and a projected first-rounder -- was a presence for the Irish, a team predicated on defense. Te'o had 36 more tackles than anyone else on the team and he finished with seven interceptions, remarkable for a linebacker. The rest of the team had nine.
There wasn't much for Grace, a 6-3, 240-pound junior, to do except watch and try to absorb what he could from Te'o. He's something of a mystery as a result of a lack of game reps. He didn't even play much in blowouts because, well, the Irish rarely blew out anyone.
While Grace will literally fill in for Te'o at the inside spot, it will be outside linebacker Prince Shembo who becomes the face of the defense -- along with returning linemen Tuitt and Louis Nix.
"Te'o got the press, and he was a great player, but I found myself watching Shembo more often," said a coach whose team played Notre Dame this past season. "He's smooth out there."
Shembo could develop into a Jarvis Jones-type figure in terms of his pass-rush ability. As a junior, he was second on the team with 7.5 sacks and he led the Irish with 12 quarterback hurries. Notre Dame's top-rated 2013 signee, in-state product Jaylon Smith, should be another outside threat.
7. Texas A&M Aggies left tackle
Out: Luke Joeckel
In: Jake Matthews
The offensive line was certainly an important part of what A&M did to surprise in its first season in the SEC, but there is enough in place to smooth over the loss of Joeckel, Kiper's top-rated tackle.
For one, the fact Johnny Manziel has the magical ability to get away from tacklers helps a bunch, should the line break down more often. Secondly, there's still a potential first-rounder remaining at tackle.
Matthews chose to stay, and he'll likely slide from right to left tackle. The future of the line, which also loses center Patrick Lewis, becomes less clear after that.
Aggies coaches have said that 6-5, 295-pound Ced Ogbuehi, who played guard last season, is a natural fit at tackle. He'll take over for Matthews on the right side. Ben Compton and Mike Matthews might be in line for more playing time on the inside.
Some plug-and-play experimentation in the spring and preseason camp should eventually settle the roles. However it shakes out, the Aggies might want to have things nailed down by the time Alabama visits Kyle Field in Week 3. That's what Rice and Sam Houston State are for.
8. Oklahoma Sooners quarterback
Out: Landry Jones
In: Blake Bell
Jones' career shifted a bit his junior season, when Bob Stoops began subbing Jones out in short-yardage and goal-line situations. That's when fans were introduced to Blake Bell and the "Belldozer" package, and now it's the 6-6 Kansan's turn in earnest. Maybe. Those close to the program have been buzzing about Trevor Knight's progress since arriving a year ago, enough to make it a two-man race this summer.
Either way, an element will exist that simply did not with Jones: mobility. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel has downplayed the idea of reshaping the offense for a more athletic quarterback (or quarterbacks), but it's only natural to have things evolve to fit the strengths of Bell, Knight or some combo of them. Bell's experience -- in mop-up duty and the short-yardage package -- does give him the early nod. He looked fairly sharp in last year's spring game, but spring is not the fall.
I recall talking about Bell last fall with a BCS-level head coach who used to coach against OU. He said he couldn't believe that a quarterback as big as Bell -- he's listed at 254 pounds -- had as much touch on passes as he does.
"Usually we wind up moving those guys to another position," he said, half-kidding, "linebacker or something."
Oklahoma has actually done that before. Former juco quarterback Lane Johnson was a tight end for the Sooners before he settled in at offensive tackle. Now he could go in the first half of the first round.
9. Stanford Cardinal running back
Out: Stepfan Taylor
In: Tyler Gaffney, Barry Sanders
Was there a more consistent player in college football than Taylor the past three seasons -- all of which ended in Stanford BCS-game berths, by the way? From his sophomore year on, Taylor averaged 5.1 yards a carry on 787 carries, which just sounds painful. He increased his rushing total by 200 yards each of those seasons.
How do you replace consistency like that? Answer: With several options. As many as six backs could get carries, including seniors Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and Ricky Seale, juniors Remound Wright and Kelsey Young and Sanders, the most intriguing of them all. (It's not Barry Jr., by the way; it's Barry J. Different middle names.)
Sanders, who redshirted last fall, will not be pressured to seize the job with so many able runners. But his ability could eventually push him ahead of the crowd.
"It's amazing how shifty Barry is," former offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton told reporters in the Rose Bowl lead-up, as Sanders did his best Montee Ball impersonation on the scout team. Shifty? Sanders? If he didn't want the comparisons to his pops, he should have played another sport.
With Hogan from last fall as an example, it's obvious that coach David Shaw will not push Sanders until he's ready. In the meantime, Wilkerson is a 50-carry back from 2012 and Gaffney has 791 career yards and 12 touchdowns. His surprising return from minor league baseball came at an opportune time, with Taylor on the way out.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks receiver-return specialist
Out: Ace Sanders
Sanders was worthy of inclusion because of his absurdly fantastic return abilities -- he averaged 15.3 yards per punt return, taking two back for touchdowns -- but he also improved as a receiver. He went from 29 catches and two touchdowns as a sophomore to a team-high 45 receptions and nine touchdowns as a junior (including two in the bowl win against Michigan), using that production spike as a springboard to the draft.
I recall when Sanders signed, back when I was on the Gamecocks beat. Based on the coaching staff's comments, I expected him to come in and make an immediate impact, the way that he did as a junior. It took time. The story could play out similarly for Byrd, a rising junior.
Byrd is a different player than Sanders (he has more straight-line speed and less maneuverability), but he could be ready for a similar jump. He caught just 14 passes as a sophomore, but he averaged a team-high 26.1 yards a catch, a nod to his big-play ability. And while Sanders was adept at punt returns, Byrd's style of running is more suited for kick returns.
Ellington, the primary kick returner (22.6-yard average), is also back. He actually led the team in receiving yardage in 2012, improving in his second season splitting time with the hoops team. Ellington, who moves more similarly to Sanders, will likely get a look for the punt return gig.
Honorable mentions: LSU defensive ends (Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery); Tennessee receivers (Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson); West Virginia receivers (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey); Wisconsin running back (Montee Ball); Texas A&M defensive end (Damontre Moore); UCLA running back (Johnathan Franklin); Baylor receiver (Terrance Williams).