After spending the past week in Daytona watching cars flip upside down and catch on fire, I gotta be honest: I needed to focus on football for a little while.
Speaking of needs, during that same week I spent some time chatting with college football coaches about their needs -- as in the gaping holes in their rosters that were, not so long ago, solid as cement.
"From the outside, the most urgent needs always seem obvious," explains Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "Everybody knows that if your All-American quarterback is gone, then you need to replace him. But truthfully, the stuff that keeps a coach up all winter might be something a fan might not even think of. A guard who's the best pulling guard you've ever had; a defensive lineman who might not have had a bunch of stats, but he's the guy who set up the guy that did. Sometimes it's real subtle like that."
Everybody knows that if your All-American quarterback is gone, then you need to replace him. But truthfully, the stuff that keeps a coach up all winter might be something a fan might not even think of." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Sometimes those needs can be met simply by plugging in the guy who had already been prepping for that role for years. If a school is really lucky, it lands a recruit on signing day who can step into that role by opening day.
"Honestly, even if you have a bunch of guys coming back, you don't really know what you have until you get to spring practice," says Louisville's Charlie Strong, who entered the 2011 season losing 27 seniors. "And even then, there aren't usually a lot of revelations in spring. You still don't figure it all out until August."
Last spring, we looked into this topic in ESPN The Magazine, specifically the cases of Oklahoma's 2007 squad and Auburn three years later. Those two teams broke spring camp with a couple of guys named Sam Bradford and Cam Newton buried down their depth charts. In case you need reminding, both ended up having a pretty nice August, not to mention every month that followed.
"Do you have all the answers coming out of spring?" says SMU's June Jones. "No, you don't. But you would at least like to be headed in the right direction, especially when you're staring up at that marker board and there's big blank spaces on it."
Here's a look at some of those biggest blank spaces that I'll be keeping an eye on this spring and August. Not individual players, but entire position units that have been depleted across some of the nation's biggest programs. The coaches of those units won't care how they fill them in -- recruiting, redshirting, rising youngsters or diamonds in the rough -- just as long as they figure it out by Labor Day weekend.
Gone: Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee
To read Ryan's full look, and to add your input, sign up for Insider today.