2015 NFL draft declaration winners, losers: Which programs fared best?
Although players have until Monday to backtrack, at least 75 underclassmen have filed to forego their remaining years of eligibility and enter the 2015 NFL draft. That is short of last year’s record of 96, but still the second-highest total ever.
So, how will those early entries reshape the college football landscape? Here’s a look at which programs came out best and worst.
Losing the greatest player in program history was always going to be a setback. Oregon has a strong track record of replacing successful passers with worthy successors, moving from Jeremiah Masoli to Darron Thomas to Marcus Mariota. But the Heisman Trophy winner will certainly be a challenge to replace after racking up more than 5,000 yards of offense with 57 touchdowns this season.
Defensive end Arik Armstead is also a critical loss after the junior elected to forego his final year in Eugene. Armstead was one of the few Ducks' defenders to shine in the national title game, picking up nine tackles with a fumble recovery. Luckily for coach Mark Helfrich, defensive end DeForest Buckner opted to return to campus after recording 81 tackles, including a team-high 13 for loss.
Similar to the case with Oregon, Florida State’s loss of Jameis Winston was always going to be a blow. Though his off-field behavior was the subject of controversy, his on-field talent could not be denied, as he went 26-1 as the starter. Backup Sean Maguire showed flashes filling in for a suspended Winston in a 23-17 victory over Clemson on Sept. 20, but the 2013 Heisman winner leaves big shoes to fill. The Seminoles’ pass rush also suffered two key losses with the decisions of Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman to enter the draft. The pair combined for 19 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three forced fumbles. The exits of Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams leave huge holes in the secondary, too.
Still, don’t expect the ‘Noles to crumble. There is plenty of talent left, including sophomore safety Jalen Ramsey, who could move over to cornerback to bring some experience to the group. Terrance Smith’s decision to stay after an injury-plagued 2014 campaign leaves Florida State is good shape at linebacker, and Roberto Aguayo’s return means it will maintain an edge in the kicking game.
Dante Fowler Jr. is the biggest loss of Florida’s four early departures, as he has the ability to take over games. His 15 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, led a defense that was largely dominant in 2014. The rest of Florida’s losses come on offense, where there wasn’t much to lose. Offensive tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Tyler Moore will force some new faces into the mix on the line. Although tailback Matt Jones led the Gators in rushing (166 carries for 817 yards), the team has plenty of depth at the position, as it showed in the Birmingham Bowl when Adam Lane rushed for 109 yards after gaining just 72 in the regular season.
Linebacker Antonio Morrison’s return should be a boon, as he led the Gators with 101 tackles. However, his knee injury suffered in the bowl game leaves serious questions regarding his expectations in 2015.
The Huskies lose only two players, but those two are exceptional defensive talents. All-America selection Shaq Thompson scored six touchdowns as a linebacker and running back this season and proved an incredible playmaker: He recorded three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception. Although Washington got used to playing without Marcus Peters after the cornerback was dismissed from the team in early November, he was a consistent threat when his attitude wasn’t wreaking havoc; he earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2013. Next fall the Huskies will be two down two likely first-round picks -- not even counting the losses of graduating defensive tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha.
Bad, but could have been worse
The underclassmen leaving the Crimson Tide would cripple most programs. But this is Alabama, where the departure of a Heisman finalist, an All-America safety and a stud running back is relatively commonplace.
The biggest loss is Amari Cooper. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin loved feeding the ball to his No. 1 target, and Cooper delivered: He made 124 catches for 1,727 yards with 16 touchdowns to become the program’s all-time leading receiver. Collins was a Thorpe Award finalist after recording 103 tackles and three interceptions. Yeldon should be the easiest to replace, as the Tide’s line of elite backs is set to continue with Derrick Henry, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny.
Coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart got a boost on Thursday when linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end Jarran Reed announced their decisions to stay in school. Ragland, in particular, could have moved on after a first-team All-SEC season in which he recorded 95 tackles, with 10.5 for loss. While the names leaving Alabama may be eye-catching, they’re nothing it can’t withstand, especially with arguably its best-ever recruiting class prepared to enter.
The Trojans have huge holes to fill after losing their leading rusher (Javorius Allen), receiver (Nelson Agholor) and top-tier defensive end (Leonard Williams). After a solid 2013, Allen exploded for 1,947 all-purpose yards with 12 touchdowns in ’14. Justin Davis will have to step up, unless Tre Madden can stay healthy or any of USC’s incoming tailback recruits can work into the mix. Replacing Williams should be more difficult, as defensive line talents of his caliber are tough to find.
Despite the significant losses, coach Steve Sarkisian returns quarterback Cody Kessler, who passed for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions this year. Expect him to be at the forefront of many preseason Heisman lists.
The Bulldogs lose leaders on both sides of the ball, but retain their Heisman candidate signal-caller. After bypassing the draft as a third-year sophomore last year, All-America linebacker Benardrick McKinney will depart Starkville. His size and speed, which allowed him this season to rack up 71 tackles, including eight for loss, will be sorely missed. So will the dynamic running of Josh Robinson, who compiled a 6.3 yards-per-carry average en route to a 1,203-yard campaign.
The exits of McKinney and Robinson mean 14 of the Bulldogs’ listed starters for the Orange Bowl won’t be back next year. That makes quarterback Dak Prescott’s return all the more critical. He finished with nearly 4,500 yards of total offense and 41 scores. The dual-threat junior wants to improve as a passer; he could keep Mississippi State in the SEC West hunt, too.
Just three players leaving early should be considered a win by LSU’s standards. The Tigers entered this season with 21 early departures since 2011, a total that was 11 more than the next-closest school, Alabama. So, while Danielle Hunter, Jalen Collins and Kwon Alexander will be missed -- especially Alexander, who led the team with 90 tackles -- these types of losses are not unfamiliar.
As LSU seeks to sort out its quarterback situation with Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris or perhaps a graduate transfer, the return of leading receiver Travin Dural and tackle Jerald Hawkins should help. So should the presence of Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 289 yards over the Tigers’ final two games.
Life is good right now for coach Gus Malzahn. He hired Will Muschamp to lead his defense and managed to keep most of his draft-eligible underclassmen. Sammie Coates’ departure removes a great deep-ball threat, while Patrick Miller’s decision to enter the draft comes as a surprise. He wasn’t even a consistent starter.
The return of Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy keeps the linebacking corps intact, while D’haquille Williams gives new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson a go-to target. Avery Young also provides Auburn with some flexibility on the line.
Jordan Phillips’ departure is cause for concern, as the elite defensive tackle -- a likely first-round pick -- will be tough to replace. But the pain of losing Phillips is offset by the return of linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper. Only Arizona’s Scooby Wright III topped Striker’s 17 tackles for loss among returning linebackers, and the junior led the Sooners with nine sacks. Tapper added 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble.
Dorial Green-Beckham’s early entry takes away some potential from Oklahoma next season, but it’s hard to consider him a loss. The program never knew what its offense would look like with the receiver outside of practices.
Key losses: Noah Spence, DE
The narrative since the Buckeyes won the national championship on Monday has been clear: Just wait until you see these guys next year. And on paper, Ohio State should be even better in 2015.
Its only early departure is elite defensive end Noah Spence, who missed the entire 2014 campaign due to suspensions for failed drug tests. Although Spence is very skilled -- he had 14.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks, in ’13 -- the Buckeyes’ front seven had no trouble creating pressure without him. Michael Bennett’s graduation removes a key piece of that group, but Adolphus Washington’s return and Joey Bosa’s draft ineligibility -- he is just a true sophomore -- leaves Ohio State’s defensive line in excellent shape.
Second-team All-Big Ten left tackle Taylor Decker will come back to anchor the offensive line and protect whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Cardale Jones announced on Thursday that the race would remain a three-way battle. He chose to pass on the NFL after leading Ohio State to the national title.
Key losses: Trae Waynes, CB
The Buckeyes’ top Big Ten threat also received mostly positive news, as defensive end Shilique Calhoun turned down a likely first-round selection to stay in school. Calhoun, the conference’s defensive lineman of the year in 2013, has 26.5 tackles for loss, including 15.5 sacks, over the past two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook will also return after throwing for 3,214 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight picks. He could've been the third quarterback taken, behind Mariota and Winston.
Coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t able to keep all of his top underclassman, as Trae Waynes -- arguably the best cornerback in the 2015 class -- declared. Still, losing only Waynes is a coup for Michigan State, though the assumption that it will always churn out star defensive players to replace departed ones takes a hit with longtime coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s move to become Pittsburgh's head coach.