Stanford, Oregon among teams with preseason holes to fill
The college football preseason is an interesting time for several reasons, one being that it illustrates the things fans and media find most important when evaluating a given team. Some logic makes perfect sense: Alabama has won back-to-back BCS titles and thus should be considered the 2013 favorite. Other rationale is iffier: Oregon lost one of the most innovative coaching minds in recent memory and is expected to maintain a top-five ranking.
This dynamic is especially fascinating when breaking down the nation's biggest holes to fill. While the departures of some of nation's star players are analyzed at length, other exits -- including those by several first-round NFL draft picks -- are routinely overlooked.
Losing a guy like Collin Klein, Tavon Austin or Jarvis Jones obviously hurts, but they're not the only tough acts to follow. Here are five other situations in which player absences may have a larger impact than many fans might imagine.
Stanford: TE Zach Ertz
When Baltimore Ravens' tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated hip last week, people in NFL circles immediately started discussing how the team's offense would suffer. They harped on Pitta's chemistry with Joe Flacco, repeatedly tossing around terms like "safety net" and "security blanket."
Following the 2012 season, Stanford lost a similarly high-impact tight end in Ertz, who was selected 35th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. While national expectations for the Cardinal have skyrocketed, few have considered how difficult replacing Ertz will be.
Stanford has an elite defense. It has a dynamic quarterback in Kevin Hogan and a system that has churned out productive running backs; the program has produced a 1,100-yard rusher in each of the last five seasons. Still, Ertz not only led the team in receiving in 2012 -- his 898 receiving yards were 435 more than any other player -- but he came through when it mattered most. His 37-yard fourth-quarter touchdown was the game-winner in Stanford's victory over USC, and his acrobatic scoring grab forced overtime in an eventual upset of Oregon.
David Shaw's team brings back wideouts Kelsey Young and Ty Montgomery and sophomore tight end Luke Kaumatule, who stands at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. One of them will have to step up. Ertz was a go-to target, and his production will be difficult to replace.
Texas A&M: OT Luke Joeckel
Imagine that a program has the best offensive lineman in college football. Imagine that same team has a quarterback who's at his best when keeping plays alive for as long as possible, a skill that helped him win a historic Heisman Trophy. Then imagine that team losing the star lineman. Would it have a major impact on the quarterback and offense as a whole?
In most cases, the answer would be a resounding "yes." But in the case of Texas A&M and Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Joeckel, the question is largely written off. Part of that may stem from this offseason's never-ending Johnny Manziel circus. Part of it may stem from the fact that offensive linemen are always overlooked. And part of it certainly stems from the return of senior lineman Jake Matthews, who moved to left tackle this spring to assume Joeckel's former role.
But losing Joeckel is a big deal. So is losing four-year starting center Patrick Lewis. Texas A&M had more talent on the offensive line than any other program in the nation (except Alabama) in 2012, and replacing a consensus All-America is not an easy task for any school (except Alabama). For all the praise that Manziel and coach Kevin Sumlin received following the Aggies' breakout campaign last fall, the Maroon Goons -- Joeckel, Lewis, Matthews and guards Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison -- deserved equal credit.
In July, former Texas A&M coordinator and current Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury stopped by the SI offices. He talked about returning to his alma mater and the Red Raiders' prospects for 2013. When asked about A&M's success last year, he responded by immediately paying tribute to the offensive line.
"Last year, with those five guys, that was incredible," said Kingsbury. "I'll never coach a group like that again. I don't know if anybody will."
As long as Manziel remains eligible, A&M should stay in the thick of the SEC title hunt. Still, Joeckel's (and to a lesser extent, Lewis') absence may loom larger than many people think.
Oklahoma: S Tony Jefferson
Most of the national attention surrounding Oklahoma has focused on redshirt junior quarterback Blake Bell, who is set to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. Bell was used primarily in the Belldozer package for the past two seasons, and despite rushing for 11 touchdowns in 2012, he has yet to establish himself as a passer on the collegiate level.
However, the spotlight on Bell has masked an arguably equally significant departure in Norman. Jefferson, who finished third in the Big 12 with 119 tackles last season, bypassed his final year of eligibility to declare for April's NFL draft.
Jefferson's past few months haven't panned out as planned. After electing to test the waters, reports leaked of Oklahoma coaches criticizing his work ethic, and he went undrafted before signing with the Arizona Cardinals in May. But his numbers speak for themselves. He tallied 27 more solo tackles than any other Oklahoma defender last fall. He finished his career with eight interceptions and 18 tackles for loss. He was named a second-team All-America at season's end, the only Sooners' player to earn such lofty postseason distinction.
Lockdown cornerback Aaron Colvin returns, but without Jefferson and fellow safety Javon Harris (86 tackles, six interceptions), Bob Stoops will have to count on inexperienced junior Julian Wilson and freshman Ahmad Thomas to round out the secondary. Keep in mind, Oklahoma's pass efficiency defense was a strength in 2012; it ranked 12th nationally, in stark contrast to the team's 89th-ranked rushing defense.
Baylor: QB Nick Florence
This one may seem obvious, if only because Florence played the most visible position on the field for a team that squashed Kansas State's national title hopes en route to winning five of its final six games last season. But it's hard to understate just how underrated Florence was in 2012. Not only did Florence follow in RGIII's footsteps, he actually bested the former Heisman winner in several statistical respects. Florence finished last year with 4,877 yards of total offense. That figure was fewer than only two players, one named Johnny Manziel and the other named Jordan Lynch.
Fourth-year junior Bryce Petty, who will replace Florence under center, seems to have the makings of a breakout star in 2013. He impressed coaches in spring practice and has generated rave reviews heading into fall camp. But he's thrown just 14 passes throughout his entire career. Replicating Florence's production is far from a sure bet.
Here's the thing about Florence: Both at the time and in retrospect, he didn't seem like a superstar. He wasn't particularly flashy (other than posing with the West Virginia mountaineer at Big 12 media days), and he didn't make a ton of highlight-reel plays. He was the type of quarterback who got praised for intangibles, a reputation head coach Art Briles sought to correct during an interview with SI last December.
"The thing that gets lost in Nick, and it took me about 10 or 11 games to realize it, is when you look at him, and when you talk about him, you do notice all these great intangibles that he possesses," said Briles. "But the thing that's overlooked is that he has talent. He is an extremely talented football player."
Lache Seastrunk should give the Bears a potent ground game, and Tevin Reese seems ready to become a first-option wide receiver. Petty, however, may need some time to develop. RGIII was tough to replace; Florence won't be much easier.
Oregon: LBs Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay
Oregon's biggest hole to fill is obvious: Mark Helfrich must replace Chip Kelly, who took a program that had reached one BCS bowl in 11 years and led it to four consecutive BCS appearances. But on a player-specific level, the departures of linebackers Alonso and Clay shouldn't be taken lightly. The duo spearheaded a unit that allowed just 21.6 points per game last year, the second-lowest total for a Ducks' defense in the past 12 seasons.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti rotates in his backups frequently, so players like Tyson Coleman and Derrick Malone already have some in-game experience. Still, they'll likely have a hard time replacing the production of Alonso and Clay. Alonso registered 81 tackles, a team-high 14 tackles for loss and four interceptions in 2012. Clay led the Ducks with 101 tackles; he amassed 102 tackles the year before in 2011.
Such a situation isn't unprecedented. Oregon had to replace linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger following the 2010 campaign and went 11-2 before ultimately downing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. But for a team that's breaking in a first-year head coach and establishing a new hierarchy in the backfield (running back Kenjon Barner graduated after rushing for 1,767 yards last fall), it certainly doesn't help to lose two heart-of-the-defense leaders, in addition to No. 3 overall draft pick defensive end Dion Jordan.
In a conference call earlier this week, Helfrich addressed his linebacking corps. "You never know what a guy is motivated by," he said. "Does he need Michael and Kiko gone to feel like it is time to really grind? Not that you want that solely as your motivation, but for some guys it is reality."
Oregon's defense regularly gets overlooked, something that happens when its offense has players like quarterback Marcus Mariota and all-purpose threat De'Anthony Thomas, who can do this and this, respectively. But the defense has been consistently better than most fans realize. It will be tough to replicate that success without Alonso and Clay in 2013.