Which schools were hurt the most by players choosing to enter the 2016 NFL draft early? Which escaped relatively unscathed?
Monday served as the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2016 NFL draft, and those decisions will have a reverberating effect across college football. As with every off-season, some rosters were hit harder than others. So how did early draft declarations shake up the college football landscape in 2016? We break down the winners and losers from Monday’s deadline.
Staying: CB Desmond King
The somewhat unexpected return of cornerback Desmond King might be the best news of the off-season for coach Kirk Ferentz. The 2015 Thorpe Award winner tallied 72 tackles and ranked second in FBS with eight interceptions, a program record. The stellar junior also returned 46 punts and kickoffs for 949 yards. “Feels good to finish my education and to be with my brothers for my senior year,” King posted on Instagram. “There will be those that say my decision is wrong but it's what's best for me. Let's make it a good one fellas.” King’s decision means a likely return of eight starters from a defense that helped Iowa reach the Rose Bowl this season.
Leaving: LT Jerald Hawkins
No program has been forced to absorb the loss of as many underclassmen in recent years as LSU. This time, however, Les Miles won’t have to engineer a major reload. Left tackle Jerald Hawkins is the only major departure, but as a fourth-year junior, his departure was largely expected. Most of the Tigers’ other weapons will return in 2016, like receiver Travin Dural (533 receiving yards) and defensive end Lewis Neal (eight sacks). Center Ethan Pocic, defensive tackle Christian LaCouture and defensive back Rickey Jefferson should also be back in Baton Rouge next season. With so much talent passing on the draft, the Tigers could be expected to take a step forward in 2016.
Earlier this month Tennessee hired Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to turn the Volunteers’ defense into an SEC contender. Luckily for Shoop, two of Tennessee’s best defenders—junior cornerback Cam Sutton and junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin—will be back to make Shoop’s job easier in 2016. Reeves-Maybin led the Vols in tackles (105) and tackles for loss (14), while Sutton forced two fumbled and notched seven passes defended on defense. The corner was even more impactful as a return man, leading the country in punt return average (18.7 yards). The return of Reeves-Maybin and Sutton should only add to expectations surrounding Tennessee’s SEC title hopes next fall.
Could’ve been worse
It’s become an annual question in Tuscaloosa: How many Alabama players will head to the NFL early? This off-season has been no different, especially for a team that just won the national championship. Coach Nick Saban’s roster must replace a Heisman Trophy winner in running back Derrick Henry and a man-child of a defensive lineman in A’Shawn Robinson. But otherwise, the Crimson Tide emerged fairly unscathed when it comes to early defections. Linebackers Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, tight end O.J. Howard and safety Eddie Jackson are all coming back for their senior seasons. Bama fans can’t be too upset.
For the second year in a row, Clemson’s defense should look very different when it kicks off the season. Defensive backs Mackenzie Alexender, T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse and linemen Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd all announced their intentions to go pro from a unit that finished 17th in the nation in total defense (4.85 yards allowed per play). But the Tigers didn’t lose every key defender. Tackle Carlos Watkins and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley opted to return to school. Meanwhile, running back Wayne Gallman, the program’s single-season rushing leader, and tight end Jordan Leggett also chose to play their senior seasons. Couple those returns with rising junior quarterback Deshaun Watson (who wasn’t draft eligible this year), and Clemson should still be a force in 2016.
Staying: G Dan Feeney
The Hoosiers lose key juniors on both sides of the ball in running back Jordan Howard and defensive tackle Darius Latham. Howard finished third in the Big Ten with 1,213 rushing yards while Latham posted four sacks and 10 tackles for loss. But coach Kevin Wilson managed to retain Dan Feeney, who returns to school with 37 career starts at right guard. The first-team All-Big Ten lineman was a critical cog in an Indiana offense that led the conference in scoring (36.5 points per game).
Leaving: WR Pharoh Cooper
Staying: LB Skai Moore
The Gamecocks will have to replace their biggest playmaker from 2015 in receiver Pharoh Cooper, who caught 62 passes for 887 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. But a silver lining is the return of linebacker Skai Moore. The junior has started 37 games in his career at South Carolina, and he led the team in tackles (111) this season. Moore also picked off four passes and forced three fumbles. Of course South Carolina’s defense still finished last in the SEC, so there’s plenty of work to be done. But new head coach Will Muschamp probably won’t mind returning his team’s top tackler.
Florida received a bit of good news Monday when linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Marcus Maye both announced they would return to Gainesville for their senior seasons. But those decisions didn’t do enough to soften the major blow the Gators will take from other early depatures. All-America cornerback Vernon Hargreaves headlines the group of NFL-bound stars, which also includes defensive lineman Alex McCalister, safety Keanu Neal, receiver Demarcus Robinson and running back Kelvin Taylor. Head coach Jim McElwain has plenty of starpower to replace in 2016.
Seemingly every position group on Notre Dame’s roster loses at least one underclassman to the draft this year. Stud linebacker Jaylon Smith (114 tackles) is perhaps the most notable departure after he suffered a knee injury against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Receiver Will Fuller, running back C.J. Prosise and tackle Ronnie Stanley should impact the Irish offense by forgoing their senior seasons, while the defense will miss corner KeiVarae Russell (six passes defended). Perhaps Notre Dame’s sixth-ranked recruiting class can plug up a few holes on the roster.
Not even Urban Meyer expected nine Ohio State players to declare early for the NFL draft. “I've been in scenarios where you don't have a lot of conversations about the NFL because you don't have that caliber of players,” Meyer told reporters earlier this month. “This was over the top.” Defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott and backup quarterback Cardale Jones were among the most notable Buckeyes to leave early. But wide receivers Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas also declared, as did cornerback Eli Apple, safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell and linebacker Darron Lee. Ohio State will have to find some new playmakers, possibly from a 2016 recruiting class that currently ranks first nationally, per Scout.com
Staying: QB Chad Kelly
Ole Miss won the Sugar Bowl to claim its first 10-win season since 2003, but coach Hugh Freeze now must navigate a significant exodus of junior talent. The Rebels lose their best offensive weapon in receiver Laquon Treadwell, who set a program record with 202 career catches, and best offensive lineman in All-America tackle Laremy Tunsil. Meanwhile, vaunted defensive end Robert Nkemdiche declared for the draft in December after he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl following an arrest for marijuana possession. The Rebels had better get used to players leaving early for the draft, as Freeze knows how to recruit: His 2016 class currently ranks fifth nationally, per Scout.com.
Linebacker Myles Jack turned a lot of heads when he declared for the NFL draft back in October following a season-ending knee injury. But Jack was hardly the only UCLA player to eventually opt to leave school early. The Bruins also lost top running back Paul Perkins (1,343 yards and 14 touchdowns in ’15) and two key offensive linemen in tackle Caleb Benenoch and guard Alex Redmond. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Kenny Clark joined Jack in declaring for the draft from the other side of the ball.