Big shoes to fill: How will teams replace college football's top stars?

1:19 | College Football
#DearAndy: What teams will bounce back in 2017?
Wednesday February 15th, 2017

With National Signing behind us and spring practice approaching (or already underway for a few early birds), preparations for the 2017 college football season are in full swing. And for programs lucky enough to boast some of the biggest stars last year, their off-season preparations will draw plenty of attention for how they are moving on for those gamechangers.

As teams begin their searches for new answers, let us speculate about the replacements. Can anybody possibly fill the shoes of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson? Can Washington survive next season without its three star defensive backs? Get to know the players who will attempt to fill some of the biggest shoes in college football.

College Football
Redshirt freshmen to watch in 2017

Clemson: Replacing Deshaun Watson

Clemson has proven its ability to replace ace defensive linemen and star receivers, but now the Tigers need to transition from the best quarterback in school history and one of the best college quarterbacks of the last decade. There is no “replacing” Deshaun Watson, but his departure shouldn’t take Clemson out of the national title discussion.

Pundits and fans are looking to five-star QB Hunter Johnson, who Clemson just signed as part of the class of 2017, but the allure of a potential star may not be a practical option for the season opener. Instead, that job may fall to Watson’s backup, Kelly Bryant, a dual-threat option; Chase Brice, a pro-style QB; or Zerrick Cooper, who enrolled early in 2016.

It’s not just Watson leaving: Running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott are gone too. But the Tigers have proven their recruiting mettle at all of those positions. Finding the right replacement for Watson will be a more significant challenge.

The host of likable options should help soothe the concerns of any Clemson fans, but the lingering anxiety of losing one of the program’s greatest players is understandable.

Alabama: Replacing the pass rush

Even by Alabama’s standards, the production of its 2016 front seven was incredible. Not only were there four potential first-round picks on the defense (Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson), but the group was the primary reason that the Crimson Tide scored an astounding 11 defensive touchdowns last season.

It’s fair to assume that not even Alabama can repeat such a dominant showing (the Tide held opposing offenses to under 70 yards rushing per game before their national title loss to Clemson). The question is, how much will one of college football’s most historically dominant defenses drop off?

Nick Saban has demonstrated his ability to replace multiple NFL draft picks with more promising future NFL draft picks, and the player to watch in next year’s group will be Da’Shawn Hand. A former five-star recruit out of Virginia, Hand was mostly a rotation player in 2016. The lithe but powerful defensive end has logged only seven sacks over his Alabama career but should be the Tide’s next dominant defensive player. Much like Allen was the defender nobody could block this year, Hand is primed to be that player once the 2017 season kicks off.

Washington: Replacing the secondary

This might be the biggest void left by any college team after the 2016 season. The Huskies will be considered Pac-12 favorites with the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, but the jewels of their defense are gone, and there doesn’t appear to be a ready replacement. Defensive backs Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones comprised one of the nation’s top secondaries; it wasn’t just the gaudy interception total (18, good for eighth in the nation), but also their refusal to allow any serious separation. Much like Alabama, Washington was a team that never seemed to bust a coverage over the entire season. Outside of USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who may be considered the best QB in college football after next season, no passer figured out how to beat two cornerbacks with advanced size and speed (King and Jones) and a safety with an outstanding eye for the ball (Baker).

Doubting head coach Chris Petersen or his defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, is foolish given their track records, but there is a significant amount of talent to replace. Freshman Taylor Rapp thrived during his surprising amount of game action last year (and finished with two two-interception games), but the Huskies will need to be coached up to maintain a passing defense that allowed just 183 yards per game last year.

Florida State: Replacing Dalvin Cook

Much like Clemson needs to replace the best quarterback in school history, its most feared ACC counterpart needs to replace the greatest running back the school has ever seen. Dalvin Cook finished his Florida State career as the school’s all-time leading rusher—not bad for a player who only played three years—and likely heads into the top ten of April’s NFL draft.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher has a few intriguing options, even if there is no easy answer. The first idea is to hand the reins to Cook’s backup, Jacques Patrick. Patrick saw little action in games of significance last year but did show flashes of talent (79 rushing yards on seven carries against Louisville, 120 rushing yards against South Florida). He is a bruiser (6’2”, 231 pounds) and lacks Cook’s speed (as do most human beings) but is a formidable presence at the line of scrimmage.

The question is if Fisher wants Patrick to be the every-down back, or if he wants to include touted freshman Cam Akers into the rotation. If not for running back Najee Harris (who signed with Alabama), Akers would be the most lauded running back of the 2017 class. Sophomore Amir Rasul will likely see carries as well.

Fisher indicated that he’d like to return to a running back by committee system now that Cook has departed, and he has the weapons to execute that plan. The question is how often he uses Patrick and when he wants to deploy his speedier options.

Oklahoma: Replacing Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook

While Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield returns at quarterback, the rest of Oklahoma’s offense is now scraped bare with the departures of star running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine as well as Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook. Mixon and Perine leave behind a combined 2,334 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Westbrook compiled one of the best offensive seasons in Sooners history with 1,524 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. The Sooners still have one of the nation’s finest offensive coordinators in Lincoln Riley along with Mayfield, but the weapons that made last year’s offense so dangerous are gone.

The Sooners will have arguably the best offensive line in the Big 12. After that, the questions begin. The leading returning receiver is Mark Andrews, an excellent tight end but not a vertical threat, and the leading returning rusher is freshman Abdul Adams, who didn’t score a touchdown last season. There is just no clear indication whom Mayfield’s primary targets will be until the conclusion of spring practice.

The most fascinating player to watch will be wide receiver Marquise Brown, who arrives in Norman from College of the Canyons (Calif.) and is expected to contribute immediately.

Stanford: Replacing Christian McCaffrey

Stanford never minds moving slowly and with “intellectual brutality” as David Shaw likes to put it, but the Cardinal offense is going to be a bit more sluggish without Christian McCaffrey scampering all over the field. It also doesn’t help that quarterback Keller Chryst shredded his ACL in Stanford’s Sun Bowl win over North Carolina, an injury that will likely keep him out of fall camp and turn the starting job (initially) over to last year’s season-opening starter, Ryan Burns.

Burns is a limited threat, so that will open the door for running back Bryce Love, whose breakaway speed is his best asset but whose durability is untested. Love carried the ball 23 times for 129 yards in Stanford’s win over Notre Dame last year (which McCaffrey missed with an injury) and toted it 21 times for 119 yards in the victory over North Carolina (which McCaffrey also sat out). Shaw appears comfortable making him the focal point of the offense. The biggest concern is whether a player of his stature (5’10”, 180 pounds) can withstand a season’s worth of punishment at 20 carries per game.

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