- Who's feeling the best about this year's NFL draft decisions from underclassmen? Some schools are in a better spot than others heading into 2019.
Underclassmen had until Monday night to declare for the 2019 NFL draft, and when the clock struck midnight over 120 players had formally announced their intention to go pro, a new record. Some members of the group, like Houston's Ed Oliver, have been set on their decisions since early last year; others like LSU's Devin White and Oklahoma's Kyler Murray (who you may have heard has more big decisions ahead of him) waited until the final hours to make it official. For the college programs these stars leave behind, the coming days will offer coaches a chance to examine their depth charts and begin to go about solving how to replace some of their teams' most important players.
Not every draft decision carries the same stakes, however. Many programs are capable of losing multiple major contributors and not missing a beat the following year. With an eye toward how expected and unexpected each departure was, we split 11 of the prominent programs losing big names to the pros into two groups: teams whose 2019 outlook took a significant hit from the early entry declarations and contenders that didn't have any momentum drained by Monday's deadline.
Whether he chose to play football or baseball at the professional level, it was already all but decided that Murray's Oklahoma career was over. The real question for the 2019 Sooners is who will protect Murray's replacement under center. With the early exits of tackles Bobby Evans and Cody Ford, four of the five starting offensive linemen that brought home the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation's best offensive line unit, will not be back in Norman. Add in the early departures of leading receiver Marquise Brown and 2017 leading rusher Rodney Anderson after injury shortened campaigns, and next year's offense is poised to incorporate a lot of new faces, albeit star-studded ones.
The Wolfpack's 52–13 loss to Texas A&M was a sobering look at life without leading receiver Kelvin Harmon, a junior big-play machine who put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and leading tackler Germaine Pratt, a senior linebacker who skipped the Gator Bowl to prepare for his draft process. (Junior receiver Jakobi Meyers, who topped 1,000 yards himself, will also not be back.) With the help of ultra-experienced quarterback Ryan Finley, Dave Doeren brought NC State into the ACC's also-ran tier of feisty teams with a puncher's chance of beating Clemson. Now that Finley's gone, will these back-to-back 9–4 finishes be remembered as Doeren's high point in Raleigh?
The Bulldogs are almost certainly going to be fine, even though the wave of skill player draft declarations last Friday—receivers Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman, tight end Isaac Nauta and running back Elijah Holyfield—sounded daunting when read out all at once. Waiting behind those talented outgoing receivers is rising junior Jeremiah Holloman, who poses a physical matchup nightmare for opposing secondaries as both a pass catcher and a blocker. The return of safety J.R. Reed for 2019 should provide the defense some much-needed leadership in the absence of 2018's No. 1 defensive back, Deandre Baker.
The Huskies were already scheduled to lose a ton off their loaded defense before safety Taylor Rapp and shutdown corner Byron Murphy made the somewhat expected decision of heading for the pros with eligibility left on the table, but those decisions leave Washington with only three defensive starters coming back—not exactly the ideal support system for transfer quarterback Jacob Eason or whoever wins the battle to take Jake Browning's place under center. The return of left tackle Trey Adams after an injury-plagued 2018 is small comfort; the defending Pac-12 champs should find themselves in the recently unfamiliar position of entering August outside the top spot in preseason conference projections.
Junior right tackle Jawaan Taylor will look to capitalize on a year in which he helped his own NFL stock by following three senior starters on the Gators' offensive line into the draft pool, which means center Nick Buchanan will be the only holdover O-line starter for year two of the Dan Mullen era. Leading rusher Lamical Perine and leading receiver Van Jefferson are sticking around to help quarterback Feleipe Franks through an important season as Florida works in new blood up front.
The Gators could see their biggest unplanned defensive losses coming—edge rusher Jachai Polite, middle-of-the-field thumper Vosean Joseph and defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson were clearly ready for the next level—but the return of defensive end Jabari Zuniga, defensive tackle Adam Shuler and linebacker David Reese should help stabilize the front seven.
This is Iowa, so of course we're talking about tight ends. The Hawkeyes lost both of their star pass catchers, longtime NFL draft darling Noah Fant and breakout star T.J. Hockenson, meaning that rising senior QB Nate Stanley will be looking to replace nearly half of his team's 2018 receiving production.
The Ducks' position on this list was always going to come down to the status of quarterback Justin Herbert, who turned down a possible first-round selection this spring to stay in Eugene for another season and should make Oregon the Pac-12 favorites in Mario Cristobal's second year in charge. Linebacker Troy Dye's announcement that the team's leading tackler would be back for one last year was a welcome boost to a defense that finished middle of the pack among its league counterparts.
Oregon's Week 1 opponent will bring the best front seven Herbert will see all season into AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The Tigers got a huge lift to close out a trying year when they learned that defensive tackle Derrick Brown and defensive end Marlon Davidson will return in 2019, along with end Nick Coe, who led the team in sacks and finished second in tackles for loss. The stress of breaking in a new quarterback after Jarrett Stidham's decision to forgo his final year of eligibility should be lessened by the terrifying defense coordinator Kevin Steele will be able to put together.
Edge rusher Nick Bosa's three-year plan was well-known before his season-ending injury, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins seemed as good as gone long before he finished third in the Heisman voting and shined in a Rose Bowl sendoff for head coach Urban Meyer that doubled as an NFL showcase for himself. The Buckeyes' optimism comes from the players who were on the fence but chose to return, led by leading tacklers safety Jordan Fuller and linebacker Malik Harrison. Cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette split their decisions (Sheffield is gone, Arnette will return), meaning Ohio State's new defensive coaching staff will have some familiar faces to lead into an offseason of redemption for 2018's shortcomings on that side of the ball.
Losing one of the nation's best linebackers in White right before the decision deadline stung, especially after it seemed that nose tackle Ed Alexander and cornerback Greedy Williams had gotten the Tigers' painful early exits out of the way before the Fiesta Bowl. But LSU has more juniors than usual slated to return on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Michael Divinity, defensive ends Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko and cornerback Kristian Fulton. The side of the ball that program stakes its reputation to should be just fine, while senior quarterback Joe Burrow returns to build off an encouraging debut at the helm of the offense.
The Wolverines get half of their first-team All-Big Ten cornerback duo back, with David Long leaving and Lavert Hill staying, and second-teamer Josh Metellus joined Hill in signing on for his senior season. That should soften the blow of the predictable early exits of defensive lineman Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush. Bush was the outlier within the linebacking corps, which should be in good shape under the leadership of rising seniors Khaleke Hudson, Joshua Uche and Devin Gil. Michigan's offense didn't risk losing much beyond a departure from quarterback Shea Patterson that would have been a stunner, but the return of second-team All-Big Ten left guard Ben Bredeson counts as a lift for the line.