The Oklahoma Sooners are leading the way in the Big 12 this year in number of early declarations for the NFL draft. The group includes three potential first-round picks in Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, deep threat Marquise Brown and offensive lineman Cody Ford.
OU isn’t the only program in the Big 12 trying to replace early entrants, of course. The Iowa State Cyclones and Oklahoma State Cowboys also were hit hard by defections.
The declarations put the spotlight on a number of players who will try to replace departed stars across the conference in 2019. Here are 10 of the most important, in no particular order.
Gone: Alex Barnes, RB
The Wildcats had few effective options on offense last season besides Barnes, who ran for 1,355 yards, more than anyone else in the Big 12. With more than 450 carries in his three seasons at KSU, it makes sense that Barnes would want to move on to the pros. First-year head coach Chris Klieman will miss having a bruiser like Barnes in the backfield.
In: James Gilbert, rising senior
The Wildcats made an under-the-radar move to sign Gilbert off the grad transfer waiver wire. Gilbert was an All-MAC pick at Ball State in 2016, but he lost most of his 2017 campaign to injury. Back in action for the Cardinals last year, Gilbert ran for 659 yards on 152 attempts and scored seven touchdowns on the ground. He should expect a significant number of touches this season.
Gone: Jordan Brailford, DL
In a league that isn’t known for pass rushers, Brailford was one of the Big 12’s best last season. His nine sacks ranked second in the conference behind Charles Omenihu of Texas.
In: Brock Martin, rising sophomore
OSU head coach Mike Gundy will need to identify a new edge rusher quickly in the offseason. Martin signed with the Cowboys in 2017 as a three-star defensive end out of tiny Oolagah, Oklahoma. He registered one sack as a redshirt freshman last season, but he’ll with have a shot in the coming months to prove he can fill the void outside.
Gone: Hakeem Butler, WR
A big, physical receiver like Butler won’t last long once Roger Goodell starts calling names at this year’s NFL draft. As the leading receiver for the Cyclones last year, Butler has the production to match the physical tools coveted by pro teams. He averaged nearly 22 yards every time he caught the ball.
In: Tarique Milton, rising sophomore
Although Milton lacks Butler’s size, he can still do his part to make up for the loss in numbers. He made an impact during his freshman season, grabbing 34 balls for 417 yards and a score. At the very least, Milton can count on more targets in 2019 in Butler’s absence.
Gone: Bobby Evans/Cody Ford, OL
With Evans and Ford declaring for the draft, the Sooners have to replace four starters on the offensive line this year. That’s a tall order, but it’s even taller when you consider that OU had one of the best lines in the nation last season. OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh has his work cut out for him.
In: Adrian Ealy/Brey Walker, rising sophomores
Of course, Bedenbaugh’s dogged work on the recruiting trail has a lot to do with why his units have fared so well. Ealy and Walker, two blue-chip recruits, appear ready to fill the openings at tackle. They could give the Sooners bookends for multiple seasons.
Gone: Justice Hill, RB
Hill has been a stalwart in OSU’s backfield for the last three years. In fact, 2018 was the first in which he failed to top 1,000 rushing yards. He played in just 10 games last year, a sign the wear-and-tear on his body of being a feature back was starting to accumulate.
In: Deondrick Glass, freshman
Don’t be surprised if Glass’ career follows a Hill-like trajectory. The four-star recruit will push for carries with talented Canadian Chuba Hubbard for at least a couple years before he becomes the No. 1 option. The Glass-Hubbard combo might not miss a beat.
Gone: Lil’Jordan Humphrey, WR
Humphrey might have been the most dominant player in the Big 12 last year not named Kyler Murray. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Humphrey created matchup nightmares for opposing defenses that the Longhorns consistently exploited in key spots. Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger will miss having that security blanket in the coming season.
In: Jordan Whittington, freshman
A do-it-all star in Texas high school football, Whittington could play a similar role to Humphrey in 2019. The incoming freshman arrives on campus this month and will get a shot at giving the Longhorns another flex tight end to line up at slot receiver in the fall.
Gone: David Long, LB
The departure of the Big 12’s defensive player of the year leaves a massive hole in the Mountaineer defense. Ex-defensive coordinator Tony Gibson deployed Long as an agent of chaos, and Long responded with a conference-high 19 tackles for a loss. WVU also will miss his veteran presence in the locker room.
In: Josh Chandler, rising sophomore
While it remains to be seen how new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will structure the WVU defense, Chandler still appears to be the most likely candidate to take Long’s place in the lineup. Chandler appeared in 12 games as a freshman in 2018, accumulating 14 tackles on the season.
Gone: David Montgomery, RB
Montgomery proved to be one of the most reliable running backs in the country last season. Potential tacklers rarely brought him down on first contact, and the Cyclones could count on him to carry the load early and late in games. He could be the first back selected in the upcoming draft.
In: Kene Nwangwu, rising junior
The race to be the Cyclones’ No. 1 RB is cloudier than many other openings on this list. Montgomery’s reliability didn’t create many opportunities for other backs on the ISU roster last season. Nwangwu flashed potential in a limited number of chances, including running for 49 yards on 10 carries in an upset win over Oklahoma State.
Gone: Kyler Murray, QB
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner passed on a chance to take another run at the College Football Playoff and opted to take his talents to the NFL instead. Or will he be manning center field for the Oakland A’s? Whatever Murray decides, what matters to OU is that he won’t be in Norman.
In: Jalen Hurts, rising senior
OU head coach Lincoln Riley finally got the commitment from Hurts, arguably the most coveted grad transfer in history. The one-time offensive player of the year in the SEC doesn’t seem like a natural fit in OU’s offensive scheme. However, if there’s one coach you should trust to come up with the best way to take advantage of Hurts’ skills, it's Riley.
Gone: Antoine Wesley, WR
In a conference renowned for prolific passing, Wesley was one of the Big 12’s most productive receivers in 2018. He led the conference in receptions with 88 and receiving yards per game with 117.5. With new head coach Matt Wells taking over at Tech, Wesley is probably making the right call to strike with the NFL while his iron is hot.
In: KeSean Carter, rising sophomore
Carter saw a limited number of targets in his freshman season, but he chipped in with 26 catches for 238 yards and a TD. Carter (5-11, 165) can’t replace the physicality of Wesley and his 6-foot-5 frame on the field for the Red Raiders. He can, however, give Tech a reliable pass-catching option to keep the chains moving.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.