Sure, J.T. Barrett, Saquon Barkley and a cast of other familiar faces in the Big Ten are returning to their schools next season. But after a 2016 that saw the league finish with four teams in the final top 10 of both major polls, the Big Ten will have to retool a bit up top, as a number of stars declared early for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Who is next in line to replace those stars? Look no further than this list of 10 Big Ten faces that have huge shoes to fill come the 2017 season.
Gone: Jabrill Peppers, ATH
There was no player in the country like Peppers, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist and lined up at 15 different positions during the 2016 campaign for the Wolverines. The likely first-round pick will probably be a defensive back and/or return man early on in the NFL, but we’d put nothing past him.
Where do you even begin? As stated above, Peppers was unique, with head coach Jim Harbaugh at one point comparing his versatility to that of Jim Thorpe’s. Michigan has recruited well, but sorry, there is just not one man who can be expected to do all that Peppers did on both sides of the ball.
2. Ohio State
Gone: Curtis Samuel, HB
Samuel was a threat as both a runner and receiver, as he was the only player in the country to tally more than 700 yards in both roles. His departure came as a bit of a surprise, too, so Urban Meyer will need to find his next Percy Harvin-type weapon earlier than anticipated.
In: Demario McCall, rising sophomore
McCall made a strong impression as a freshman, as he rushed for 270 yards and three touchdowns and caught four passes for 84 yards and another score. The highly-touted running back from North Ridgeville (Ohio) High figures to take on more of an H-back role after playing mostly running back in 2016.
Gone: T.J. Watt, LB
Finally healthy, the former tight end emerged for the Cotton Bowl champion Badgers, leading the team in both tackles for a loss (15.5) and sacks (11.5). Watt also had 13 QB hurries, two forced fumbles and a pick-six, and he could hear his name called in the first two rounds this spring.
In: Garret Dooley, rising redshirt senior
In relief action in 2016, Dooley tallied 3.5 sacks, 6.5 TFLs and three QB hurries. He will most likely have plenty of chances to build off those numbers in 2017, as the Badgers go about replacing both Watt and position mate Vince Beigel.
4. Michigan State
Gone: Malik McDowell, DL
McDowell was a first-team All-Big Ten player this past season despite the Spartans’ rocky 3-9 campaign, as he tallied seven tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks while dealing with a number of injuries that forced him to miss the final three games of 2016. His raw talent alone makes him a potential first-round pick.
In: Raequan Williams, rising redshirt sophomore
Williams started three games in spot duty this past season, tallying five TFLs, two sacks and four QB hurries. Rising sophomore Mike Panasiuk saw three starts as well and should take on a bigger role.
Gone: Anthony Walker, LB
The first Wildcats player in 20 years to declare early for the draft leaves behind big shoes to fill, as he tallied 105 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, two sacks, one pick, six QB hurries and forced four fumbles this past season. He did this while dealing with some early injuries and also was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2015.
In: Nate Hall, rising redshirt junior
Hall has started the past 17 games for the Wildcats, but on the outside. Is he the man to slide into the Mike role? The production was certainly there this past season, as he was third on the Cats in tackles (73) and tallied six TFLs and two QB hurries.
6. Ohio State
Gone: Raekwon McMillan, LB
McMillan exits Columbus as one of the top linebackers in OSU history, leading the Buckeyes in tackles in each of the past two seasons. The former five-star prospect lived up to the hype and he figures to be one of the top linebackers drafted this spring.
In: Dante Booker, rising senior
Booker had an injury-ravaged junior season, one in which he entered expecting to start. So he has been unable to truly build off a sophomore 2015 campaign that saw him tally 22 tackles, as he played in just three games this past season. Still, the talent is there with Ohio’s 2013 Mr. Football, who will hopefully get a chance to show it off in 2017.
7. Ohio State
Gone: Malik Hooker, S
Hooker was an absolute playmaker whom multiple NFL teams will covet come this spring, as he drew comparisons to Ed Reed after a 2016 that saw him notch seven interceptions and return three for touchdowns, in addition to tallying 5.5 tackles for a loss.
In: Erick Smith, rising senior
Injuries have kept Smith from truly breaking out, as he tallied 16 tackles, including one TFL, to go with one breakup and one pass defended in 12 games in 2016. But he was a consensus four-star prospect and is considered a heavy hitter, meaning he’ll likely have dibs on trying to replace Hooker.
8. Ohio State
Gone: Marshon Lattimore, CB
Lattimore made the most of his first healthy season, tallying four picks — including one pick-six — to go with nine breakups and 13 passes defended. He is expected to be one of the first cornerbacks taken in the draft. The early departures of Lattimore and Gareon Conley mean OSU will have several new faces in its defensive backfield.
In: Denzel Ward, rising junior
Ward saw extensive action in 2016, playing in all 13 games and tallying 23 tackles, nine pass breakups and nine passes defended as OSU’s No. 3 corner. Ward is considered one of the Buckeyes’ fastest players and will be tasked with growing up quickly for a green secondary in 2017.
Gone: Ryan Ramczyk, OT
The 6-foot-6, 314-pound left tackle dazzled in his lone season playing for the Badgers after transferring from UW-Stevens Point in 2015, earning multiple All-America honors. He figures to be a first-round pick.
In: David Edwards, rising redshirt sophomore; or Jacob Maxwell, rising redshirt junior
Both players split time at right tackle in 2016, with Edwards replacing Maxwell due to injury. Don’t be surprised if both start in 2017 at the two tackle spots.
10. Penn State
Gone: Garrett Sickels, DE
Sickels led Penn State in tackles for a loss (12) and QB hurries (four), and was tied for first in sacks (six). He had 2.5 of those sacks in the second half of the big upset win over Ohio State. His departure, along with that of several seniors, leaves the Nittany Lions with some holes to fill up front on the D-line.
In: Shareef Miller, rising redshirt sophomore
There are going to be a number of new faces, but Miller is probably the most qualified to take a leading role, at least initially. He had 5.5 TFLs, two sacks, one QB hurry and one forced fumble in 2016.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.