The Big Ten may not be the conference leading the way in the NFL draft these days, but there will be plenty of underclassmen from Big Ten programs making some waves come late April. From a potential top quarterback prospect to a handful of top defensive linemen, the Big Ten could be well-represented in the draft this season just with underclassmen alone.
But once those players have left for good, who will fill the voids they leave behind? In some cases, the vacancies have already begun to be filled by rising players filling in during time lost due to injury or decisions to sit out bowl games. But not every player leaving early has an easy solution for a head coach to move on to right away. Here is a look at 10 players or positions with big shoes to fill due to early declarations for the NFL draft.
1. Ohio State
Gone: Dwayne Haskins, QB
Ohio State’s best quarterback prospect of the Urban Meyer era is looking like a potential top draft prospect for any NFL team in need of one for their franchise. Coming off a season with 50 touchdowns and just eight interceptions while leading Ohio State to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory, Haskins has continued to intrigue NFL scouts with his abilities. Meyer may not have a strong history of quarterbacks in the NFL since Alex Smith, but Haskins appears to be his best prospect at the position since the 2005 No. 1 overall pick came out of Utah.
In: Justin Fields, transfer from Georgia
If Fields wins an appeal to become eligible right away at Ohio State in 2019, then he will be the next in line to follow Haskins. With Tate Martell transferring to Miami, having Fields ruled eligible for the upcoming fall would be big news for the Buckeyes as he is a former top-rated Class of 2018 recruit and would seemingly be capable of stepping right in. Not having Fields as an option (Matthew Baldwin?) would make this a bit messier of a situation for 2019, but would only delay his arrival by a year.
Gone: Rashan Gary, DE
In addition to losing fifth-year senior Chase Winovich on the defensive line, the Wolverines will also have to replace Gary, one of the biggest recruits of the Jim Harbaugh era in Ann Arbor. Despite missing some playing time this season due to nagging injuries, Gary was Michigan’s sixth-leading tackler with 44 in nine games. He registered 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a defensive force in the trenches. He has been viewed as one of the top defensive line prospects in a year that could be good for the position.
In: Kwity Paye, rising sophomore
The most likely replacement for Gary may be Paye. The sophomore was given an opportunity to fill in for the injured Gary this season and ended the campaign with 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, and two sacks. Paye has backed up both Gary and Winovich, so he feels like a natural selection to be moved into a starting role next fall.
3. Penn State
Gone: Miles Sanders, RB
After replacing Saquon Barley as Penn State’s top running back, Sanders rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns. Although they were different types of running backs, Sanders proved to be a valuable asset in the Penn State offense this past season.
In: Ricky Slade, rising sophomore
The next featured running back in the mix may be Slade, who appeared in nine games this season and scored six touchdowns. A former five-star running back prospect, Slade has some great potential to keep the running back position on strong footing in Happy Valley. Another name to keep an eye on will be C.J. Holmes, the Notre Dame transfer who sat out the 2018 season after leaving the Irish for the Nittany Lions. Holmes is a former four-star running back recruit in the Class of 2017 and could take advantage of a second chance after his dismissal from Notre Dame.
Gone: Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, TE
Iowa has had the luxury of having two NFL-caliber tight ends playing in their offense the last couple of seasons, and both are on the move to the next level this spring. Fant and Hockenson, this year's Mackey Award winner, have both decided to declare early for the NFL draft after being Iowa’s top two receivers in 2018. The two tight ends accounted for 1,279 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
In: Nate Wieting, rising redshirt junior
The next man up appears to be Wieting, the only other tight end other than Fant or Hockenson to catch a pass in the past two seasons. Wieting lacks stats after appearing in 18 games the past two seasons as a backup to Iowa’s top two tight ends. In 18 games, Wieting has caught three passes for 68 yards with no touchdowns.
5. Michigan State
Gone: LJ Scott, RB
Scott’s final season in East Lansing did not go quite as he had probably hoped. Scott appeared in just five games due to a handful of injury concerns last fall. Although he contemplated coming back for another season, instead opted to go pro. Scott never had a 1,000-yard rushing season but was a workhorse for the Spartans' offense.
In: Connor Heyward, rising junior
This is an obvious option for Mark Dantonio. Heyward was Michigan State’s leading rusher in 2018 with 529 rushing yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. Heyward also added 249 receiving yards. Heyward has the ability to open things up for a Spartans offense in desperate need of lighting some sparks in 2019. Freshman La’Darius Jefferson should continue to develop as a secondary option as well.
Gone: David Edwards, OL
Wisconsin will have some fresh faces stepping into some big shoes on the offensive line next fall. The loss of Edwards early to the draft opened up one more spot to plug, although his decision was to be expected given he contemplated going pro the year before.
In: Logan Bruss, rising redshirt sophomore
Bruss has already gotten his feet wet on the offensive line for the Badgers after appearing in 13 games this past season. His game experience should pave the way to a starting role next fall for a unit that has typically been one of the consistent strengths in Madison.
7. Penn State
Gone: Connor McGovern, OL
Another offensive lineman leaving early is McGovern. He is one of the most experienced linemen Penn State had as a three-year starter during one of the most successful three-year stretches for Penn State’s offense in a long time.
In: Michael Menet, current Penn State center
The loss of McGovern may give Penn State a chance to re-work their offensive line a bit. Although his departure could open up a position battle between a few younger options, the more dependable option may be to move Menet from center back to his more natural position of offensive guard. Menet's size (6-4, 298) makes for a more suitable option at right guard.
Gone: Devin Bush, LB
One of Michigan’s top defensive players this past season was Bush, a finalist for the Butkus Award. Bush was Michigan’s leading tackler with 79 this past season, including 9.0 tackles for a loss and five sacks for one of the nation's top-ranked defenses. Bush should be one of the top linebackers off the board in the 2019 NFL Draft.
In: Josh Ross, experienced sophomore
This one is an easy call. Ross has already taken advantage of extra playing time in the absence of Bush in the Peach Bowl and he finished the 2018 season as Michigan’s fourth-leading tackler. His role will be elevated as he takes over for Bush in 2019 and becomes one of the defensive leaders of the Wolverines.
9. Ohio State
Gone: Dre’Mont Jones, DT and Nick Bosa, DE
Ohio State’s defensive line has a couple of big names to replace next fall. Nick Bosa, who cut his season short after suffering a core muscle injury, has been preparing for the NFL draft since mid-October and could be one of the top defensive linemen to hear his name called on draft day, if not the No. 1 overall pick. Jones took on the lead role for Ohio State’s defensive line in Bosa's absence.
In: Chase Young and Haskell Garrett, rising juniors
The early departure of Bosa led to the emergence of Chase, who took over a starting role and ended the season as the second-leading tackler on Ohio State’s defensive line behind Jones. Young has already proven worthy of moving into a starting role on the line in 2019. That leaves one more spot to fill. Garrett appeared in 14 games for the Buckeyes this season and that experience may give him the inside track to push for a starting role in 2019.
10. Ohio State
Gone: Mike Weber Jr., RB
Joining the group of early-departing Buckeyes is Weber. His decision to move on to the NFL was hardly a surprise either. After leading Ohio State in rushing with 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016, Weber has been replaced as the top rushing threat by the rise of J.K. Dobbins, who could very well be on his way to the NFL after next season. Weber was still a strong part of the running game in Columbus and his departure will lead to a vacant spot to help complement Dobbins as the Buckeyes' offense could rely on the running game next season if the quarterback transition doesn't go according to plan.
In: Master Teague (rising sophomore) or Brian Snead (rising redshirt freshman)
Ohio State has some high-quality running back depth through some strong recruiting efforts. Having a pair of four-star running backs in the Class of 2018 with Teague and Snead gives Ohio State an optimistic look at how to find a complement to Dobbins. Teague appeared in seven games in 2018 with 106 rushing yards and a touchdown to show for it. Snead appeared in just two games with 11 rushing attempts for 37 yards.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.