In case you missed it: A number of high-profile college football stars declared early for the NFL Draft. Several even skipped their bowl games, which caused hysterics in some corners. In any event, it is now time for a new crop of talented reserves to step into the spotlight and fill some pretty big shoes for their respective programs.
Here are the 10 newcomers who have the biggest tasks on their hands in replacing their teams’ early exits.
Gone: Deshaun Watson, QB
What more needs to be said about Watson, who exits Clemson with a 32-3 record, three MVP awards over the four College Football Playoff games he played in, more than 11,000 yards of total offense and 115 touchdowns?
In: Kelly Bryant, rising junior
Dabo Swinney has said Bryant will enter spring atop the depth chart. Of course, it would be too much to ask Bryant to be the next Watson, and he’ll also face stiff competition for the job from Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson.
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.
Gone: Adoree’ Jackson, CB/return specialist
Much like Peppers, Jackson is so tough to replace because of his versatility. Yes, he’s a corner, and his five picks, 11 breakups and two fumble recoveries are noteworthy. But one of the fastest men in college football also returned two kicks for TDs, two punts for TDs and played some receiver as well.
In: Jack Jones, rising sophomore; and Deontay Burnett, rising junior
There are two people here for obvious reasons: Jones was a highly-touted recruit from Long Beach Poly who could take over as a starting corner. Burnett, meanwhile, has experience returning punts. (And had three receiving TDs in a memorable Rose Bowl.)
4. Florida State
Gone: Dalvin Cook, RB
Cook exits FSU as one of the best players in program history, and his Orange Bowl performance was a fitting finale. Cook rushed for 4,464 yards and 46 TDs in just three seasons, adding 935 receiving yards and two TD catches, often while playing hurt.
In: Jacques Patrick, rising junior
Patrick has rushed for 655 yards and nine TDs in reserve duty the past two seasons, but he — nor anyone else, for that matter — will likely not replicate what Cook was able to do. Elite tailback prospect Cam Akers has enrolled early and could figure into the picture from the start as well.
Gone: Christian McCaffrey, RB
The only reason McCaffrey isn’t higher on this list is because, unfortunately, the Cardinal already received a small taste of life without him, thanks to injury in 2016. Still, the 2015 Heisman runner-up set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards that fall, and he was a first-team All-Pac 12 performer again this season. He will be missed.
In: Bryce Love, rising junior
Love stepped into the spotlight throughout 2016, rushing for 779 yards and three TDs on just 112 carries, good for seven yards per carry. He added eight grabs for 83 yards and another score. Is he McCaffrey? No. But Stanford did go 10-3 this past season, with Love serving as the top offensive threat in several contests.
6. Texas A&M
Gone: Myles Garrett, DE
Garrett was a pass-rushing force for the Aggies, tallying 32.5 sacks in three years. An ankle injury limited him to just 8.5 sacks this year, but he improved against the run and figures to be one of the top players taken on the draft’s first night — if not the top pick overall.
In: Jarrett Johnson, rising senior; and Qualen Cunningham, rising senior
Johnson had 4.5 sacks and received extensive playing time when Garrett was injured. But it’s important to note that the Aggies lose Daeshon Hall, too, meaning they’ll need contributions from rising senior Qualen Cunningham and JUCO transfer Micheal Clemson as well.
Gone: Derek Barnett, DE
Much like Garrett, Barnett was seemingly unstoppable for the Volunteers, tallying double-digit sack numbers in each of his three years to top the late Reggie White’s school career record, as he finished with a career-best 13 sacks in 2016 for 33 in his career.
In: Kyle Phillips, rising junior
Phillips will undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but he has seen a good bit of playing time these past two seasons, tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack in mostly reserve action. He has shown the ability to play inside as well.
Gone: Budda Baker, S
Baker was a consensus first-team All-American, helping lead the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and the College Football Playoff by tallying a team-best 71 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss. He was, in some ways, a program-changing player for Chris Petersen in the head coach’s quest to help restore Washington to the top.
In: Taylor Rapp, rising sophomore
Rapp saw a bigger role as the season progressed and, given all of the turnover in the Huskies’ secondary in 2017, figures to become one of the leading faces of the defensive backfield. He earned multiple first-team freshman All-America honors after finishing fifth on the team with 53 tackles.
Gone: Leonard Fournette, RB
Fournette was an absolute stud for the Tigers, rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 TDs during a 2015 campaign that looked destined for him to win the Heisman Trophy. Injuries slowed him in 2016, as he missed five games, but he still tallied 843 yards on just 129 carries — including a school-record 284 yards against Ole Miss.
In: Derrius Guice, rising junior
There is a reason that Fournette — one of the greatest running backs in SEC history — is not ranked higher on this list. And that is because of Guice, who led the SEC in rushing in 2016, tallying 1,387 yards and 15 TDs on 183 carries, a clip of 7.6 ypc. Not bad.
10. Notre Dame
Gone: DeShone Kizer
Kizer ranks in the top 10 of Fighting Irish history in 19 different categories, winning team MVP honors after passing for 2,925 yards and 26 TDs, along with rushing for 472 yards and eight more scores. Though he oversaw a 4-8 season, Kizer was the definition of cool, calm and collected — something he showed on a moment’s notice in 2015, when he led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl after starting the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.
In: Brandon Wimbush, rising redshirt sophomore
The coaching staff loves Wimbush, a highly-coveted prospect out of New Jersey. That said, he could be replacing the top QB taken in the draft. And he’ll be working with a new offensive coordinator (Chip Long) in what is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for head coach Brian Kelly. No pressure, kid.
— 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.