College football’s 2014 season is still several months away, and spring practice won’t begin for many teams until March. However, it’s never too early to look ahead. With the official list of early entries into the draft finalized, a clear picture is starting to form on how the teams will stack up in 2014.
Texas A&M is just one school replacing key players, as quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans declared for the NFL Draft. Manziel’s replacement could be senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill or true freshman Kyle Allen.
Louisville is another team looking to fill a huge void under center. Teddy Bridgewater is expected to be one of the first players off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft, leaving big shoes to fill for the Cardinals. Sophomore Will Gardner is expected to replace Bridgewater, and he will have the luxury of throwing to standout receiver DeVante Parker in 2014.
In addition to Will Gardner and the quarterbacks at Texas A&M, we tried to identify 10 players under the spotlight replacing some of the biggest names in college football next year. This isn’t a complete list of replacements for the top players or departing All-Americans, but these players are just a small sample of names to watch next year.
10 Players Replacing the Biggest Names in College Football in 2014
Kyle Allen/Kenny Hill/Matt Joeckel, QB, Texas A&M
Replacing a starting quarterback in college football is a difficult assignment for any team. But try replacing a Heisman winner that accounted for 9,989 yards and 93 touchdowns in two seasons. That’s the task facing Kyle Allen, Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel in College Station next season, as Johnny Manziel chose to leave for the NFL after two years. Hill ranked as the No. 24 quarterback in the 2013 signing class by Athlon Sports. He played in four games as a true freshman, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown. Hill also rushed for 37 yards. Joeckel has the most experience of any quarterback on the roster, owning 49 career pass attempts. He started the season opener against Rice due to a one-half suspension for Manziel. While Hill and Joeckel own an edge in experience, Allen is the name to watch. The Arizona native ranks as the No. 10 overall prospect in the 2014 signing class by 247Sports and will enroll in time to compete in spring practice. Regardless of who wins the starting job, the supporting cast should be among the best in the SEC. If Allen quickly picks up the offense in spring practice, his talent will win out over the experience of Joeckel and Hill.
Ben Braden/Erik Magnuson, OT, Michigan
Michigan’s offense finished 2013 ranked a disappointing 10th in the Big Ten by averaging 373.5 yards per game. In order for the Wolverines to contend with Ohio State and Michigan State in the East Division in 2014, the offensive line has to improve. But that’s easier said than done, especially as the unit’s most consistent and best lineman have expired their eligibility (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). Lewan was a second-team Associated Press All-American and started 48 games in his career. The interior of the line was a huge problem in 2013 but losing Lewan and Schofield is an even bigger concern for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Filling Lewan’s place on the line could be Braden or Magnuson. Braden played in two games in 2013, while Magnuson made seven starts at guard. Considering all of the problems on the interior in 2013, Michigan’s problems aren’t limited to just one position. However, if Braden or Magnuson can’t anchor the left side of the line, the Wolverines’ offense will be stuck in neutral once again in 2014.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Since 2010, three Alabama linebackers have been selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, and departing senior C.J. Mosley is likely to increase that total in 2014. Is Foster next in the line of standout Crimson Tide linebackers? He was the No. 7 overall player in the 2013 signing class and played sparingly as a true freshman, recording 12 tackles in nine appearances. Foster was listed as the backup to Trey DePriest in the middle, but he will be tough to keep off the field next season. And at 6-foot-1, 244 pounds, Foster is already one of the Crimson Tide’s most physical defenders. Expect Foster to be a household name in the SEC next year.
Will Gardner, QB, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater leaves big shoes to fill in the Louisville offense after throwing for 9,817 yards and 72 touchdowns over the last three seasons. But the Cardinals won’t slip too much on offense in their first season in the ACC. New coach Bobby Petrino is one of the top offensive minds in the conference, and receiver DeVante Parker decided to return for his final season at Louisville instead of entering the NFL Draft. Gardner is slated to replace Bridgewater this spring as the No. 1 quarterback. The Georgia native was a three-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and redshirted in his first season on campus after tearing his ACL. Gardner didn’t see a ton of action in 2013, completing only 8 of 12 passes for 112 yards and two scores. He did not record a pass attempt in the final five games of the season. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Gardner has the physical tools a coach wants in a quarterback. With Parker returning at receiver and Michael Dyer and Dominique Brown back at running back, Gardner won’t have to win games on his own next year.
Joshua Garnett, OG, Stanford
A staple of Stanford’s success over the last four seasons has been the offensive line. The Cardinal has owned one of the nation’s top groups during that span, but this unit has to be remodeled for 2014. Four starters are gone, including standout guard David Yankey and tackle Cameron Fleming. While offensive lines usually take a few games to jell, the Cardinal won’t be short on talent in the trenches. Left tackle Andrus Peat should be in the mix for All-America honors next year, while Garnett, Connor McFadden, Kyle Murphy, Johnny Caspers and Graham Shuler will battle to round out the starting five. Garnett was a key reserve in 2013 and made one start against Washington State. The Washington native was a four-star prospect by 247Sports in the 2012 signing class and played in all 14 games as a true freshman. Yankey will be missed, but Garnett is a future star on Stanford’s offensive line.
Nile Lawrence-Stample, DT, Florida State
Florida State doesn’t lose much talent off its national championship team, but the Seminoles have a glaring concern at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan left early for the NFL after a standout junior campaign, leaving the defense with a group of talented, but largely inexperienced options. In addition to Jernigan, Demonte McAllister and Jacobbi McDaniel also depart from the interior. Lawrence-Stample is the team’s top returning defensive tackle after starting six games and recording 15 tackles. The Florida native has played in 21 career contests and was rated as a four-star prospect by 247Sports in the 2011 signing class. Lawrence-Stample doesn’t need to be Jernigan, but he also needs to have a bigger role in the defense next year. His 305-pound frame will be critical to stopping the run at the point of attack. Helping Lawrence-Stample on the interior will be Keith Bryant, Justin Hanks, Derek Mitchell and Desmond Hollin. There’s talent here, but how quickly will this group develop?
Darryl Render, DT, Pittsburgh
Aaron Donald closed out an outstanding career in the Steel City by winning the Bronko Nagurski, Lombardi, Bednarik and Outland trophies, along with garnering several first-team All-American honors in 2013. Donald’s production and attention he required from opposing offensive lines will be tough for Render to replace in 2014. However, Render has flashed plenty of ability over the last two seasons and should be a key cog in Pittsburgh’s line next year. As a true freshman in 2012, he made one start and recorded six tackles. Render was more active around the line of scrimmage as a sophomore, playing in all 13 games and registering 25 stops. With Donald and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell both out of eligibility, the interior of Pittsburgh’s line will have a different look next year. Render showed improvement as the 2013 season progressed, and all signs point to another year of growth in 2014.
Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans are losing a couple of key pieces from their Big Ten Championship defense, starting in the trenches with tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds and continuing into the back seven with linebacker Max Bullough and in the secondary with Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. We could focus on any of those areas, but let’s put the spotlight on Waynes. Dennard was one of the nation’s top defensive backs over the last few seasons and a true shut down corner. Waynes started all 14 games for Michigan State in 2014 and finished the year with 50 tackles, three interceptions and five pass breakups. With Dennard out of eligibility, Waynes will become the No. 1 cornerback for the Spartans. Is he up to the task of matching up against the top receiver against opposing offenses?
Myles Willis, RB, Boston College
Boston College was one of the biggest surprises in the ACC last season, finishing 7-6 under new coach Steve Addazio. The Eagles should be back in the mix for a bowl next year, but Addazio has some work to do on offense. Quarterback Chase Rettig, running back Andre Williams and receiver Alex Amidon all must be replaced. Williams led the nation with an average of 167.5 rushing yards per game. That type of production will be hard to replace, but Willis showed he is a capable replacement from a limited stint last season. The Georgia native rushed 60 times for 346 yards and two touchdowns in 2013. He was also a weapon on kick returns, taking one of his 30 attempts back for a touchdown. When Andre Williams missed time due to a shoulder injury at Syracuse, Willis rushed 17 times for 70 yards. Boston College should have a solid offensive line next year, and with a new quarterback taking over, the ground attack should be the focus of the offense. Willis is only 5-foot-9 and 187 pounds, so he isn’t likely to handle 250 or more carries. However, he should be a key cog in the Eagles’ offense next year.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s passing game will look significantly different in 2014. Quarterback Tajh Boyd expired his eligibility, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant left early for the NFL. But the news isn’t all bad for the Tigers. Coordinator Chad Morris didn’t leave for a head coaching gig, and the staff should feel confident in Boyd’s potential replacements (Deshaun Watson, Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly). With Watkins and Bryant leaving, Williams needs to step up and emerge as one of the top targets for the new quarterback. As a true freshman in 2013, Williams caught 20 passes for 316 yards and three scores. His best performance came against Citadel, catching three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Williams won’t be the only receiver returning for Clemson, as Adam Humphries and Charone Peake round out a talented trio of options. However, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds with plenty of upside, the Tigers are counting on Williams to be a breakout receiver in 2014.