College football's 13 breakout candidates and replacements as spring practice 2019 begins
As college football says goodbye to some of its top talents, here are players who should step up this spring
Sandwiched between the NFL Combine last week and the NFL Draft in late April are the bulk of spring practices and spring games across college football. In many cases, the same guys that ripped up the combine and are expecting to hear their names called early in the draft are the players that college coaches are scrambling to find replacements for over next few weeks.
Of course, some are harder to replace than others. For a few fortunate programs, the next man up is already in line. Here are 10 critical answers for depth chart holes across college football.
Penn State running back Journey Brown: Miles Sanders' 4.49-second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine supported what we already knew: Penn State has been on a tear at the running back position. With Sanders off to the NFL, Penn State looks for another next man up opportunity with a loaded room. Most likely we'll see a committee approach from the Nittany Lions with the arrival of two of the most college-ready true freshmen backs in the nation, a dynamic sophomore in Ricky Slade and even a Notre Dame transfer in CJ Holmes. But quietly, Brown may be the name to watch. He flew under the radar in high school as an in-state prospect without much fanfare, but he was a three-sport athlete with 7,000 career rushing yards that ran 10.4 in the 100 meters. He'll be a redshirt sophomore this fall, and it could be his turn to breakout.
Texas wide receiver Bru McCoy: Lil'Jordan Humphrey was a workhorse for Texas in 2018 with 86 receptions and nearly 1,200 yards receiving. While another big target remains at wide receiver in Collin Johnson, Texas' offense will miss the big-play opportunistic Humphrey. Insert McCoy, a true freshman who is technically a transfer from USC after enrolling there in January before changing course towards Austin, Texas. He is a five-star prospect, physically ready and -- more importantly -- mentally ready. McCoy is mature, competitive and already making a strong impression on people around the program. In an offense that utilizes big-bodied pass-catchers effectively, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound McCoy, who has linebacker experience, should make an immediate impact.
Mississippi State defensive linemen Fabian Lovett and Chauncey Rivers: One of the best defenses in the country last season was powered by one of the top defensive line duos in first-round talents Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. If Mississippi State is to run it back next season, new faces will need to take the next step. On the interior, Lovett comes out of a redshirt season and pairs up with Lee Autry as an underhyped but really talented duo with the potential to take a huge step in 2019. On the edge there's even less uncertainty. Rivers, Marquiss Spencer and Kobe Jones should provide plenty of juice. So even if it's five guys to replace two, the Bulldogs still have players.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields: The Nick Bosa replacement (Chase Young) had 10.5 sacks last year. The Parris Campbell replacement (KJ Hill) had over 800 yards receiving. The Haskins replacement (Fields) has yet to start a game. That doesn't change the expectations, however. Fields' arrival from Georgia and immediate eligibility has brought a national title ceiling to Ohio State's 2019 campaign. The No. 2 player in the country coming out of high school -- an elite athlete and thrower -- Fields and his new coach Ryan Day are little more than a bundle of expectation at this point. They're counting on each other to pay those off.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson: In this case, we're talking about replacing more than just on-field production but the leadership that the Wolverines are losing after seeing some of their veteran starters depart. Whether it's the freaky athleticism of Rashan Gary, the leadership and playmaking of Devin Bush or the relentless motor of Chase Winovich, the defining faces of Michigan's stout defense are gone. As a new identity emerges for Michigan's 2019 unit, a new bell cow will need to step forward as well. Hutchinson is the best candidate for that role. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-6 lineman carved out 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss but flashed elite ability. With more snaps and higher expectations, Hutchinson will become a national name.
Clemson defensive lineman Xavier Thomas: Fortunately for the rest of the ACC, Clemson's NFL defensive line is finally gone. Unfortunately for the rest of the ACC, the guys behind them are just as good. In particular, Thomas, the former No. 4 player in the nation in the Class of 2018, is the next Clemson freak up front. He had 43 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks -- purely as a backup. When he actually gets a full workload this fall, he's going to become one of the premier defensive line talents in all of college football.
LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.: We're a few days removed from Greedy Williams running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. We're a month and a half ahead of him getting drafted in the first or second round. LSU is one of the few schools that can seamlessly fill a hole that big and in this case, the answer is coming from the high school ranks. Yes, Kristian Fulton could be on the verge of a first round-propelling season of his own, but Stingley's arrival is going to make Fulton's job that much easier. How good is Stingley, the No. 2 player in the Class of 2019? Well, he's 6-foot-1, runs a 4.3 40 and enrolled in time to practice for a week with the Tigers during bowl prep. During that week, he collected three interceptions, including one off of starting quarterback Joe Burrow.
Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood: Remember the last time Alabama won a national championship? It was all the way back in January of 2018 when then freshman Tua Tagovailoa connected with then freshman Devonta Smith in the end zone to top Georgia 26-23. On that play, it wasn't Jonah Williams lined up at left tackle, it was the then-freshman Leatherwood, subbing for the oft-injured future first-rounder. Now with Williams permanently out the door, it's time for Leatherwood, the former No. 4 player in the nation, to take the reins. He's part of a 2017 recruiting class that is the second-highest ranked class of all time, according to 247Sports. Now that class is entering its third season on campus and looking for another national title.
Kentucky linebacker Jamar Watson: Josh Allen was the epitome of Kentucky defense last fall -- under-recruited, overachieving, talented and productive. Now the former two-star is gone to become a likely top five pick in April's NFL Draft, it's Watson's turn. Another underrecruited but rapidly progressing defensive talent, he had five sacks, 24 tackles and a forced fumble as a redshirt sophomore last season. Along with Allen, he benefited from the arrival of Brad White from the NFL last season to work with the outside linebackers. Now White has been promoted to defensive coordinator and Watson looks talented enough to give his coach at least a taste of what Allen provided last fall.
Washington defensive backs Dominique Hampton, Julius Irvin and Kyler Gordon: You've got to hand it to Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. What he has built -- in terms of talent, depth and development at defensive back -- is as impressive as any positional pipeline in college football. The Huskies are making up ground on the DBU debates typically relegated to Florida, LSU, Texas and a select few others. Despite potentially losing two more to the first round in Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy, the room is as healthy as ever. While Keith Taylor is a veteran presence that will be poised to step into a bigger role this fall, Washington also has three defenders in Hampton, Irvin and Gordon that all redshirted last fall but all look like candidates to become first or second rounders of their own. Hampton in particular is drawing rave reviews.
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