One of the final steps in closing the book on the previous season is the NFL Draft deadline. College football underclassmen who are draft-eligible had until Monday to file declaration papers with the league, and while there is a 72-hour period for players to reconsider their decision before the final approval, we feel pretty good that these stars listed below are well on their way to being selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But what does that mean for the college programs they are leaving? Many of these departures have been expected, but that does not make replacing their production or value to the team any easier. Below we’ve taken a case-by-case look at some of college football‘s brightest stars to chose the early entry path to the NFL Draft, with some suggestions regarding who might be up next, starting with one of the least surprising announcements: the likely No. 1 overall pick from Clemson.
Replacement — DJ Uiagalelei: The good news for Clemson fans is we got to see a glimpse of what Uiagalelei can do when he stepped in for Lawrence as a result of a positive COVID-19 test. In back-to-back starts against Boston College and at Notre Dame, Uiagalelei completed 69.4% of his passes for an eye-popping 781 yards (at 9.2 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and no interceptions while adding an additional score on the ground in each game. We cannot dismiss the departure of a generational talent like Lawrence, especially considering the way he was able to carry the passing attack to school-record levels of production in the wake of significant turnover at wide receiver in 2020, but Uiagalelei is poised to step in and keep Clemson right in the thick of the national championship race in 2021.
Replacement — CJ Stroud: We may see Ohio State run a full competition with Stroud up against Gunnar Hoak and the rest of the quarterback room, but I think the Buckeyes offense is set up for the No. 2 pro-style quarterback from the 2020 recruiting class to thrive. Our partners at 247Sports rated California prospect higher than the industry average and with their recent success calling their shot — Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith was a five-star according to 247Sports but a four-star in the 247Sports Composite — I feel good jumping on board with Stroud as a real difference-maker next season.
Replacement — Bryce Young: Alabama is always going to deal with turnover due to early entries to the NFL Draft, but it’s a program that is arguably the most prepared to have players ready to go when their number is called. Patrick Surtain II leaving early? Well, Josh Jobe has already proven he’s ready to be the alpha in that secondary. Jaylen Waddle’s absence will certainly hurt, but players like John Metchie III and Slade Bolden performed well in his absence while he was out with an ankle injury. The one spot that is going to be the most dramatic is the quarterback position, where Jones set all kinds of records in what was one of the most prolific and efficient seasons we’ve seen in the college game.
Young has mobility to extend the play with his legs and an incredibly accurate arm that will help him take advantage of defenders that get caught with their eyes in the backfield. That kind of precise passing is exactly what the modern Alabama offense is built off, and now we get to see it with arguably the perfect fit in terms of skill set. Young was the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, and given the kind of blowouts we saw from Alabama on the way to a national championship, he got to see plenty of live reps this fall.
Replacements — Kemore Gamble, Keon Zipperer: The thing that’s so tough to break down about losing Pitts is he isn’t just a tight end. Pitts was moved all around the Gators offense, split out as a wide receiver, put in motion to find matchup advantages against inside defenders and generally playing the role of all-purpose pass-catching weapon. So while we’ve got two solid tight end options listed here, Pitts production will also need to be picked up by another big-bodied receiver like Justin Shorter or Trent Whittemore. Another piece of good news is that Florida’s tight end room is very deep right now with a pair of promising true freshman in Nick Elksnis and Gage Wilcox. UF is also going after LSU transfer Arik Gilbert, who would be more of a direct replacement for PItts if he lands in Gainesville, Florida.
Replacement — Noah Shannon: Nixon is the only early entry but we’re dealing with a huge loss of production from the Hawkeyes defensive line. Nixon led the Big Ten in tackles for loss (13.5) and was tied for second in sacks (5.5) with teammate Chauncey Golston, who was also tied for No. 8 in the conference in tackles for loss with teammate Zach VanValkenburg (8.5). The production of these three alone — Nixon, a junior, and the senior duo of Golston and VanValkenburg — will not be matched by any one player, but Shannon has an opportunity to make a similar leap to what we saw from Nixon from rotational player to starter and star with all the playing time available up front.
Replacement — Kayshon Boutte: We already got to see some of LSU’s plans to replace Chase and Marshall with the former opting out before the year started and the latter doing so with three games left to play. That was an opportunity for Boutte, a five-star consensus player and No. 1 prospect from the state of Louisiana, to begin what should be a prolific career. In the three games after Marshall opted out, Boutte totaled 111 yards against Alabama, 108 yards and a touchdown against Florida then exploded for 308 yards and three touchdowns on 14 catches in the 53-48 win against Ole Miss to close the season. As long as Ed Orgeron stays committed to the spread, the future is bright for Boutte; and as long as Boutte is on the roster, it’s in Coach O’s best interest to get him as many touches as possible.
Replacement — Jahfari Harvey: Like Chase at LSU, we got a glimpse of Miami’s efforts to replace the outgoing underclassman in 2020 with Rousseau opting out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. But the Hurricanes were able to bolster that strong defensive line with senior Quincy Roche, a transfer from Temple, playing opposite a former five-star prospect in Phillips. Now Rousseau, Phillips and Roche are all gone, and one of the players expected to help keep the standard high for Manny Diaz’s defensive line is Harvey. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound defensive end was a redshirt freshman in 2020 who mostly played as a rotation player but made first career start in the bowl game against Oklahoma State with Phillips opting out. Harvey showed out the heavier workload, totaling 1.5 tackles for loss and a strip-sack of Cowboys’ quarterback Spencer Sanders in the 37-34 loss.
Replacement — Kelee Ringo: It gets easy to look at talent-rich teams like Georgia and assume that there’s always a four-star or five-star waiting in the wings, making early entry NFL Draft departures less of a concern and more of the nature of doing business. And to be fair, the Bulldogs did take over the No. 1 spot in the 247Sports Total Team Talent Composite in 2020 with 67 four-star or five-star prospects among the 85 players on the roster. But I’m not so sure that losing your top two corners is something we should overlook, especially given the talent level of Campbell and Stokes. Georgia’s coaches are excited about the future with Ringo, the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, even after he missed the season after undergoing labrum surgery in August. He was able to practice a little and the expectation is he will be ready to live up to the hype that comes with being one of the highest-rated defensive backs to ever sign with the Bulldogs.
Replacement — Ty Chandler: The transfer from Tennessee, who left Knoxville as the program’s fifth all-team career rusher with 3,291 yards, will get the headlines but this is another situation where it will be a committee approach for the Tar Heels on the ground. That’s no surprise after seeing both Williams and Michael Carter (a senior in 2020) rush for more than 1,000 yards each this season and play a key role as a receivers out of the backfield for Sam Howell. Keep your eye on junior British Brooks after a good performance in the bowl game along with a pair of exciting incoming freshmen in Kamarro Edmonds and Caleb Hood when the season gets going. However, Chandler’s experience and career production makes him a likely favorite to see significant action in North Carolina’s prolific offensive attack.
Replacement — Baylor Romney: It seemed important to highlight this turnover not as much because I’m sold on Romney, the brother of Cougars star wide receiver Gunner Romney, as a comparable talent to Wilson but instead to note the huge loss the quarterback leaves in his early departure. Wilson set a new school record for touchdown-to-interception ratio (33 scores, three picks), broke Steve Young’s single-season completion percentage record and his yards per attempt on the year fell second only to Ty Detmer. Romney not only has big shoes to fill but is doing it with a new offensive coordinator after Jeff Grimes was hired away by Baylor. The 2020 season was an all-timer for BYU offense, and with quarterback and OC gone, there’s a high standard to meet in 2021.