Biggest shoes to fill on offense in '12
One of the many trappings of college football is that it’s forever changing, a perennial revolving door of talent and new faces on every campus and in every corner of the map. Out with the old and in with the new.
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Yeah, of course you’ll miss watching the exploits of quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Kellen Moore, but those pangs will last only a few weeks, or about as long as it takes for fans to scare up some video clips of their successors.
Like the changing of the seasons, college football moves on at a pace that’s about as anticipated as spring following winter. The junior becomes a senior, the sophomore becomes a junior, the freshman becomes a sophomore, and the redshirt is removed from a whole swath of last year’s talented and upwardly mobile rookies. It’s a timeless process that moves with all of the precision of a fine timepiece.
The sport has lost a slew of senior stars since the end of the bowl season. Big whoop. In their place is a collection of young and relatively inexperienced players eagerly pining to fill the void. Here's a look at graduating seniors who left the biggest shoes to fill on offense:
Versatile, durable and enormous, Glenn leaves a gaping hole up front for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-5, 345-pounder was a four-year starter in Athens, 28 games at left guard, four at right guard and 18 at left tackle. The responsibility of protecting the blind side of QB Aaron Murray could fall to Long, provided he can remain healthy for the long haul. The former can’t-miss recruit from 2009 has been sidetracked by back surgery, among other physical ailments, and only last year started making cameos as Glenn’s backup. He still has the requisite talent and intensity to become a cog in a line that needs to replace three starters. First, he must prove he can hold up physically for an entire offseason and a slate of at least 12 games.
Although Fleener will certainly leave a hole on offense, the Cardinal are uniquely positioned to not skip a beat at tight end. Yeah, busting seams won’t be as commonplace in 2012, but Ertz and Toilolo will make sure that Andrew Luck’s successor still has big, reliable targets with which to connect. The new quarterback will delight to find one of his tight ends exploiting the soft spots in defenses, checking down without running out of options. Ertz is a 6-6, 250-pounder who caught 27 balls for 346 yards and four touchdowns in only 10 games. The 6-8, 263-pound Toilolo is even harder to miss around the end zone. He made 25 grabs for 343 yards and six scores last fall. Both have the tools to continue playing on Sundays when they’re through at Stanford.
Even after losing the lethal combination of Robert Griffin III to Wright, the Bears feel they will present problems for opposing defenses through the air. This is still an Art Briles production. Despite the loss of the explosive Wright, the pass catchers will be dangerous. Williams and Reese are hardly going to sneak up on anyone, but they’re liable to procure more national recognition now that the headliner is on his way to the NFL. Williams will continue to work the outside, where he chipped in 59 catches for 957 yards and 11 touchdowns. Reese, who runs his routes from the slot, made 51 grabs for 877 yards and seven scores. Together, they’ll help make the transition for new QB Nick Florence just a wee bit smoother this fall.
Not only has last year’s Big 12 offensive lineman of the year graduated, but so has his reliable backup, Casey LaBrue. Next in line, at least according to the season-ending depth chart, is senior-to-be Evan Epstein. While the transfer from the Air Force Academy knows the system and playbook intimately, he has played sparingly in Stillwater since he arrived in 2009. If he proves unable to handle the promotion, the Cowboys might be inclined to shift one of the guards inside, or fast track a rookie. Recent three-star signee Paul Lewis is one such newcomer who could get a long look between now and the opener.
When the announcement came down from the NCAA that Dworaczyk had received a sixth year of eligibility, the Tigers let out a collective sigh of relief. Although it’s never easy to replace an All-American road grader such as Blackwell, the process is far less painful when a three-time letterwinner is waiting in the wings. Dworaczyk was, arguably, LSU’s most consistent blocker entering the 2011 season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice last August. A two-year starter at left guard and fundamentally sound all-around blocker, he’s the ideal candidate to become the veteran leader of the front wall in 2012.
Molk was a piece of granite at the pivot for the Wolverines, copping consensus All-America honors and the Rimington Trophy in 2011. He leaves behind an impressive legacy in Ann Arbor. The early favorite to succeed him will be his backup of the past few seasons, rising senior Khoury. The 6-4, 287-pound veteran of three letters will need to clean up his snaps, which became an issue at the Sugar Bowl. He’s a good athlete, with the versatility to play guard, but won’t even approach Molk’s ability to overpower his opponents. Few do. If Khoury leaves the door open in the spring, the staff might be inclined to shift a guard, such as Ricky Barnum, inside to plug the hole.
Basically, the race to replace Wilson, the one-year gift for the Badgers, will be wide-open and unpredictable right through August. Not only is there no sure-thing in the on-deck circle, but two of the contenders are recovering from challenging injuries. Budmayr suffered from a nerve problem in his throwing elbow that required surgery. Phillips is looking to bounce back from knee surgery. Brennan was the backup by default as a redshirt freshman in 2011, playing briefly in six games. Might Danny O’Brien be the answer in Madison? The former Maryland hurler, and 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year, is transferring from the Terps. And since he’ll already have his degree, like Wilson, he’d be immediately eligible for his next program.
The hope around East Lansing is that Cousins rubbed off on Maxwell during the past three years. The soon-to-be pro is the kind of quarterback coaches want their field generals to emulate, inside and away from the stadium. Now entering his junior year, Maxwell has been groomed for this job since he graduated from Midland (Mich.) High School. He possesses the physical skills and overall makeup to handle what promises to be a difficult and much-publicized promotion. Although no one will know for sure how well he’ll handle the job until September, the transition actually begins in the spring. Not only must No. 10 show that he can make all of the throws, but he also must start becoming one of the leaders of the offense.
Weeden is gone. So is wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who caught more than half of the quarterback’s scoring strikes in 2011. Still, as long as Mike Gundy has been the head coach in Stillwater, Oklahoma State has rarely had problems developing capable passers. First dibs on becoming the coach’s next pupil belongs to Chelf, last season’s backup. The fourth-year junior has played sparingly during his career, exclusively coming off the bench in mop-up duty. Although he won’t match Weeden’s zip on his throws, he can make things happen on the move, breaking containment and connecting outside the pocket. Plus, he has been around the system for a long time, which is a huge advantage in the race for this opening.
Sooners QB Landry Jones wasn’t the same player after Broyles was lost for the year, throwing one touchdown to six picks in the final four games. Oklahoma wants to make sure that no such bout with aerial futility occurs in 2012. The program certainly harbors gifted pass-catchers, but Broyles was in a league of his own the past few seasons. Stills has an opportunity to vie for Big 12 and national honors this fall, especially as the preferred target of one of the game’s premier passers. He has caught 61 passes in each of his first two years out of high school, and that was as a second option. His offseason development is particularly important because the team’s other top wideout, Jaz Reynolds, is still recovering from a kidney injury suffered last Dec. 3.
All Keenum did during his storied career as a Cougar is break just about every significant NCAA passing record. He’ll be difficult to replace, but not impossible, especially in a pass-happy system designed to maximize the talents of a quarterback. Piland is a classic gunslinger out of the same powerhouse high school, Carroll in Southlake, Texas, that produced current pros Chase Daniel and Greg McElroy. He has had an unconventional first two seasons in Houston, throwing 24 touchdown passes as a rookie in 2010 after Keenum injured his knee, before sitting out 2011 as a redshirt. Having used last fall to get a little stronger and a lot better acclimated with his surroundings, Piland is poised to explode out of the chute in his third season on campus.
Like a baseball pitcher, quarterbacks are judged by their number of wins. No one won more college football games than Moore . . . ever. His shoes are, arguably, bigger than any other departed senior across the country. Southwick, last season’s No. 2, would probably be the starter if the season began next week, but since it doesn’t, Grant Hedrick and even rookie Nick Patti can’t be eliminated from the competition. Southwick, about to begin his fourth season on campus, has completed 40 of 54 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns and a pick in 17 career appearances. He has spent the past three years surrounded by Moore and head coach Chris Petersen, which is about as valuable an apprenticeship as a young quarterback can get at this level.