Top replacements for the early entries

BY foxsports • January 19, 2011

Every January, four to five dozen sophomores and juniors declare themselves as early entries into the NFL Draft. While they are sobering announcements for the schools they leave behind, they’re not such bad news for those heirs apparent.

For every player who leaves early, there are two or three holdovers staring at the opening with wide eyes. From the Carolinas to California, applications already are being taken for a slew of new jobs that have opened up over the past couple of weeks. Here’s a look at the players leaving and the top candidates to replace them:

LB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
Opens the door for: Jordan Zumalt. As much as it hurts to lose Ayers, the Bruins are not without young talent at linebacker. Zumalt started four games on the inside as a true freshman, but has the size to take over at strongside. He had 32 tackles and three sacks, joining fellow freshman LB Patrick Larimore as budding stars of Westwood.

WR Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh
Opens the door for: Devin Street. Although starter Mike Shanahan might wind up being the leading receiver, Street is poised to replace Baldwin as the deep threat on the outside. He got his feet wet as a backup last season, making 25 catches for 318 yards and two scores, and possesses the long frame and great leaping ability to really emerge in his sophomore season.

DE Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson
Opens the door for: Malliciah Goodman. It’s the third year for Goodman, a former blue-chipper from the 2009 class. He’s yet to have a major impact on the Tigers’ D, but that’s subject to change next fall. If he can put it all together, he has the size and athleticism to use the second half of his career as a launching point to bigger things.

WR DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss
Opens the door for: Kelvin Bolden. Brown wasn’t much of a factor in 2010, so Southern Miss essentially already had moved on without him. Bolden has an opportunity to be the favorite target of Austin Davis, having caught 46 passes for 722 yards and 6 touchdowns in his debut out of Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College.

CB Brandon Burton, Utah
Opens the door for: Conroy Black. Black is ideally positioned to take full advantage of Burton’s departure. In his third year removed from Fullerton (Calif.) College, he’s one of the fastest and most dynamic all-around athletes in Salt Lake City. After being the first man off the bench, all he needs now are reps.

DT Jurrell Casey, USC
Opens the door for: Christian Tupou. The defense really missed Tupou, a defensive leader before suffering a season-ending knee injury last May. While not especially big, he’s extremely tough at the point of attack and capable of shooting the gap, two of the reasons the staff believes he’ll help offset the early exit of Casey.

RB John Clay, Wisconsin
Opens the door for: Montee Ball and James White. Maybe Clay saw the writing on the wall, which indicated he’d struggle for his usual playing time in 2011. When he went down last season, Ball and White actually raised the productivity of the ground game, combining for more than 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns. Both had five 100-yard games despite beginning the years as backups, and both have star potential with enough carries.

OT Nick Claytor, Georgia Tech
Opens the door for: Tyler Kidney. Now needing both starting tackles replaced, the Yellow Jackets could turn to Kidney, last year’s caddy at left tackle. While young and only 6-foot-2 and 262 pounds, he’s a good fit on this unit, getting out of the blocks quickly and to the second level in order to spring Tech runners.

WR Randall Cobb, Kentucky
Opens the door for: La’Rod King. You don’t replace a player of Cobb’s versatility with one man. King will attempt to become the preferred target in the passing game after finishing third on the team with 33 catches for 436 yards and 5 touchdowns. At the halfway point of his career, he has the length and speed to blossom in 2011.

DE Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Opens the door for: Kerry Murphy. Is Murphy the next star defensive lineman for Nick Saban? Dareus’ decision certainly makes that a greater possibility. A massive yet quick presence in the trenches, Murphy’s worked hard for this opportunity and has two more years to carve out his niche and attract the attention of pro scouts.

WR Tandon Doss, Indiana
Opens the door for: Duwyce Wilson. Damarlo Belcher is still the go-to guy among the receivers, but a No. 2 needs to be found now that Doss has departed. Wilson is poised to fill the void. As a redshirt freshman he was fourth on the team with 32 catches for 488 yards and 3 touchdowns. A terrific all-around athlete, he has a high ceiling in Bloomington.

RB Darren Evans, Virginia Tech
Opens the door for: Josh Oglesby. The Hokies are going to need more depth at running back now that both Evans and Ryan Williams have left for the NFL. That could necessitate moving Oglesby from fullback to tailback. A tough inside runner, he’s already played in 38 games and carried the ball 122 times.

DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
Opens the door for: Jeffrey Whitaker. At a position being gutted by departures, there are no guarantees this early in the process. However, Whitaker is going to get his chance to step into the lineup and become an early contributor. In his debut out of high school, he quickly rose up the depth chart, earning a letter with his motor and sizable upside.

QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Opens the door for: James Franklin. One of the nation’s top dual-threat recruits of 2010, Franklin wasted no time moving up the depth chart into the No. 2 hole. The early favorite to succeed Gabbert, he played in nine games and stands to bring a new dimension of athleticism to the Mizzou offense.

WR A.J. Green, Georgia
Opens the door for: Tavarres King. Its top two wide receivers now gone, Georgia will be searching for new targets for Aaron Murray. King played well in his sophomore year as a part-time starter, making 27 catches for 504 yards and 3 touchdowns. More of a long-ball threat because of his speed, he’s working to become a complete weapon.

WR Tori Gurley, South Carolina
Opens the door for: Ace Sanders. The Gamecocks will need other receivers to take some heat off Alshon Jeffery, a role Sanders hopes to fill. At 5-foot-7 and 166 pounds, he’s the antithesis of Gurley, finding soft spots in the defense and picking up yards after the catch. He showed flashes as a rookie, catching 25 passes for 316 yards and 2 scores.

DT Lawrence Guy, Arizona State
Opens the door for: Corey Adams. One of the nation’s top interior linemen of 2009, Adams gets his first really good shot to start for the Sun Devils. A superb all-around athlete at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, he’s been held back by injuries since arriving. If he stays healthy, his career is set to go into overdrive.

WR Jamel Hamler, Fresno State
Opens the door for: Rashad Evans. Evans will be asked to do a lot more after Hamler surprisingly bolted for the NFL. Mostly a complement during his first couple of seasons, he has explosive tendencies, catching 39 passes for 424 yards and 4 touchdowns a year ago.

CB Brandon Harris, Miami
Opens the door for: Brandon McGee. The only returning corner on the two-deep for the bowl game, McGee will be expected to start. Skittish as a sophomore reserve, he has the requisite speed to play the position but needs to improve his confidence and cover skills to fend off younger competitors.

RB Jamie Harper, Clemson
Opens the door for: Andre Ellington. He was going to get his touches no matter what. Now, it just means that he’ll get more, enhancing the likelihood he can pile up numbers and raise his national profile. As long as Harper was around, carries were going to be split in the name of a thunder and lightning approach.

S Will Hill, Florida
Opens the door for: Josh Evans. The Gators are poised to replace one Garden State product with another at free safety. Evans has the physical attributes to make this transition into the starting lineup work. Playing on special teams and in a reserve role on defense in 2010, he appeared in all 13 games and made 14 tackles.

LB Justin Houston, Georgia
Opens the door for: Jarvis Jones. Houston’s departure leaves the Dawgs painfully thin at outside linebacker. And makes Jones’ decision to transfer from USC look shrewd. Once considered the next big thing at the position for the Trojans, he played in eight games as a true freshman in 2009 before deciding to return closer to home.

FB Henry Hynoski, Pittsburgh
Opens the door for: No one. Hynoski’s decision might appear a little strange, but new head coach Todd Graham doesn’t utilize a fullback in his version of the spread. Unlike Dave Wannstedt’s pro-style attack, which used two backs, the new offense is no longer viable for Hynoski, so he opted for the pros instead of transferring or trying a new position.

RB Mark Ingram, Alabama
Opens the door for: Trent Richardson. He’s the kind of player who’d have started for just about every other FBS program last season. With Ingram gone, he’ll have an opportunity to be more than just an every-down guy. He’s gifted enough to contend for every major individual honor. Even as a backup, he rushed for 700 yards, caught 23 balls and was a dangerous kick returner as a sophomore.

WR Julio Jones, Alabama
Opens the door for: Marquis Maze. OK, so who takes over as the favorite target in the passing game? Maze is a natural choice, as is Darius Hanks. Neither will match Jones’ big-play ability, but both are seniors with a good feel for the offense. Maze was second on the team in 2010, catching 38 balls for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns.

LB Thomas Keiser, Stanford
Opens the door for: Blake Lueders. The Cardinal needs a new set of linebackers to step up, especially if it sticks with a 3-4 alignment. Lueders finished the season as the backup to Keiser on the outside, appearing in 10 games in his first season. Built like a defensive end, he has the range and quickness to be a factor as a pass rusher.

RB Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
Opens the door for: Jason Ford. Leshoure’s departure is sure to be a major boon to Ford’s career, which might also continue lead to the NFL. A different type of runner who prefers to run through tacklers rather than around them, he ran for 480 yards and 7 touchdowns as the primary backup in 2010.

RB Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh
Opens the door for: Ray Graham. A surprise move by Lewis, it creates an unexpected opportunity for Graham. At times the better of the two runners last fall, he nearly rushed for 1,000 yards as a second-year sophomore. At his peak in September, he shredded Florida International for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.

DT Corey Liuget, Illinois
Opens the door for: Glenn Foster. If he can get beyond the injury problems that have plagued him, Foster figures to be next in line to fill the void on the inside. A bit undersized at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he uses his quickness and burst to get penetration. As a backup he made 10 tackles in his sophomore year.

QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Opens the door for: Tyler Wilson. All things considered, the Hogs have a better than average shot of not skipping a beat on offense in 2011. Yeah, Mallett was fantastic, but Wilson has the arm strength and the grasp of Bobby Petrino’s system to flourish next fall. When pressed into action a year ago, he was sharp, throwing for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns in the loss to Auburn.

S Rahim Moore, UCLA
Opens the door for: Dalton Hilliard. With Moore leaving, the Bruins are in the unenviable position of replacing both starting safeties. Hilliard was the apprentice at free safety a year ago and is first in line to move up the depth chart. In nine games he had 22 tackles and also contributed on special teams.

QB Cam Newton, Auburn
Opens the door for: Barrett Trotter. Few will have bigger shoes to fill than Trotter, the junior-to-be and early leader to supplant a Heisman winner. Considerably smaller, he’s played sparingly, yet shows good feet outside the pocket and excels at timing patterns, a staple in Gus Malzahn’s offense.

DE Zane Parr, Virginia
Opens the door for: Jake Snyder. Parr’s surprising decision creates an immediate opening for Snyder, a second-teamer as a redshirt freshman. He earned a letter in 2010, starting one game and making 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, he has the size to defend the run and the speed to get into the backfield.

CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
Opens the door for: Tyrann Mathieu. While not nearly as big as Peterson, Mathieu looks as if he’ll be every bit as important to the Tigers down the road. Performing well beyond his years as a true freshman, he put down a tremendous foundation for the future in 2010. As a backup and in nickel packages, he managed to make 57 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two picks and 5 forced fumbles.

DE Robert Quinn, North Carolina
Opens the door for: Donte Paige-Moss. The Heels booted Quinn from the program months ago, so it’s not as if any extra preparation will be needed here. It basically means Paige-Moss can forge ahead as Carolina’s next imposing pass rusher without having to share the spotlight. In a breakout second year, he led all ends with 49 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks.

RB Stevan Ridley, LSU
Opens the door for: Michael Ford. The Tigers’ leading rusher may be gone, but they’re hardly out of options. Ford was one of the nation’s top running back prospects of 2009, blending size and speed with an outstanding work ethic. He was second among the backs last season with 45 carries, running for 268 yards and 3 scores.

RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
Opens the door for: Ryan McCants. Rodgers caught plenty of people off guard with his decision, which will create a heated competition right through the summer. Senior-to-be McCants has experience, but most of it occurred years ago, and he’s hardly considered a certainty to win this job.

TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame
Opens the door for: Tyler Eifert. Since Rudolph missed half of last season to an injury, the Irish already have gotten a real good look at their next generation at tight end. Eifert stepped into the void and showcased his pass-catching and playmaking ability, making 27 catches for 352 yards and 2 scores.

S Robert Sands, West Virginia
Opens the door for: Eain Smith. While Smith won’t be Sands, he will be a luxury for a secondary seeking more veterans. He has starting experience and has lettered in each of the past three seasons, doing his best work as a run defender. He’ll have a chance to be one of the leaders of a unit undergoing changes.

S Tyler Sash, Iowa
Opens the door for: Tom Donatell. Sash joins Brett Greenwood as all-star Hawkeyes safety looking to move on to the next level. The position will be thin and in need of a serious makeover. A former walk-on, Donatell enters his fifth year with the program and has the edge in experience. He was Sash’s backup at strong safety but had only four stops.

DT Sealver Siliga, Utah
Opens the door for: Latu Heimuli. The Utes figure to be in a real bind at tackle, needing someone to plug the holes on the inside. Although Heimuli has been held back by injuries in his first two seasons, few doubt his potential when he’s healthy. A kid who turned down Florida to play in Salt Lake City, he’ll have a chance to emerge this fall.

DE Aldon Smith, Missouri
Opens the door for: Brad Madison. While Mizzou hates to see Smith go, it’s not as if the defense will be destitute. Despite starting just three games in 2010, Madison led the team with 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, filling in nicely when injuries created opportunities. He and Jacquies Smith are capable of forming a dynamite duo on the edge.

WR Torrey Smith, Maryland
Opens the door for: Quintin McCree. Having caught 16 balls for 188 yards and a score, McCree will be the Terps’ leading returning receiver. A long-ball hitter with good separation speed, he’s been a tremendous practice player who needs his spring and summer success to transfer into the fall in his final year.

OT Tyron Smith, USC
Opens the door for: Kevin Graf. After backing up Matt Kalil at left tackle in 2010, Graf will have a shot to shift to the right side and earn his own starting gig. One of the nation’s most heralded O-line recruits of 2009, he has minimal experience but tremendous size and proven versatility along the line.

S Jerrard Tarrant, Georgia Tech
Opens the door for: Isaiah Johnson. Any chance that Johnson’s growth will be impeded by veterans has disappeared. Barring a surprise, he’ll nab one of the two openings at safety. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has a tremendous future on the Flats, earning three starts and making 46 tackles in his debut out of high school.

RB Jordan Todman, Connecticut
Opens the door for: Robbie Frey. The Huskies have done a nice job of plugging holes at running back in recent years. Todman’s departure forces them to do it again. Frey gets first dibs on being the every-down back in his final season. A big-play backup and special teamer, he rushed for 389 yards and 4 scores in 2010 and has 2 career kickoff returns for touchdowns.

DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
Opens the door for: Pat Muldoon. After being Watt’s primary backup as a freshman, Muldoon is preparing as if he’ll be a starter. Fully recovered from an ACL tear earlier in his career, he’s hoping to pick up where his predecessor left off. Typical of Badgers linemen, he’s a strong and smart defender who’ll fight to the whistle in order to make a stop.

DT Muhammad Wilkerson, Tulane
Opens the door for: Kamal Johnson. Waiting in the wings now that Wilkerson has flown the coop is Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 285-pounder with upside. Big and strong at the point of attack, he earned a letter as a redshirt freshman and has anchor potential once he starts getting more snaps.

CB Aaron Williams, Texas
Opens the door for: Carrington Byndom. The Longhorns are going to be young and ultra-competitive at cornerback. Byndom is one of the underclassmen battling for a regular role. He learned on the fly in his rookie season, rising up to second team and making 20 tackles to earn his first letter.

RB Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
Opens the door for: David Wilson. The Hokies’ depth may be in jeopardy, but their ability to move the ball on the ground won’t be. Wilson is about to go from one-third of a backfield-by-committee to the workhorse on offense. He was dynamic with the ball in his hands last season, scoring at least two times as a rusher, receiver and returner and ranking third in ACC all-purpose running.

LB Martez Wilson, Illinois
Opens the door for: Ian Thomas. In order to address this opening at middle linebacker, the Illini are likely to shift Thomas inside. A senior and one of the most experienced players on this side of the ball, he led the team in tackles in 2009 and had 67 stops and 6.5 tackles for loss last season.

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