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August 11, 2008

Step right up: Guys with big shoes to fill

Ohio State and Florida proved last season that replacing a star player isn't impossible, but Notre Dame showed that it also isn't easy.

Florida and Ohio State had senior quarterbacks when they played for the national championship two years ago, but they continued to thrive last season with new guys running the offense. Florida's Tim Tebow stepped in for Chris Leak and won a Heisman Trophy in his first year as a starter. Ohio State's Todd Boeckman replaced 2006 Heisman recipient Troy Smith effectively enough to send the Buckeyes back to the national championship game.

But Notre Dame didn't fare nearly as well trying to replace star quarterback Brady Quinn, tailback Darius Walker and wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight. Without all that star power, the Irish didn't score an offensive touchdown until their fourth game of the season. After making back-to-back BCS appearances in 2005 and '06, Notre Dame needed a season-ending two-game winning streak to finish 3-9 in '07.

Here's a look at the 15 players (or 16, if you include one tandem) across the country who left the biggest shoes to fill. Their former teams will hope to follow the example of Ohio State and Florida instead of enduring a Notre Dame-like collapse without their departed stars.

BIGGEST SHOES LEFT TO FILL
Arkansas running backs Felix Jones and Darren McFadden
The Buzz: Michael Smith stands just 5 feet 7, but his shoulders had better be growing every day. After all, you need broad shoulders to carry around the burden of replacing two first-round picks. Smith has averaged 6.8 yards per carry in his career and rushed for 157 yards on only 13 attempts in Arkansas' spring game. He also has the pass-catching ability to play an expanded role in new coach Bobby Petrino's offense. But Smith, a 173-pound junior, probably isn't big enough to carry the ball more than 15 times per game and stay healthy throughout the season. Good thing the Razorbacks also have Brandon Barnett, Chip Gregory and touted true freshman De'Anthony Curtis to share the load.
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan
The Buzz: The wait is over for fifth-year senior Chris Crane, who has spent much of his college career waiting patiently behind Ryan. When the Atlanta Falcons picked Ryan with the third overall selection in the NFL Draft, Crane finally took over the reins. Crane is more mobile than Ryan and just as tall (6-5), but it remains to be seen if he has the moxie that made his predecessor so special. Crane should benefit from an experienced receiving corps that features Rich Gunnell, Brandon Robinson and tight end Ryan Purvis. But he won't get a chance to ease into his job by leaning on his rushing attack early in the season. Boston College has such a lack of depth in the backfield that true freshman Josh Haden likely will open the season as the Eagles' No. 1 tailback.
Colorado linebacker Jordon Dizon
The Buzz: Dizon compiled 283 tackles over the past two seasons and earned consensus All-America honors last season. The candidates to take Dizon's spot as the Buffaloes' starting weakside linebacker are junior Marcus Burton and junior college transfer Shaun Mohler. Burton was academically ineligible last season after working as a reserve in 2005 and '06. Mohler had 93 tackles 19 for loss at Orange Coast College (Calif.) and was the No. 17 overall junior college prospect in the nation.
Georgia kicker Brandon Coutu
The Buzz: Coutu was one of the nation's most reliable kickers for most of his college career. He never missed an extra point and made 80 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 6-for-12 from at least 50 yards. The Bulldogs likely will replace this model of consistency with the instability that comes with relying on a true freshman. Blair Walsh went 14 of 20 on field-goal attempts and made two kicks from 59 yards out his senior year at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cardinal Gibbons. Auburn's Wes Byrum - coincidentally, also from Fort Lauderdale - proved last season that a true freshman can deliver clutch kicks in the SEC's most hostile environments. Can Walsh follow suit? Other candidates for the job include sophomore Andrew Jensen and redshirt freshman Brian Behr.
Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan
The Buzz: The Warriors seemed well-equipped to replace their record-setting quarterback because they already had Tyler Graunke, who stepped in for an injured Brennan last season and rallied Hawaii to a critical victory over Nevada. Now that's not such a sure thing. Graunke has been held out of camp for undisclosed reasons. If Graunke doesn't play, the Warriors will have to turn to Inoke Funaki or junior college transfers Greg Alexander and Brent Rausch. The new quarterback will have a particularly tough job because the Warriors also must replace 1,000-yard receivers Ryan Grice-Mullen, Davone Bess and Jason Rivers.
Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib
The Buzz: Talib was a central figure in the resurgence of Kansas' pass defense last season. Talib picked off five passes and returned two for touchdowns while leading the Jayhawks to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl title. Now that Talib is suiting up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Jayhawks are hoping their experience in the secondary can compensate for the lack of the first-round pick's star power. Kansas returns Chris Harris and Kendrick Harper, who split time at the cornerback spot opposite Talib last year. The Jayhawks also return safeties Darrell Stuckey, Justin Thornton and Patrick Resby, who combined for 26 starts last season.
LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey
The Buzz: LSU spent the second half of the 2007 season working with Dorsey at less than full strength, though he withstood his injuries well enough to win the Nagurski Award, Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and Lott Trophy. The Tigers ended up shuffling in so many defensive tackles last season that they have extraordinary depth at the position even without Dorsey. The favorites to open the season in the starting lineup are Charles Alexander and Ricky Jean-Francois, who both missed much of the '07 season. Alexander played only three games last year before injuring his right knee, while Jean-Francois was suspended for the entire regular season because of academics. Jean-Francois was named the most outstanding defensive player in the BCS Championship Game, raising hope that LSU's defensive line can thrive even without Dorsey.
Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm
The Buzz: Louisville might seem in a bind now that Brohm has moved on to the NFL's Green Bay Packers, but perhaps no team on this list had a more able replacement ready to take over for the departed star. Senior Hunter Cantwell already has made four career starts in place of an injured Brohm, including a three-touchdown performance in a Gator Bowl loss to Virginia Tech. He also threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Middle Tennessee two years ago. Louisville has plenty of question marks elsewhere in its lineup, but the Cardinals have reason to feel good about their quarterback situation.
Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long
The Buzz: The Wolverines must replace big names on offense, but perhaps nobody left bigger footprints than Long, selected by the Miami Dolphins with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. The most likely candidate to take over on the left side is Mark Ortmann, who made two starts at right tackle last season.
Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon
The Buzz: The Ducks tried out a number of quarterbacks after Dixon's late-season knee injury last season. One guy who didn't get any playing time was Nate Costa, who had his own knee problems. Costa tore knee ligaments in October and hasn't played since, but he likely will open this season as Oregon's No. 1 quarterback. He didn't participate in full-contact drills this spring but still performed well in 7-on-7 sessions. Other candidates for the job include Justin Roper - who was superb in the Ducks' Sun Bowl rout of South Florida - and junior-college transfer Jeremiah Masoli, but Costa's arm strength gives him the edge as long as he stays healthy.
Rutgers tailback Ray Rice
The Buzz: Replacing the second-leading rusher in Big East history isn't a mere one-man job. The Scarlet Knights probably will turn to a committee approach in the backfield now that Rice has moved on to the NFL. Kordell Young carried the ball just 18 times last season, but he remains the Knights' most experienced runner. He could share the load with sophomore Mason Robinson and redshirt freshmen Joe Martinek and Jourdan Brooks. Martinek primarily played safety on the scout team last season, but he rushed for a New Jersey prep state record 7,589 yards at Hopatcong High School.
USC tight end Fred Davis
The Buzz: The Trojans' heralded wide receivers didn't develop as soon as expected last season, which caused them to focus on getting the ball to Davis. He caught 62 passes for 881 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the Trojans in all three categories on his way to winning the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. USC doesn't have a clear-cut favorite to replace Davis, though the Trojans have a number of talented contenders. The field includes junior Anthony McCoy, redshirt freshman Rhett Ellison, senior Jimmy Miller and true freshman Blake Ayles. McCoy caught only two passes last year; the other candidates didn't catch any. Look out for Ayles, a four-star prospect who has made some spectacular catches in preseason workouts.
Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith
The Buzz: The guy who wins this job will be walking into an ideal situation. Last season, Tulsa became the first team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers. The 5,000-yard passer (Smith) is gone, but the other guys are back on campus. In fact, Tulsa returns nine starters from the offense that led the nation with 543.9 yards per game last season. Senior David Johnson and Bakersfield (Calif.) Junior College transfer Jacob Bower are vying for the privilege of running this high-powered attack. Johnson entered preseason workouts as the front-runner.
Central Florida running back Kevin Smith
The Buzz: Smith, who led the nation in rushing last season, initially announced he was returning to school for his senior year before deciding to enter the NFL Draft, where he was selected by the Detroit Lions with the first pick of the third round. His change of heart left a giant hole in UCF's backfield, and the hole got bigger last month when Phillip Smith (no relation) was dismissed from the team. That left the Knights without any running backs who have college experience. The Knights now will have to turn to a group of untested backs; redshirt freshman Ronnie Weaver, who arrived on campus as a walk-on, might be the front-runner.
Virginia defensive end Chris Long
The Buzz: Long continually delivered big plays during Virginia's surprising run to a second-place finish in the ACC Coastal Division last season. Now the Cavaliers must replace the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. Virginia's problems at defensive end go deeper than replacing Long. The Cavaliers also lost Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who left school in the offseason. Long and Fitzgerald combined for 21 sacks and 34 tackles for loss last season. The likely candidates to replace Long and Fitzgerald are senior Alex Field and sophomore Sean Gottschalk, but Gottschalk is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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