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January 28, 2010

Who will fill voids left by NFL early entrants?

Now that underclassmen have made their decisions about entering the NFL draft, what about the teams they are leaving behind?

Here's our look at the impact the college teams will feel. In addition, we look at who we think will take over for the guys who are leaving.

CB Kareem Jackson
The buzz: Jackson's decision leaves Alabama searching for two new starters at corner. Both backups were seniors, so cornerback is a position to watch in spring drills. One starting spot almost certainly will go to sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick. Sophomores Phelon Jones and B.J. Scott figure to be in the mix at the other spot and as potential backups, as do true freshmen John Fulton and DeMarcus Milliner, who already have enrolled.
The bottom line: Cornerback could be a trouble spot for the Tide. There's talent on hand, but it's untested. Jackson would've been one of the best corners in the SEC. Expecting that level of play from one of the "new guys" is unreasonable.

LB Rolando McClain
The buzz: McClain's departure surprised no one, and it means the Tide will be searching for three new starting linebackers in their 3-4 scheme. Juniors Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw have first dibs on the outside spots, while sophomore Nico Johnson, junior Chris Jordan and redshirt freshman Tana Patrick will be looking to nail down a starting spot inside next to junior Dont'a Hightower. Hightower played in four games this past season before suffering a severe knee injury. Hightower is expected to be withheld from full contact drills in the spring while continuing to rehab.
The bottom line: McClain's production and his leadership will be missed on an equal basis. Hightower is a big talent, but will he be 100 percent? Still, Nick Saban and his defensive coaches have a lot of pieces to mix and match at linebacker, and this group should play at a high level. The linebackers are much less a concern than the corners. TE Rob Gronkowski
The buzz: Gronkowski missed the 2009 season with a back injury, so the Wildcats are used to playing without him already. Senior A.J. Simmons should continue in the starting role, but the Wildcats often use four-receiver sets anyway.
The bottom line: Can you miss what you didn't have? Gronkowski was supremely talented, but the Wildcats already have experienced life without him. CB Jerell Norton
The buzz: Norton started just twice for the Hogs in 2009, finishing the season with 14 tackles. His loss won't be a big one. Ramon Broadway and Rudell Crim look to be the likely starters at corner, and depth looks fine.
The bottom line: Norton had a big '07 season, when he led the Hogs with five interceptions. But he missed the '08 season with various injuries and was a backup in '09. He won't be hard to replace. RB Jahvid Best
The buzz: Backup Shane Vereen saw a lot of time in 2009, and he'll be the Golden Bears' starter in 2010. The big question is who will be the No. 2 guy. Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson will get first dibs, but don't sleep on redshirt freshman Dasarte Yarnway -- who missed the '09 season with an injury -- and sophomore Isi Sofele.
The bottom line: Cal coach Jeff Tedford likes to give his No. 2 guy a heavy workload, so Vereen -- who has a ton of talent -- will do just fine as the starter. The key is finding a new No. 2, and there are some talented prospects from which to choose. When healthy, Best was tremendous, but the Cal running game should be more than OK. WR Antonio Brown
The buzz: The Chippewas are losing their top two receivers in Brown and Bryan Anderson. Kito Poblah should become the Chippewas' go-to guy, but finding consistent secondary targets should be a spring priority for new coach Dan Enos. Sophomore Cody Wilson definitely will be in the mix. Sophomore Jerry Harris, junior Jeremy Wilson and seniors Sean Skergan and Matt Torres gained some experience this past season.
The bottom line: Brown was one of the best return men in the nation and a big-play guy, and his production can't be replaced. While Poblah has a chance to be an All-MAC guy, a Brown-Poblah duo would've been the best in the league. DT Linval Joseph
The buzz: His departure was somewhat of a surprise and means the Pirates are searching for two new starting tackles. Senior Josh Smith and sophomore Michael Brooks should win the starting jobs. Brooks has the look of a future standout. Junior Robert Jones could beat out Smith. Junior Antonio Allison and redshirt freshman Jimmy Booth will provide depth.
The bottom line: Joseph likely would've been the best defensive tackle in Conference USA next season. ECU has some players with potential at tackle. Can they turn potential into production? ECU still will be good along the line, but the Pirates will not be as dominant as they were this season. DE Carlos Dunlap
The buzz: Fellow starting end Jermaine Cunningham was a senior, which means the Gators need two new starters at the position. Justin Trattou, who was a starter in 2008 but came off the bench in '09, should lock down one of the starting jobs during spring ball. Leading contenders at the other spot will be junior William Green and senior Duke Lemmens, though incoming freshman Ronald Powell -- the nation's No. 1 recruit -- is expected to put himself in the mix in fall drills. DT Jaye Howard, who played end earlier in his career, could move back outside.
The bottom line: Florida needs someone -- maybe Green? -- to emerge as a big-play threat at end. While there are bodies to fill the position, the Gators won't be near as good at end in 2010 as they were in 2009.

CB Joe Haden
The buzz: Haden might have been the best corner in the nation this past season, which means there will be a drop-off. Plus, the top two reserve corners were seniors. But Florida has recruited well in the secondary, and there are some candidates to fill the void. Junior-to-be Janoris Jenkins is set at the other cornerback spot. Sophomores Adrian Bushell and Jeremy Brown, senior Moses Jenkins and true freshmen Joshua Shaw and Jaylen Watkins -- who already have enrolled -- will battle it out for Haden's old spot and the No. 2 jobs during spring ball.
The bottom line: There's going to be a drop-off. Still, if Janoris Jenkins rebounds from a so-so season to become the shutdown corner many expect, the Gators will be OK at corner.

TE Aaron Hernandez
The buzz: Tight end could be a problematic position for Florida, and the answer might be more use of an H-back/fullback or more use of four- and five-receiver sets. Coaches are high on true freshman Gerald Christian -- who enrolled early and will go through spring practice -- and redshirt freshman Desmond Parks has good speed.
The bottom line: If Florida's tight ends as a group match Hernandez's production from 2009, it will be a stunner. Expect less of an emphasis on the tight end in 2010.

C Maurkice Pouncey
The buzz: Pouncey won the Rimington Award as the nation's top center, and Gators coaches hope his twin, Mike Pouncey, can follow in his footsteps. While Maurkice went pro, Mike -- who started at guard for the Gators -- decided to remain in school and likely will move to center. In that scenario, Maurice Hurt and former five-star prospect James Wilson will vie for Mike's old guard spot. If Mike struggles at center or remains at guard, sophomore Sam Robey -- son of ex-NBA big man Rick Robey -- will start at center.
The bottom line: Maurkice Pouncey likely would've been the best center in the nation in 2010, but the drop-off can be mitigated if his brother can handle the job. Florida has a lot of guys it can mix-and-match along the line, which will be a position of strength.

FS Major Wright
The buzz: While Wright was a three-year starter for the Gators, he will be the player most easily replaceable on their early entry list. Will Hill, who saw time at both safety spots and at nickel back this past season, will move into the starting role alongside SS Ahmad Black. Depth at the position is good, especially if injury-plagued Dorian Munroe is successful on his petition to the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
The bottom line: Wright was a punishing hitter, but Hill runs better and also can bring the lumber. Florida's safety rotation won't miss a beat. RB Ryan Mathews
The buzz: Mathews was the nation's leading rusher in 2009 and his backup was senior Lonyae Miller. Robbie Rouse, who ran for 471 yards this past season as a true freshman, will be given every opportunity to win the starting job. Rouse is nicknamed "Mighty Mouse" because of his 5-foot-7, 185-pound frame, and a Mathews-Rouse tandem would've been hugely productive in 2010. As it is now, the backup job is wide open. Sophomore A.J. Ellis might be the leading contender, and some true freshmen will be in the mix in the fall.
The bottom line: Fresno State is not going to be able to replace Mathews' production, which means his departure hurts. But while Rouse is a different kind of back, expect the Bulldogs to still rely heavily on the run. Finding an adequate backup is crucial. LB Rennie Curran
The buzz: Had Curran stayed in school, the Bulldogs would've returned all three starters at linebacker. Curran's departure means the Dawgs must replace their best defensive player at a time they are switching to a 3-4 base defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham.
The bottom line: The switch to a 3-4 makes it hard to determine exactly who will replace Curran. The potential exists for some guys who were playing end for the Bulldogs now moving to linebacker.

FS Reshad Jones
The buzz: Senior Quintin Banks was Jones' backup last season, and he figures to get first dibs at the spot. The Bulldogs, however, are changing their defensive scheme and likely will ask for different things from their strong safety. JC recruit Jakar Hamilton already is enrolled and will be in the hunt for both vacant safety spots. The other holdover who could play strong safety is Shawn Williams. Expect a true freshman or two to be involved in the fall.
The bottom line: Jones certainly wasn't a star, but he was steady. A lot will depend on how quickly Hamilton -- or a true freshman -- adapts to major-college ball. SS Morgan Burnett
The buzz: Burnett was more productive as a sophomore than as a junior, but Tech still will miss him. Tech has a new defensive coordinator -- former Virginia coach Al Groh -- so the strong safety's job could change a bit. There look to be five players who have a chance for extensive minutes at the two safety spots -- sophomores Cooper Taylor and Jemea Thomas, seniors Mario Edwards and Dominique Reese and junior Rashaad Reid.
The bottom line: Burnett was a big hitter with a knack for big plays, so his production will be hard to match. But the potential exists for a better overall secondary in 2010.

RB Jonathan Dwyer
The buzz: Incredibly, Dwyer had back-to-back 1,395-yard seasons as a sophomore and a junior, scoring 26 TDs in that span. Still, given Tech's option-based offense, he might not be as hard to replace as you'd think. Coach Paul Johnson has told reporters that he thinks Tech's starting "B-back" -- Dwyer's position, basically a fullback -- will run for at least 1,000 yards. And there is no shortage of contenders. Anthony Allen, a 230-pounder, could move from "A-back." Junior Preston Lyons, sophomore Richard Watson and redshirt freshman Daniel Drummond are other potential candidates.
The bottom line: Dwyer was a great player, but because of the type of offense it runs, Tech won't miss him. The new "B-back" will be productive because of the scheme, and Dwyer's departure also should mean a few more carries for a deep group of "A-backs."

DE Derrick Morgan
The buzz: Morgan was one of the better pass rushers in the nation, so his loss will hurt. But Tech is changing to a 3-4 set from a 4-3, so while the Yellow Jackets won't have one pass rusher as gifted as Morgan, the potential exists for just as many sacks as a team. Seniors Anthony Egbuniwe, Robert Hall and Osahon Tongo, sophomores Izaan Cross and Emmanuel Dieke and junior Jason Peters look to be the leading contenders at end.
The bottom line: It's hard to get a gauge on what Morgan's departure means with Tech switching to a 3-4. There's no question that Morgan was a big-timer; it's just that the scheme change could somewhat mitigate his departure.

WR Demaryius Thomas
The buzz: Thomas caught "only" 46 passes in Tech's run-happy offense, but they went for 1,154 yards and eight TDs. It seems likely that sophomore Stephen Hill will take Thomas' spot. Hill (6 feet 4/200 pounds) likely will put on 10 or so pounds, and he has good hands and speed. Tyler Melton, Quentin Sims and Zach Fisher also will be in the mix to be the go-to guy.
The bottom line: Thomas was a big-time, big-play threat, and it's unlikely Tech will find someone to replace his production. Thomas was the only Tech player with more than eight receptions this past season, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see more of a share-the-wealth philosophy this fall. WR Arrelious Benn
The buzz: Benn was a big-time talent, but his production never matched the hype. He finished his three-year career with just seven receiving TDs, a total that should leave Illini offensive coaches hanging their heads in shame. Senior Jarred Fayson, who began his career at Florida, has one final chance to be a go-to guy. Fayson is another guy whose production never has matched his talent. Juniors A.J. Jenkins and Fred Sykes, sophomore Jack Ramsey and senior Chris James are the other holdovers who need to impress new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino this spring.
The bottom line: While the Illini didn't make good use of Benn's talents, his departure hurts. Petrino obviously needs to rev up the passing attack. With Benn gone, is there a legit No. 1 receiver on the roster? OT Bryan Bulaga
The buzz: Bulaga battled some injuries this past season, but he still was one of the nation's best tackles. It seems likely that sophomore Riley Reiff, who started at guard in 2009, will move outside to fill Bulaga's tackle spot. Reiff has a chance to be one of the Big Ten's best linemen in 2010. Junior Markus Zusevics seems likely to be Reiff's main challenger.
The bottom line: Iowa has to replace three starting linemen, and it seems plausible that coaches will put their best lineman at left tackle. That's Reiff, who won't be as good as Bulaga in 2010 but could be by '11.

CB Amari Spievey
The buzz: Spievey was one of the most underrated corners in the nation in 2009, and the Hawkeyes are going to miss his ability to handle one half of the field. William Lowe and Greg Castillo should be the main contenders for his vacated starting spot.
The bottom line: Had Spievey stayed in school, Iowa would've returned its entire starting secondary. As it is, Iowa still will be solid in its secondary. The safety duo is excellent, but Spievey's replacement can count on seeing a lot of passes thrown his way. WR Dezmon Briscoe
The buzz: Kansas' offense will be undergoing a makeover, and Briscoe's departure hurts. Senior Jonathan Wilson should be the new go-to receiver, with sophomore Bradley McDougald the new No. 2 guy. They combined for 68 receptions -- but no touchdowns -- in 2009. Junior Daymond Patterson played cornerback in 2009 but is expected to move back to wide receiver this spring. If all goes well, Patterson should see a lot of time this fall. Senior Tertavian Ingram needs to make an impact in spring drills. Expect KU to bring in at least four receivers in this signing class, and you can figure on two to see time this fall.
The bottom line: KU loses Briscoe, as well as highly productive WR Kerry Meier and QB Todd Reesing. Wilson needs to show in spring ball that he can be a 70-catch, go-to guy. If Wilson can't handle the job, the offense is going to suffer more than expected. CB Joshua Moore
The buzz: Moore had a solid junior season -- he was second on the team with 64 tackles and added two picks and 11 pass breakups -- but his departure was a surprise. Sophomore Darious Thomas looks as if he will get first crack at the vacated starting job. Sophomore Thomas Ferguson, senior Terrance Sweeney and junior David Garrett will vie with Thomas and could serve as backups. Matthew Pearson, a junior college transfer who already has enrolled, could find himself in the hunt as well. Pearson also could play safety.
The bottom line: Moore would've had a shot at All-Big 12 honors this fall, and K-State doesn't have anyone nearly as accomplished on the roster. There likely will be some growing pains at corner this season. FS Chad Jones
The buzz: Jones' decision also impacts the baseball team; he was a reliever on the Tigers' national title team last season. Among those who could contend for the now-vacant free safety spot are junior Ron Brooks (who also can play corner); redshirt freshman Rockey Duplessis; junior Stefoin Francois (who also can play linebacker); and junior Karnell Hatcher (who was the No. 2 strong safety last season). Redshirt freshman Craig Loston, whom coaches were considering moving to linebacker, likely will stay at safety now and should be in the mix to replace Jones.
The bottom line: Jones would've been one of the best safeties in the nation this fall, and it seems unlikely any of his potential replacements can play at that high a level. RB Darius Marshall
The buzz: Marshall ran for 1,131 yards and 11 TDs; it was his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Sophomore Martin Ward will get first dibs on the job, with junior Terrell Edwards-Maye the likely top challenger. Sophomore Andre Booker also should be in the mix.
The bottom line: A new coaching staff brings some new offensive ideas. It will be interesting to see how much Marshall (the team) relies on the run this season, which may lessen the impact of Marshall's (the player) departure. OT Bruce Campbell
The buzz: Campbell has all the measurables, but he never was as dominant as many thought he could be at Maryland and injuries were one reason. There is no shortage of candidates to take his spot, and Campbell's injury problems meant some of them saw time at left tackle this past season. Look for senior Paul Pinegar, sophomores R.J. Dill and Justin Gilbert and redshirt freshmen Nick Klemm and Pete DeSouza to be in the mix.
The bottom line: Campbell's talent will be missed, and the left side of the Terps' line won't be as strong. CB Donovan Warren
The buzz: Warren was one of the few players in Michigan's back seven on defense who played well this past season. His decision to turn pro leaves Michigan painfully thin at cornerback. Troy Woolfolk began last season at strong safety, then was moved to corner. Woolfolk's best position is strong safety. If he moves back to that spot, it seems likely that sophomores J.T. Turner and J.T. Floyd will be the leading candidates at corner. Turner played in one game this past season; Floyd played in nine games and started two. Depth is nonexistent, and a position change or two could be coming for that reason. It's likely two or three freshman corners play this fall. There are rumblings that former starting corner Boubacar Cissoko, who was booted from the team in midseason, could work his way back onto the roster. His return would be big.
The bottom line: Warren's departure is huge -- maybe as big as anyone's on this list. Michigan is in deep trouble at corner. DE Kevin Basped
The buzz: Basped had 9.5 sacks, but he was far from a polished product. His decision to leave school is somewhat of a head-scratcher. Senior Ryan Coulson should get first crack at the vacant job. Nevada already has signed two junior college defensive ends -- Jared Jackson and Devon Rosa -- who will go through spring practice. The newcomers will be given the opportunity to make an instant impact.
The bottom line: Basped and senior Dontay Moch would've given the Wolf Pack the best pair of ends in the WAC. Nevada coaches likely are going to have to mix-and-match up front in an effort to match Basped's sack total. QB Jimmy Clausen
The buzz: Dayne Crist is Clausen's likely replacement, but he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will miss spring practice. Still, it would be a surprise if he doesn't take the first snap of the season. True freshman Tommy Rees, who already has enrolled, will get a long look during spring ball.
The bottom line: Clausen was one of the nation's better quarterbacks in 2009. While Crist has talent, his injury is going to set him back -- especially when considering it's a new offense.

WR Golden Tate
The buzz: Junior Michael Floyd will be the Irish's new go-to receiver, and he should do quite well. The question, then, is whether senior Duval Kamara has the talent to be a productive No. 2 guy. Junior Deion Walker and sophomore Shaquelle Evans will have the opportunity to impress the new staff during the spring. True freshman Tai-ler Jones already is enrolled and also will go through spring practice. WR John Goodman has moved to quarterback, but he could return to wide receiver.
The bottom line: Frankly, as talented as Tate was, Floyd might be better. The problem, of course, is that the Irish need someone to emerge as No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. There definitely are candidates. DE Thad Gibson
The buzz: Gibson was a solid pass rusher, but fellow end Cameron Heyward's decision to stay in school overshadowed Gibson's decision to leave. Expect Nathan Williams to start spring practice in Gibson's old spot, and he should be fine. Developing depth will be the key.
The bottom line: Gibson was a solid player, but he wouldn't have been the Buckeyes' best defender next season. Williams has good potential, and there are enough bodies available that the Buckeyes should be able to develop a nice rotation at end. QB Sam Bradford
The buzz: Bradford missed most of the 2009 season with a shoulder injury, so OU already has had to move on. Sophomore Landry Jones threw 26 TD passes this past season and should be one of the most productive quarterbacks in the Big 12 this fall.
The bottom line: The biggest concern at quarterback for OU this spring is finding a No. 2 guy behind Jones.

CB Dominique Franks
The buzz: OU now has to replace both starting corners, and that will be a position to watch during spring drills. Senior Jonathan Nelson, who played some at safety this past season, and sophomore Demontre Hurst would seem to be the leading contenders for the starting job. Sophomore Marcus Trice and junior Jamell Fleming also will be in the mix. In the fall, expect at least one true freshman to be in the corner rotation.
The bottom line: Oklahoma always seems to be able to plug in talented cornerbacks when it needs to. Don't expect a drop-off in the secondary.

TE Jermaine Gresham
The buzz: As with Bradford, OU already has moved on at tight end. Gresham missed the '09 season and tight end became a receiving afterthought in the offense. Finding a starter should be a spring priority. Juniors James Hanna and Trent Ratteree and redshirt freshman Gabe Ikard need to impress during the spring.
The bottom line: What happens in spring ball will determine how important the tight end will be in the 2010 offense. Losing Gresham was huge in '09. While there is no tight end on the roster who can match Gresham's talents, a committee approach is possible.

DT Gerald McCoy
The buzz: McCoy was one of the nation's most talented defensive tackles, and his departure hurts. His replacement almost certainly will be sophomore Jamarkus McFarland, who has the potential to be an all-league player this fall. Sophomore Casey Walker needs to have a good spring to prove to coaches he can handle a backup role at tackle. The Sooners expect to sign four defensive tackles in this recruiting class, and one or two could play as reserves this fall.
The bottom line: McCoy's decision means OU's defensive line won't be as dominant as it could've been. But in McFarland, the Sooners have a guy who bears watching over the next two seasons. WR Dez Bryant
The buzz: Bryant basically missed all of 2009 as it was, so the Cowboys already have learned about life without him. Junior Hubert Anyiam must become a productive go-to receiver, with juniors Josh Cooper and Dameron Fooks and sophomores Justin Blackmon and Tracy Moore vying for the other two starting spots. A redshirt freshman to watch is Michael Harrison.
The bottom line: Oklahoma State already has had to adapt to playing without Bryant, and it was tough. It's vital that someone emerges during the spring as the go-to guy, but it's also important that the Cowboys develop a spread-the-wealth philosophy with their other receivers. QB Jevan Snead
The buzz: Sophomore Nathan Stanley will get first shot at the vacant job, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton could make things interesting in spring ball. Cotton is a big-time athlete with a strong arm, but Stanley is considered a more polished QB at this stage.
The bottom line: Snead was a big disappointment in 2009, but his loss still stings. Breaking in a new quarterback never is an easy thing. If Stanley and/or Cotton can become competent game managers this fall, Ole Miss coaches will be happy. It's hard to see Ole Miss throwing as many picks in 2010 as it did in 2009, so at least one aspect of the passing game could be better. LB Navorro Bowman
The buzz: The Nittany Lions have to replace all three starting linebackers. But this is "Linebacker U," remember, and there is talent waiting in the wings. Some three-man combo of junior Nate Stupar, seniors Bani Gbadyu and Chris Colasanti and sophomore Mike Mauti figures to start. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Michael Yancich also figure to play key roles, and a true freshman -- maybe Khairi Fortt? -- likely will force his way into the picture as well.
The bottom line: Bowman would've challenged for All-America honors in 2010, so it will be tough to replace him. But if Mauti -- who missed 2009 with an injury -- is healthy, the linebacking group as a whole should be OK. OT Anthony Davis
The buzz: Davis' departure means the Scarlet Knights must replace both starting tackles. Junior Desmond Stapleton is in line to get first dibs at one of the starting jobs. Sophomore Devon Watkis also should be in the mix. There's also the chance that junior Art Forst, who has started at guard in each of his first two seasons, could move to tackle during spring drills.
The bottom line: Rutgers' line is in flux, and the tackle spots are the biggest question marks. Davis didn't have a great junior season, but he still would've gone into the 2010 season considered to be the best offensive lineman in the Big East. DE Clifton Geathers
The buzz: Geathers' departure was somewhat surprising. Now, it means more playing time for sophomore Devin Taylor, a burgeoning star who needs to add weight and bulk. He has the potential to be a big-time pass rusher. Developing depth at end will be important this spring.
The bottom line: Taylor and senior Cliff Matthews will give the Gamecocks one of the best end duos in the SEC. RB Shawnbrey McNeal
The buzz: McNeal played just one season for the Mustangs after transferring from Miami, and he ran for 1,188 yards and 12 TDs to give coach June Jones a legitimate running threat in the backfield. Zach Line is, well, in line to replace McNeal, but he's not nearly the playmaking threat. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a freshman running back getting a lot of time this fall.
The bottom line: McNeal was a big-time surprise for SMU, and his departure -- even though Jones loves to throw the ball -- will be felt. There's no way SMU is going to have a back who will run for 1,000 yards in 2010; expect a committee approach. WR Mike Williams
The buzz: Williams quit the team with four games left in the season, so the Orange already have had to worry about replacing him. Sophomore Marcus Sales likely becomes the Orange's go-to guy in 2010.
The bottom line: Williams was Syracuse's most talented offensive player in 2009, but the Orange already have begun the process of playing without him. Still, no receiver on the roster has Williams' talent, and that hurts. SS Eric Berry
The buzz: Berry was the best strong safety in the nation, and his decision certainly wasn't a surprise. Sophomore Darren Myles Jr. seems likely to get the first chance at filling Berry's shoes. Depth is a big concern throughout the secondary.
The bottom line: You don't replace a player of Berry's caliber. He was the Vols' most talented player and there is going to be a drop-off at the position in 2010.

CB Dennis Rogan
The buzz: Rogan was an adequate college corner, and thus his decision was somewhat surprising. The top candidates for the spot would seem to be senior Stephaun Raines, juniors Anthony Anderson and C.J. Fleming and redshirt freshman Eric Gordon. A true freshman or two could see time in the fall.
The bottom line: Rogan was an experienced SEC cornerback and that's what will hurt. From a talent level, the Vols should be fine. FS Earl Thomas
The buzz: Thomas had a chance to be the nation's best safety in 2010, so he's obviously going to be difficult to replace. The guys to watch in spring are sophomore Nolan Brewster -- the son of Minnesota coach Tim Brewster -- and junior Christian Scott. Scott played in one game in 2009; he was ineligible during the regular season because of unresolved NCAA academic issues but regained his academic standing in time to play in the national title game. Scott has all the tools; he just needs to develop consistency. Brewster isn't as explosive as Scott, but he is seen as a steadier player.
The bottom line: Thomas was a big-play guy who also was ultra-consistent. The safety rotation will not be as good without him, though Scott could emerge as a big-time hitter. DT Brian Price
The buzz: Price's departure is huge and means the Bruins will be without both starting defensive tackles from 2009. Look for senior David Carter to lock down one starting spot in spring ball. The other spot is more problematic, with seniors Andy Keane and Sean Sheller, junior Justin Edison and sophomore Justin Mann in the mix. Expect a true freshman tackle to be in the rotation in the fall.
The bottom line: UCLA's defensive interior is a big concern. Carter will be looked upon to provide leadership and production, and should be able to do so. The other tackle job, though, is up in the air. Tackle could be a trouble spot throughout the season. DE Everson Griffen
The buzz: Griffen was a former five-star recruit who often flashed his pass-rush ability, but he lacked consistency. Sophomore Nick Perry, who tied for the Trojans' lead in sacks this past season despite being a backup, figures to have a starting spot this season. Junior Armond Armstead is a returning starter at end, but there are some candidates -- most notably, sophomores Wes Horton and Devon Kennard and junior Malik Jackson -- he will need to fend off in spring ball.
The bottom line: USC had 35 sacks this past season, and the talent is on hand for that many in 2010. Keep an eye on Kennard, who was highly hyped coming out of high school. A big spring for him could mean a big fall.

RB Joe McKnight
The buzz: McKnight never lived up to the recruiting buzz, but he did have big-play ability that will be missed. He was a part-time starter in 2009, and USC almost certainly will use a committee approach at tailback again. Those in the mix will be seniors C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford, junior Marc Tyler and sophomore Curtis McNeal. Expect a freshman or two to get into the mix, as well; it could be Dillon Baxter, who already has enrolled. Baxter was a quarterback in high school but could be a tailback in college.
The bottom line: McKnight was a 1,000-yard rusher who ran for eight TDs in 2009, but it's not hard to see USC being more productive on the ground this fall -- even without anybody rushing for 1,000 yards.

WR Damian Williams
The buzz: Williams had more than twice as many catches as anyone else on the USC roster this past season. Junior Ronald Johnson seems likely to take over the role as the Trojans' go-to receiver. As for the No. 2 and No. 3 guys, who knows? Sophomore Brice Butler looks as if he could win one of the roles. This is a big spring for senior David Ausberry, who has just 44 career receptions. Others who will be looking to impress the new staff include senior Travon Patterson and junior Brandon Carswell. Early enrollee Kyle Prater, considered the best high school receiver in the nation, will be given every opportunity to become an important part of the rotation. Fellow five-star prospect Robert Woods, who will arrive in the summer, looks to have all sorts of potential at wide receiver, too.
The bottom line: A big key for USC's offense this fall is whether Johnson can make the jump from complementary guy to go-to receiver. There looks to be enough talent on hand for a solid receiving corps. WR Carlton Mitchell
The buzz: Mitchell led the Bulls with 40 receptions and tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches. Still, this is a deep receiving corps and he shouldn't be that tough to replace. Seniors Dontavia Bogan and A.J. Love appear to be the most likely candidates to become the Bulls' go-to receiver. Sophomore Sterling Griffin is another to watch.
The bottom line: A new staff likely means a lot of new wrinkles in the Bulls' passing attack. For all the speed the Bulls have had on the outside, their receivers have lacked consistency and seemingly were good for two key drops per game. The talent is on hand for a solid receiving group. Will the production match the potential?

DE Jason Pierre-Paul
The buzz: Pierre-Paul had a solid junior season -- his first with the Bulls after transferring from junior college -- before deciding to turn pro. His departure means USF needs two new ends. Senior David Bedford almost certainly will win one of the spots, and senior Craig Marshall is the leading contender on the other side. Redshirt freshman Ryne Giddins has a lot of potential, and JC transfer Claude Davis will be in the mix.
The bottom line: Replacing two productive ends is going to be tough for the Bulls. Bedford has some skills, but as a group at the position, USF will be far weaker this season. DE Jason Worilds
The buzz: The Hokies will have to replace both starting defensive ends from this past season. Junior Chris Drager and senior Steven Friday are the most experienced candidates; Drager is a former tight end and Friday a former linebacker. Sophomore Isaiah Hamlette will be in the mix, as will redshirt freshmen James Gayle and J.R. Collins. True freshman Duan Perez-Means, who signed last year but deferred his enrollment until this month, is expected to contend for a job, as well. DT John Graves spent 2009 spring drills at end and could return to end.
The bottom line: Collins and Gayle will be in the spotlight during spring practice; at least one needs to show he can be a productive pass rusher. Worilds and fellow starting end Nekos Brown formed a solid duo in 2009, and the Hokies are not going to get that consistent a level of play from their new guys.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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