These 16 college football units under renovation will be crucial fills for programs if they expect to be competitive in the 2016 season.
To varying degrees, every program in the country must deal with graduations, transfers, and early entries to the NFL Draft. It’s the nature of a system with eligibility limitations. A bunch of schools, though, are reeling at the prospect of rebuilding from the ground floor up, piecing together new units that have been gutted by departures.
Everyone loses kids. It’s a part of the game that each staff must perennially navigate. Still, when an entire unit takes a beating, it’s up to the coaches and the holdovers to limit the damage and execute a smooth landing. An inability to do so in the offseason could have a lingering effect when the games count in September.
These 16 units will be imperative to their respective teams’ success over the course of a long season.
16. Utah Receivers
For Utah to be the fly in the Pac-12 ointment again this year, it’ll need to perk up the offense. And for the offense to improve, the passing game must be addressed.
The Utes have not only lost last year’s two senior quarterbacks, but their top three pass-catchers from 2015 will not be in Salt Lake City. If the new quarterback is going to be successful right out of the gate, it’ll help to have reliable targets other than the tight ends. There was cautious optimism following spring that converted cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd can flourish out of the slot, and that 6-5 Tim Patrick can continue his recovery after missing all of last season due to a horrific leg injury.
15. Oklahoma State D-line
It’ll be a tale of two realities along the defensive line in Stillwater this season.
On the one hand, the Cowboys are very confident about their interior linemen. Vincent Taylor and Motekiai Maile are returning starters, and Darrion Daniels is an up-and-comer off the bench. However, on the other, there’s an enormous void on the edge, which used to be home to Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Ogbah and Bean combined for 42 career sacks, so there’s a lot of production to be made up by the unproven redshirt sophomore quartet of Jarrell Owens, Jordan Brailford, Trey Carter and Cole Walterscheid.
14. Notre Dame O-line
The front wall didn’t look so green following the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Then Steve Elmer elected to forego his final year of eligibility to take a job in the private sector, meaning the Irish have three blockers to replace.
Besides Elmer, Notre Dame will be without one of the nation’s top left tackles, Ronnie Stanley, and centers, Nick Martin, who were both taken in the top 50 picks of the NFL Draft. Now, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are a terrific place to start. Both are coming off good years and will form a wall on the left side. The line’s ultimate grade depends on Alex Bars’ transition to right tackle, the continued development of Sam Mustipher at center and the ongoing battle between Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern at right guard.
13. Stanford O-line
Another year, another opportunity for assistant Mike Bloomgren to showcase his ability to rebuild in the trenches.
Stanford is a pipeline to the NFL for massive, road-grading linemen, with all-stars Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy the latest to be drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and Green bay Packers, respectively. And the school’s identity has been closely tied to a hard-nosed offensive line colloquially known as the Tunnel Workers Union. However, Bloomgren is bringing back just a pair of starters, RG Johnny Caspers and RT Casey Tucker. Part of the summer will be spent getting tackles David Bright and A.T. Hall, OG Brandon Fanaika and centers Jesse Burkett and Brian Chaffin prepared for much larger roles in 2016.
12. Alabama Backfield
The Tide will be okay, because Nick Saban is in charge and the talent pool is always deep in Tuscaloosa. Still, there are challenges ahead for the defending national champs.
Bama will begin 2016 with a new starting quarterback for a third year in a row and a need to replace a pair of high NFL Draft choices at running back, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris will vie to be Saban’s next ground game duet, each hoping to be the feature guy. And each capable of becoming household names if given enough touches. Jacob Coker’s heir is less certain, though, a three-headed race involving junior Cooper Bateman, sophomore David Cornwell and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. For the first time since 2012, Bama won’t have a senior helming the offense. While Bateman has the edge, he’ll still need to close the deal in August.
11. TCU O-line
Offensive tackle Joseph Noteboom could vie for All-Big 12 honors this season. However, he might need to perform like an All-American to help prop up the rest of the new-look Frog blocking unit.
Four of last year’s starters have graduated, including all-star center Joey Hunt and left tackle Halapoulivaai Vaitai. And while the importance of the extra year of eligibility granted to senior offensive tackle Aviante Collins cannot be overstated, TCU could be vulnerable on the inside. As if losing quarterback Trevone Boykin, running back Aaron Green and receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee wasn’t tough enough, the offense is banking on center Austin Schlottman and guards Matt Pryor and Patrick Morris to take the next big step in their development. If the blockers stumble, retooling the attack on the fly becomes exponentially harder.
10. Michigan Linebackers
The Wolverines believe they might be more athletic, even more effective, at the second level this season. Maybe. But they can’t possibly duplicate last year’s experience at linebacker.
Last season’s top two tacklers, Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan, were seniors. Ditto James Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone. Expectations will be sky-high for seniors Mike McCray and especially Ben Gedeon, who could be a force in the middle this fall. Rookies Devin Bush, Joshua Uche, Devin Gil and Elysee Mbem-Bosse will be given every opportunity to chip in right away. With Gedeon inside and McCray at weak side, new coordinator Don Brown now needs to determine the identity of his strong side backer.
9. UCLA Receivers
The quarterback is expected to be better in his second season on campus. But his development might be stifled somewhat by the inexperience of his receiving corps.
While Josh Rosen is one of the undisputed young stars behind center, three of last year’s top four receivers are no longer around to catch his throws. He’ll need to develop chemistry with a whole new set of pass-catchers. Junior Darren Andrews brings the most experience after catching 42 balls in 2015. After Andrews, though, fingers are crossed that underperforming vets Eldridge Massington, Kenneth Walker and Alex Van Dyke will finally arrive. The Bruins have also imported from defense former cornerback Ishmael Adams, who has shown signs of becoming a potential playmaker.
8. Arizona State Secondary
Todd Graham and the Sun Devils plan to put the disappointing 2015 campaign in the rear view mirror as quickly as possible. Doing so will require plugging holes in the defensive backfield.
The secondary that yielded a nation’s-high 338 yards per game is attempting to piece together a competent starting unit after losing Lloyd Carrington, Jordan Simone, Kweishi Brown and Solomon Means. Kareem Orr, who can play either corner or bandit safety, is the new star of the group. But the staff is leaving no stone unturned as it prepares to fill out the rest of the two-deep. ASU has imported JUCO transfers and a Texas transfer, cornerback Bryson Echols, while cross-training offensive playmakers Tim White, De’Chavon Hayes and Eric Lauderdale to help bolster the unit.
7. Houston Secondary
Just because the Cougars are the Group of Five team to beat this season does not mean that the program is without holes.
Arguably the biggest concern for Tom Herman this offseason has been a defensive backfield that won’t be the same without all-league safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald, and cornerback William Jackson, a first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals. The new-look unit will be constructed around versatile veteran Brandon Wilson. Joining him on the last line of defense will be a spate of crucial first-time starters, including corners Howard Wilson, Jeremy Winchester and J.J. Dallas and safeties Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis. While Houston can win shootouts, it doesn’t necessarily want to be dragged into shootouts every Saturday.
6. Oregon D-line
First-year defensive coordinator Brady Hoke will have his hands full in his return to the sidelines. No unit in Eugene will warrant more heavy lifting by the Ducks than up front.
Oregon is dealing with a double-whammy this offseason, the losses of three starters as well as the shift to a 4-3 that’ll necessitate a need for more big bodies. First-round defensive end DeForest Buckner and underrated nose guard Alex Balducci leave behind particularly gaping holes. Junior Henry Mondeaux is emerging as a breakout contender from strongside end. And Torrodney Prevot should inject speed off the edge. However, on the interior, Hoke is cautiously optimistic nose tackle Rex Manu and defensive tackle Austin Maloata can hold blocks the way Balducci did the past three years.
5. Michigan State O-line
The Spartan D-line is getting a makeover, too, and protecting a first-time starting quarterback, likely Tyler O’Connor, will be the top priority in 2016.
Michigan State parted with more than just three starters from the front wall; it waved goodbye to a pair of All-Big Ten First Team performers, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen, as well as steady guard Donavon Clark. Up-and-coming Brian Allen is a rock at guard and Kodi Kieler is a returning starter at tackle, with all-league potential. However, the fate of the unit will hinge on the play of the remaining starters. MSU needs a healthy Dennis Finley to supplant Conklin and veterans Benny McGowan and Brandon Clemons to bring leadership and consistency to the interior.
4. Ohio State Secondary
The Buckeyes have been gutted this offseason by graduations and early departures, none more so than in the defensive backfield.
Junior cornerback Gareon Conley stands alone as a returning starter, so he’ll have to assume a greater leadership role in 2016. Plus, Ohio State didn’t rotate or use a lot of backups out of the secondary in 2015. Fortunately, few schools these days are recruiting better than the Buckeyes, and sophomore safety Malik Hooker is poised for stardom now that he’s getting his shot to shine. The most important battle will be the one between speedy Denzel Ward and Marshon Lattimore to determine who plays corner opposite Conley.
3. Clemson Secondary
The Tigers’ 11th-ranked pass efficiency defense was comprised of not a single senior a year ago. They’re rebuilding on the back end this offseason nonetheless.
Three Clemson defensive backs, star cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, left school early and were all selected in the latest NFL Draft. The fallout left quality cornerback Cordrea Tankersley as the new leader of the defensive backfield. Additionally, less pass rush support is expected now that both defensive ends, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, are gone as well. Junior Marcus Edmond has moved ahead of sophomore Mark Fields at cornerback, while Jadar Johnson has really begun to assert himself at strong safety.
2. Baylor O-line
Who thinks of linemen when the topic is Baylor? But it’s in the trenches—on offense and defense—that the Bears face their heaviest lifting.
Both lines have been turned upside down, with center Kyle Fuller as the only returning regular on either side of the ball. It’s a theme that’s become all too familiar in Waco during this offseason of uncommon tumult and turnover. Of the four graduating blockers, three were All-Big 12 blockers, including Cleveland Browns draft pick Spencer Drango. The leaders for jobs are sophomore Patrick Lawrence, junior Dom Desouza, junior Rami Hammad and sophomore Blake Blackmar, the latter of whom was the only player to start a 2015 game.
1. USC D-line
Welcome back, Clancy. Now go revamp a D-line that could be the weakest link of the entire squad.
Clancy Pendergast is overseeing a Trojan defense with uncertainty in the trenches. All three of last year’s starters have graduated, as well as key backup defensive tackle Claude Pelon and edge linebacker Su’a Cravens. Oh, and Kenny Bigelow went down with a season-ending ACL tear in March. To avoid being bullied at the point of attack, the Trojans need their next wave of linemen, like Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green, to come up big. If the spring is any indication of future potential, the 6-5, 285-pound Green is the USC lineman most likely to benefit from the experience vacuum that currently exists up front.