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Sam Darnold is among the top players leaving early for the NFL. Do the USC Trojans and other top teams have top recruits ready to take over for these stars?

These top recruits are out to replace NFL draft hopefuls

Jan 19, 2018

  • Tom VanHaarenESPN Staff Writer

    • Big Ten recruiting reporter
    • Joined ESPN in 2011
    • Graduated from Central Michigan

Early entrants to the NFL draft can often create unexpected holes on a team that need to be filled quickly. With the early signing period, coaches already have an idea of what signees will be able to help fill those holes, or on the flip side, where they might have an abundance of depth with a few underclassmen deciding to stay in school.

Here is a look at some of the programs who will be impacted by NFL draft decisions.

Clemson Tigers

What happened: Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant all elected to stay in school and forgo the NFL draft.

What it means: These were pretty surprising decisions considering most of the linemen were believed to be highly rated draft picks. Tackle Dexter Lawrence is also back and defensive end Richard Yeargin should play after missing the 2017 season to injury. The Tigers were able to sign two linemen ranked as five-stars in Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry, as well as ESPN 300 defensive end Justin Mascoll, ESPN 300 defensive tackle Josh Belk and four-star Darnell Jeffries.

Those 2018 recruits probably thought there would be an immediate opportunity for them as most believed Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant would leave school. Now, there is much less pressure on the freshmen to make an immediate impact and they can be rotated in, rather than having to be a staple of the defense. It’s that much more depth for Clemson to make a run at yet another playoff appearance and affords the coaching staff more time to develop the prospects, even if they are ready almost immediately. And that depth probably will pay dividends at the end of the season.

Conversely, the signees might have felt as though their path to starting early was great and now they’ll be waiting as backups because of these decisions.

Ohio State Buckeyes

What happened: Defensive end Sam Hubbard and defensive back Denzel Ward are leaving early. However, lineman Dre’Mont Jones and offensive weapons Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon and Mike Weber all decide to return to what was already a youthful roster.

What it means: Ohio State played 14 true freshmen this past season, which was tied for the most in Urban Meyer’s tenure in Columbus.

On defense, besides Hubbard and Ward, the Buckeyes are losing defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley, as well as defensive back Damon Webb. Getting Jones back means OSU has only one spot to fill at DT. Ohio State landed five-star Taron Vincent, as well as ESPN 300 tackle Tommy Togiai and junior college tackle Antwuan Jackson Jr.

Having Jones and Nick Bosa will give the incoming freshmen opportunity to play early but will also give some stability to the line next season. Vincent, Jackson and Togiai will all have an opportunity to make an impact, especially Jackson as he already has college experience, and should help Ohio State keep up its high-level defensive line play in 2018.

Penn State Nittany Lions

What happened: Running back Saquon Barkley entered the NFL draft and should be a first-round selection.

What it means: Penn State already had Miles Sanders on the roster and he should be able to produce right away for the Nittany Lions. The staff lost offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and running backs coach Charles Huff to Mississippi State, so there are some unknowns going into the season.

With Barkley gone, Sanders will pick up the slack, but ESPN 300 signee Ricky Slade could provide a boost at the position as well. Slade is an elusive back who could help in the passing game as well as the run game, and add an extra threat to the offense. He and Sanders should complement each other well, and Slade won’t be the featured back from the start, but his ability will give new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne another piece with which to work.

USC Trojans

What happened: The Trojans are losing quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett to the draft.

What it means: Darnold leaving means there is little experience among the QBs on the roster. As it stands now, redshirt freshman Matt Fink and true freshman Jack Sears are the options.

That decision from Darnold had an impact on quarterback recruit J.T. Daniels, who started in the 2019 class, but reclassified to the 2018 class in December. Daniels will now sign in February and will enroll at school in the summer to be able to compete for the starting job. Getting Daniels reclassified could end up being a big deal for USC this season with minimal depth. Since Fink and Sears both have experience in a college program, they might have a leg up, but Daniels’ talent might make it tough to keep him off the field.

Losing Jones and Burnett will make it that much more crucial to find some stability on offense and a playmaker to help the young QBs. The coaches were able to reel in ESPN 300 receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and ESPN 300 running back Markese Stepp, who could help fill some of the voids on offense. Running back Stephen Carr and wide receiver Tyler Vaughns were the second-leading producers at their positions and both return, so there are options.

Florida State Seminoles

What happened: Florida State not only went through a coaching change but is losing a ton on defense. Defensive backs Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden both elected to leave early, as did defensive end Josh Sweat.

What it means: The top three ranked prospects in this class for the Seminoles are all defensive backs in Asante Samuel Jr., A.J. Lytton and Jaiden Woodbey. Some of the signees from previous classes should help mitigate the losses, including cornerback Levonta Taylor, defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, among others.

This 2018 class could help create some competition, though, and add some playmakers that could see the field early. Woodbey could be a good candidate at safety as well as Robert Cooper along the defensive line. Dealing with the coaching change, this class isn’t finished yet, so other holes could still be filled with the February signing day. Either way, this defense will be young and will need some of the signees in this class to take on a role one way or another.

LSU Tigers

What happened: The Tigers lost cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver early to the draft, as well as defensive end Arden Key and running back Derrius Guice.

What it means: Guice leaving early is a big deal as he was the leading rusher for LSU, and second-leading rusher Darrel Williams is graduating. The next closest to the pair of backs who combined rushed for over 2,000 yards, was Russell Gage, who ran for 235 yards, and quarterback Danny Etling.

Nick Brossette could see his role expand next season, but the staff also has two backs in the 2018 class with ESPN 300 running back Chris Curry and three-star Tae Provens. Curry is the higher rated of the two, but Provens is a midyear enrollee and there are many who think he could surprise some people once he hits campus.

On defense, the loss of both Jackson and Tolliver leaves only Grant Delpit and Andraez Williams with significant experience. Kary Vincent Jr. showed that he should be able to provide consistent help in the future, but the addition of defensive back Kelvin Joseph, the No. 2-ranked corner, in this class was imperative for future depth. The defense could have some growing pains losing a significant amount in the front seven, so adding any playmakers to the defensive group is important at this stage.

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