College football stars seemingly shine only for an instant in the grand scheme of things, emerging for a season or two before moving on either to the NFL or through graduation. And those stars vacating the college football sky means there’s a hole open for the next group of players to come through.
Another way to put it? Departing stars leave big shoes to fill. And depending on the star, and the team, those shoes can either be filled by the next generation of stars or they can sit unfilled as a team struggles to find the same impact at those positions they had the previous season.
So which players left the biggest shoes to fill? We’re talking about All-Americans, first-round draft picks, players who helped to spur their teams to double-digit win seasons, and in some cases, the College Football Playoff.The ACC Player of the Year and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award award-winner led the Panthers to an 11-2 record, passing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Those are certainly huge shoes to fill. But Pittsburgh certainly has a talented option in USC transfer Kedon Slovis, who was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2020, when he led the Trojans to a 5-1 mark, completing 67% of his passes for 1,921 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games. The year before, he hit on almost 72% of his throws for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions in 12 games with 11 starts, giving the Panthers an all-conference type talent to build around.
MICHIGAN PASS-RUSHERS AIDAN HUTCHINSON AND DAVID OJABO
Hutchinson went with the No. 2 overall pick to the Detroit Lions, and if Ojabo didn’t tear his Achilles at Michigan’s Pro Day, he was likely looking at a top-10 selection himself. That’s a whole lot of edge firepower (and 25 2021 sacks) to try and replace. Mike Morris is the easy answer at one of the two spots after making 16 tackles as a rotational player a year ago. The other spot could be manned by Jaylen Harrell, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2020. It’s tough to see whoever fills those roles matching that kind of otherworldly production, though.
GEORGIA’S FIRST-ROUND DEFENSIVE STARS
The Bulldogs had five of ‘em: No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, linebacker Quay Walker and safety Lewis Cine—playmakers at every level. At defensive tackle, Georgia could continue to thrive: Jalen Carter could be the best defensive prospect on the Bulldogs’ 2022 defense, and Zion Logue was a big part of the rotation. Georgia could rotate heavily at Walker’s defensive end spot, though perhaps Tramel Walthour gets first crack at the starting job. Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a star this spring for the Bulldogs, looks like the best bet to replace Walker, while safety will be a real battle. Former walk-on Dan Jackson was Cine’s backup, but he didn’t practice much this spring and could get pushed.
ALABAMA’S EVAN NEAL AND JAMESON WILLIAMS
Few things make a quarterback’s life better than a top grade offensive tackle and a playmaking wide receiver who can run away from a defense. And we already saw how much Williams meant to Alabama’s offense when he went out. The Crimson Tide will likely try to replace the speed impact Williams brought after transferring from Ohio State with that of another transfer wide receiver, Jermaine Burton from Georgia. Burton averaged 19.1 yards per catch last year and joins a more receiver-friendly offense. As for filling Neal’s dinosaur-sized footprints, that could go to a transfer as well. Alabama’s offensive tackle group struggled at times this spring, making Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen, a three-year starting left tackle, the potential leading option.
OREGON’S KAYVON THIBODEAUX
The No. 5 overall pick played in 10 games last year, making 49 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks. But he was also the kind of player offenses needed to track on a play-by-play basis. Even so, could the Ducks just replicate his overall production numbers, potentially with a couple rotation players? If DJ Johnson plays the way he did in the spring game, when he had four sacks, that doesn’t seem too out of line, and Bradyn Swinson could be the frontrunner. He made 24 tackles and four tackles for loss last year, including eight tackles and a tackle for loss against Ohio State, when he started for an injured Thibodeaux.
MICHIGAN STATE’S KENNETH WALKER
The Doak Walker Award winner helped Michigan State win 11 games and finish in the top 10, thanks to his 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns. Every Michigan State opponent knew Walker was going to get the ball, and he was close to unstoppable anyway. The Spartans don’t seem especially likely to have one player get that many carries this year, even with Jarek Broussard arriving from Colorado, where he was Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2020, when he ran 156 times in six games, finishing with 895 yards and five scores on the ground. Broussard could certainly win Michigan State’s job, but it’s likely to be more of a timeshare.
CINCINNATI’S ALL-AMERICAN CORNERBACK DUO
If Michigan’s pair of pass-rushers essentially set the tone for one College Football Playoff team, the Bearcats’ pair of pass-defenders did the same thing. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant are pretty close to irreplaceable, though Cincinnati does have some interesting options. One of those is highly experienced corner Arquon Bush, the team’s starting nickel a year ago. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bearcats tap into true freshman JQ Hardaway, a four-star recruit.
OLE MISS’ MATT CORRAL
Corral was a second-team All-SEC pick, but few players in college football were as vital to their team’s success. Over the past two years, Corral averaged 3,343 yards passing, 560 yards rushing and 32 combined passing and rushing touchdowns per season. Can the Rebel offense keep rolling without Corral captaining the ship? Which player will assume that spot is still up in the air, with former top 100 prospect and USC transfer Jaxson Dart battling a top 200 prospect from 2021 in Luke Altmyer. The winner has a high standard of play to live up to.
NOTRE DAME’S KYLE HAMILTON
Few schools could come out of this as well as Notre Dame might. Hamilton was a fantastic talent, someone who was drawing top five consideration before he didn’t test quite as well as expected. Make no mistake: outside of shorts and T-shirt, Hamilton was a tremendous player. But the good news is that Notre Dame has another one coming in with Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, who was a consensus All-American in 2020, when he picked off six passes. He intercepted three more last year, to go with 79 tackles, and Joseph should be a force with his new team this year as well.
OKLAHOMA’S CALEB WILLIAMS
Every other player on this list is off to the NFL, but Williams is not an ordinary case as a former five-star quarterback and potential Heisman Trophy candidate, who followed his coach Lincoln Riley to USC. That didn’t just take a foundational piece from Oklahoma, but delivered one for Riley’s attempted Trojan build. Oklahoma appears to have found a strong year one option in Dillon Gabriel, with the UCF transfer proving himself over the course of parts of three seasons with the Knights, throwing 70 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions. Williams could be a national honors candidate this year, but in his replacement, Oklahoma might still have the Big 12’s best signal-caller.