As recruiting season revs up- excuse me a second.
Aggh. Anyway, as recruiting season revs up and even more creepers than normal turn their attention to the social media feeds of teenage strangers, an oft-quipped line from head coaches is that their top priority for recruiting is the draft-eligible players from their own teams. With the siren song of fame and above-board fortune emitted by the NFL, that's often a losing pitch for college coaches, who can counter only with the promise of another year of dorm food (and another year of priceless halcyon days of camaraderie and youth with teammates who are generally friends for life instead of getting swirlies from Richie Incognito). As of today, the B1G's coaches must replace not only their seniors, but also the following standout underclassmen:
RB Melvin Gordon III, RS Jr, Wisconsin
The good news for Wisconsin is this departure was expected since the end of last season, as Gordon probably did the school a favor by even returning for his junior year (the redshirt made him eligible after 2 years on the field). Gordon cashed in on his final campaign by running (heh) away with the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, and was also a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He briefly set a new all-time single-game FBS rushing record, disembowelling Nebraska for 408 yards only to see Oklahoma's Samaje Perine re-break it the following week.
As for his draft prospects, Gordon will obviously be drafted; the question is when. Gordon's top-end speed is undeniable, but his non-utilization in the passing game will ding him a bit. The NFL's devaluation of the RB position is well-documented at this point, but SBN's Dan Kadar believes Gordon has at least a shot at the first round. He and Georgia's Todd Gurley are considered the top of a very deep class of tailbacks.
Next Man Up: Corey Clement. Gordon's departure frees up a lot of carries, and his replacement will also work behind a rebuilt line as three senior starters depart. But if there's anywhere in the country that's earned the benefit of the doubt for replacing stud players at a specific position, it's Wisconsin at OL and RB. Clement showed a good combination of power and speed in a second fiddle role, and figures to be the lead horse as a junior.
DE Randy Gregory, Jr, Nebraska
Like Gordon, Gregory's lofty preseason draft ranking probably had most Nebraska fans prepared to bid him adieu with his senior classmates once this season was over. Depending on how you classify USC's Leonard Williams, Gregory is either the top or second-ranked DE prospect according to most sources. His story is a bit circuitous; Gregory went from a heavy Purdue lean in high school to spending his freshman year in wilds of Arizona Western Community College before working his way back to the B1G as a transfer for the Huskers.
After a brief acclimation period as a sophomore, Gregory showed why he was so highly desired both out of high school and as a transfer, racking 10.5 sacks in his first year. His production dipped slightly as a junior, likely a product of minor injuries and increased game-planning, but his top-shelf athleticism has kept him at or near the top of most mock drafts. The premium placed on pass-rushers would make it a shock if he fell out of the top half of the first round.
Next Man Up: Jack Gangwish. When Gregory was dinged up or needed a breather, Gangwish was generally the guy taking over on the field. He's not the same caliber of player Gregory is, but he won't have to be, as Nebraska's DL should be in good shape with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine returning.
RB Tevin Coleman, Jr, Indiana
Leave it to a Hoosier prospect to have a season for the ages in the same year another guy, at the same position, in the same conference, is having season for even more of the ages. Coleman set multiple school records, reached the legendary 2,000-yard plateau, did this playing half the season with a true freshman QB who opposing defense could safely ignore, and still got overshadowed by Gordon due to Indiana's general on-field futility.
Well, Coleman can leave that all behind and get paid to do it. His speed will likewise be very appealing to NFL executives, and he was a much larger part of the passing game than Gordon, which will earn him that much-sought-after "every down back" designation. Again, his position being shortchanged might mean a bit of a wait before he hears his name called.
Next Man Up: Jordan Howard. This position would have been an unknown for the Hoosiers next year, were it not for the untimely demise of the UAB football program. The State of Alabama's decision to shutter Blazer football left a roster of Division I athletes looking for new homes, and Indiana scooped their starting RB. Howard ran for nearly 1,600 yards with 13 TDs in 2014 and is the logical feature back.
TE Maxx(xxxxxxx) Williams, RS So, Minnesota
Minnesota's passing game the last few years has been limited to put it mildly, but the single biggest bright spot has been Maxx Williams. The consensus winner of the coveted GoAUPher Inept TE Turned Waterboy TE of the Year Award and finalist for the Mackey Award was Minnesota's leading receiver despite spending most of every game blocking for a jillion David Cobb runs in a row before being permitted to run a route and then returning for more glorious in-line blocking.
Williams' entry into the draft was likely a very lucrative move. Although the TE position has risen in prominence in NFL schemes lately, this year's collegiate crop at the position is a very weak one, and just by entering, Williams could easily be the first TE taken, and possibly in the first round or two due to the utter dearth of other options for NFL teams in need at the position. Williams has deceptive (read: unexpected because he's white) athleticism, and a decent highlight clip to boot.
Next Man Up: Duke Anyanwu. At least, the redshirt sophomore-to-be seems like the logical option at the receiving TE position. He redshirted in 2014 with a knee injury. With Williams heading to the NFL and WR Donovahn Jones being dismissed from the program in December, Minnesota's search for playmakers in the passing game will be fairly urgent.
TE Tyler Kroft, RS Jr, Rutgers
Another TE prospect who is perhaps cognizant of the position's weakness in the draft crop, Kroft certainly has the measurables that NFL types can't help but be hypnotized by (6'6", 240). His 2014 receiving numbers were substantially reduced from his impressive 2013 totals, but new OC Ralph Friedgen's scheme leaned more heavily on the run than had been the case before. Leonte Carroo's emergence at WR also likely ate into Kroft's totals. Numbers aside, playing in Friedgen's pro-style system probably helped Kroft's pro prospects, or at least didn't hurt them.
As with Williams, Kroft's draftability figures to be boosted by a shallow pool of NFL-caliber TE prospects. Still, a late-round selection is more likely for Kroft, who can't match Williams' athleticism or red-zone dependability.
Next Man Up: Matt Flanagan. Here, I speculate considerably; I don't recall Rutgers using many 2-TE sets in the games I watched. This dude's second on the depth chart, ahead of guys with seniority. Regardless, with Carroo, Janarion Grant, and a promising run game, the TE will probably be a tertiary option in Rutgers' offense next year.
WR Stefon Diggs, Jr, Maryland
When healthy, which was unfortunately not often, the former 5-star home-state recruit proved himself to be a No.1 receiver on a team stacked to the rafters at the position. Although he received erratic-at-best QB play, Diggs still put up impressive numbers and was especially effective after the catch. He can also contribute in the return game, and has experience returning both punts and kicks. Diggs has also been something of a poster child for Maryland's attempts to keep its excellent local talent from leaving for other programs.
Diggs' biggest question mark is probably his durability, as he's suffered two season-ending injuries in his three collegiate seasons. He was also suspended for his participation in #Handshakegate, but that sort of minor thing isn't going to raise any flags for a league with the, um, character concerns the NFL has been dealing with. However, unlike his TE compatriots, Diggs enters the draft with an absolutely loaded position group. Ergo, despite his ability, teams may well decide that they can wait to get him or a comparable talent later.
Next Man Up: Jacquille Veii. This is a pretty tough call as well; Maryland's offense spread the ball around such that it's difficult to say who, or even if, any one receiver will show a large increase in production. However, with fellow big-play threat Deon Long graduating, the younger guys in Maryland's receiving corps will now have center stage. As far as the return game goes, Diggs was replaced and probably even outperformed by Will Likely, so the Terps are fine on that front.