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January 31, 2007

Future comes sooner than expected for some

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It's no secret that Ohio State and Notre Dame each have to replace a quarterback who was one of the best in school history.

Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and Brady Quinn were seniors. There was no eligibility remaining. Filling their shoes won't be easy, but at least the coaches for the Buckeyes and Irish have the next size on the rack.

But Jim Tressel and Charlie Weis will have to special order shoes at a couple of other positions. In all likelihood, they weren't as prepared for the early departures to the NFL of Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Antonio Pittman in Columbus, or Darius Walker in South Bend.

Every year before the season starts, Rivals.com takes a look at the players with the biggest shoes to fill. But this year's early entry deadline for the NFL Draft has produced a list of players who will have to fill shoes sooner than anyone believed. This isn't about the players who have to step in for the likes of Calvin Johnson or Marshawn Lynch. Their coaches had a pretty good idea those guys weren't going to be on the college gridiron for four years.

Here's a look at some of the guys who will have to lace them up and raise their production ASAP:

Top Players with Big Shoes to Fill
Travis Thomas, Sr., or James Aldridge, So., running back, Notre Dame (replacing Darius Walker)
Thomas saw more time at linebacker last season than he did in the backfield. Aldridge appeared in only seven games last season as a freshman. However, these are the heirs apparent. Walker was underappreciated because he wasn't a home-run threat, but he was highly productive. He posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and was an excellent receiver out of the backfield (56 receptions for 391 yards in 2006). Neither Thomas nor Aldridge caught a pass last season. Aldridge was a five-star prospect (ranked third nationally among running backs by Rivals.com), and he's probably more of a home-run threat. Thomas is more familiar with the offense and the steadier performer. He's also more likely to pick up blitzers and protect the quarterback likely incoming freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Keeping the QB upright will go a long way with Charlie Weis.
Ray Small, So., wide receiver, Ohio State (replacing Ted Ginn Jr.)
The hope in Columbus is that Small will be almost a clone of Ginn. Small is from the same high school, Cleveland Glenville, and is nearly the same size (the Ohio State official Internet site lists Small at 6 feet, 175 pounds and Ginn at 6-0, 180). Small was a four-star prospect ranked seventh in the nation among wide receivers in the 2006 class, but he didn't see a lot of balls as a freshman (eight receptions, 68 yards, one touchdown). He got knocked unconscious in the Buckeyes' 44-0 victory over Minnesota by Golden Gophers cornerback Dominic Jones, and he didn't catch a pass the remainder of the season. Still, the belief is Small can fill the void left by Ginn. He received rave reviews from his teammates leading up to the national championship game as he imitated standout Florida freshman Percy Harvin on the scout team. "Ray is going to be a spectacular receiver for us, he really is," Ohio State wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "He's explosive and very fast. I think he is going to mature and develop into one of those, he just hasn't made it yet."
Chris Wells, So., running back, Ohio State (replacing Antonio Pittman)
Pittman said on Oct. 24 that he would return for his season because he wanted to win the Heisman Trophy. On Jan. 15 he announced he was going pro early, in part to take care of his 5-month-old daughter. Fortunately for the Buckeyes they're caught much less short at running back than they appear to be at wide receiver. Rising sophomore Wells was the second-leading rusher last season with a respectable 576 yards and seven touchdowns. He also averaged a sterling 5.5 yards per carry. The former five-star prospect should blossom next season when he can expect 250-plus carries.
Kenny O'Neal, Jr., wide receiver, Tennessee (replacing Robert Meachem)
Meachem, a former five-star prospect, yields to junior college transfer O'Neal (6-0, 195) - himself a five-star prospect at City College of San Francisco. The Vols coaches long had hoped for the kind of production they got out of Meachem last season, they just didn't know he'd leave as soon as it happened. After a pair of ho-hum years, the Oklahoma product broke through with 71 receptions for 1,298 yards and 11 TDs. You can't begrudge him for moving on after a year like that, but the timing is terrible for UT. It also loses its second- and third-leading receivers in seniors Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. No other wideout on the roster had more than 14 catches in 2006. O'Neal had 48 receptions for 707 yards and four TDs in nine games for the Rams last season.
Brandon Spikes, So., linebacker, Florida (replacing Brandon Siler)
Of the wave of junior defenders leaving the Gators program early for the riches of the NFL, Siler was one many people believed would return for his senior season. He was a second-team All-SEC performer last season with a fairly modest 77 tackles, including 10 for losses and three sacks, in 13 games. UF will miss his leadership in the middle, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Spikes is a former five-star prospect who was Rivals' No. 1 prospect in the state of North Carolina. He saw action in nine games last season and posted 15 total tackles. He's a large linebacker, checking in at 6-3, 240. Spikes will be part of a complete makeover of the UF linebacking corps. The other two starters with Siler - Earl Everett and Brian Crum- were seniors. Dustin Doe, another rising sophomore, also will figure heavily into the mix.
Chris Wade, Sr., or Malcolm Sheppard, So., defensive end, Arkansas (replacing Jamaal Anderson)
Anderson came to Arkansas to play wide receiver and leaves three years later as a potential first-round pick at defensive end. He tore up the SEC in 2006 with 13.5 sacks among his 19.5 tackles for loss. The Hogs got almost too good of a season out of the 6-6, 280-pounder, because they never figured on losing him early. He wasn't even a full-time starter until this year. Now Reggie Herring will turn to either Wade or Sheppard. Wade is a junior college transfer who saw action in all 13 games last season and had 15 tackles, including three for loss. Sheppard, a former three-star prospect out of Georgia, got a pair of starts and posted 13 total tackles.
Chris Jennings, Sr., running back, Arizona (replacing Chris Henry)
Henry's reasoning for leaving early left many dumbfounded, including Wildcats coach Mike Stoops. The junior said he was upset about losing his job early in the season, and he added that he was concerned about his role with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes and Dykes' spread offense. "I think Chris' reasons behind everything were out of line and out of context," Stoops said at the time. "Chris had a lot of opportunities to showcase his talent in the second half of the season. In the long run, he could have benefited from playing another year, especially in this system." Henry posted 581 yards and seven TDs on 165 carries, an underwhelming 3.5-yard average. Jennings, a junior-college transfer, had a solid first season in the desert with 451 yards and three touchdowns on 105 carries (a much more respectable 4.3 per carry). He's the reason Henry found himself on the bench. With the bulk of the work and an improving young line, Jennings could surprise next season.

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