DCTF's Jake Shaw series on the state's biggest college football replacements continues.
In Part I of this three-part series, we analyzed the replacement players in key positions at Baylor, Texas, SMU and Houston. Next up, we'll grade the first-year starters taking over for last year's stars at TCU, Texas Tech, UTSA and UTEP.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Lance Dunbar
His replacements: Brandin Byrd, Zac Whitfield, Antoinne Jimmerson, and Jeremy Brown
Replacement grade: D+
Explaining the grade: That's right; it might take four players to replace a guy like Dunbar, who leaves Denton as the program's all-time leading rusher with 4,224 yards. Last season he added 1,115 yards to that total, accounting for more than 60 percent of the Mean Green's rushing yardage. The next highest total came from James Hamilton, who also graduated, leaving QB Derek Thompson (and his 113 yards) as the top returning rusher. Byrd, Whitfield, Jimmerson and Brown are literally green. Brown played mostly on the special teams, while Jimmerson and Whitfield took a redshirt as a true freshman. That might make Byrd (20-83 in 2011) the leader of the pack, though Jimmerson capped his spring with 92 yards on 11 carries in the final scrimmage. Because of a total lack of experience, I didn't feel comfortable grading the replacements of the program's best-ever rusher with anything higher than a D — there's just too much to prove.
Biggest defensive loss: DB Royce Hill
His replacements: Freddie Warner/Hilbert Jackson
Replacement grade: C+
Explaining the grade: Both Warner (18 tackles in 7 games), a true sophomore, and Jackson (15 tackles in 12 games), a redshirt junior, picked up some experience last year, but neither player has earned a start so far. That already puts them behind the career path of Hill, who started all 36 games the past three seasons and nine games as a true freshman. The departure of Hill (46 tackles, 2 INTs last fall) is just as glaring as Dunbar's, especially considering UNT also lost its other 2011 starting cornerback. That leaves Warner and Jackson filling first-team roles. Though neither will be thrown to the wolves come fall, it's asking too much for either to give the Mean Green the stability that Hill brought to the table.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Tyler Smith
His replacement: Charles Ross/Turner Peterson
Replacement grade: B
Explaining the grade: Smith had a solid Rice career, though two injuries in his first three seasons curtailed his career numbers. Last year he posted a career-high 860 yards, almost twice as much as Peterson, who has evolved into a capable running back after playing QB in high school and getting most of his attempts as the QB in Rice's "Wild Owl" formation. If Peterson can't hold up to the riggers of being the full-time back, Ross could be that guy — if he can stay healthy. He was an all-CUSA freshman in 2009 but hasn't come close to matching those first-year numbers (97-491, 11 TDs), be it because of injuries or falling back in the depth chart. This could be his year to assume the starting job.
Biggest defensive loss: DE Scott Solomon
His replacement: Cody Bauer
Replacement grade: B
Explaining the grade: Solomon was one of the last names called at the 2012 NFL Draft, getting picked by Tennessee in the seventh round (where, coincidentally, he'll be paired with former SMU rival Taylor Thompson, a TE-turned-DE). Solomon brought more than numbers to Rice — though his 43.5 TFLs and 24 sacks over his career can't be overstated. He was, as his Rice bio claims, an "intense leader" who worked hard to exceed his potential. His replacement, Bauer, should use Solomon as a role model in more ways than one. Aside from trying to match Solomon's numbers, Bauer hopes to follow Solomon's example of returning from an injury. Solomon missed all of 2010 with an injury but rebounded to have a big senior year. Bauer, meanwhile, missed all of 2011 (also with an injury), so he's hoping he can return with a similar impact as Solomon. While I don't think Bauer can be quite the same player, his hunger to return to the game should also help him maximize his abilities.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Cyrus Gray
His replacement: RB Christine Michael
Replacement grade: A+
Explaining the grade: Though QB Ryan Tannehill went way higher in the draft, Texas A&M was at its best the past few years when the offense went through the running game, be it through Cray or Michael. Problem is, neither player could shake the injury bug. When Michael looked like the lead back in 2010, Gray eventually emerged as the starter after Michael broke his leg. Last fall, when it was Gray's job, Michael appeared to be the top back, rushing for 899 yards on the season — until another injury (this to his ACL) that put Gray back in the featured role. But with Gray gone and Michael's knee returning to form, Michael is in position to be the running back for the Aggies. If he manages to stay healthy, he can be the best back in the SEC.
Biggest defensive loss: S Trent Hunter
His replacement: Howard Matthews
Replacement grade: B-
Explaining the grade: Despite the postseason news, Hunter will be missed almost as much as any former Aggie of the past 5-10 years. Hunter started 47 games over his four-year career, emerging as a playmaker just months after graduating from Katy. Matthews (28 tackles in two starts), a true sophomore, finished the spring partly because senior Steven Campbell missed the workouts with yet another injury. Matthews was fierce against the run (no surprise with his 6-2, 200+ pound frame), but he must improve defending the deep ball. Matthews has all the tools to be a top-line safety — but he must put them together if he wants to come close to matching the production and dependability of Hunter.
Biggest offensive loss: OL Michael Chambers
His replacement: Adley Eshraghipour
Replacement grade: C-
Explaining the grade: Texas State graduated two other starters aside from Chambers (guard D.J. Hall and center Steven Kinney), so there are multiple players to replace, but I went with Chambers because he plays the all-important tackle position. Chambers started all but two games, missing those couple outings because of a minor injury. His absence was very noticeable, so much so that the Bobcats moved Eshraghipour over from the defensive line, partly to solve depth problems, and partly because they weren't exactly happy with what they had on the OL to begin with. Eshraghipour is a senior, so he's mentally and physically mature enough to start, but expecting some growing pains as he adapts from sacking QBs to protecting QBs.
Biggest defensive loss: DT Michael Ebbitt
His replacement: Kamu Taulelei
Replacement grade: B
Explaining the grade: Texas State returns six of 2011's top seven tacklers. But while the Bobcats return a lot of experienced players, they won't bring back Ebbitt, far and away the team's biggest playmaker last fall. In nine starts, Ebbitt totaled 15.5 tackles for a loss — 11.5 of them were sacks. He added 35 tackles and recovered two fumbles, and he did all of this despite arriving in San Marcos two months before the season started after transferring from Texas A&M. Maybe Texas State will have similar luck with another newcomer, Taulelei, a mid-year transfer from a California JUCO. The 6-2, 270-pounder from American Samoa grabbed hold of Ebbitt's vacated spot this spring and by showing strength on the field and in the weight room. Like Ebbitt, Taulelei has the potential to go from unknown to star player almost overnight.
Jake Shaw is a special contributor to Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.