Commentary

Sooners, Gators score with big returns

Updated: January 15, 2009, 10:07 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The necessary paperwork has been filed.

By now, college football fans across the country know which underclassmen are staying or going. Thursday was the deadline for underclassmen to file the paperwork to be included in April's NFL draft.

Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, the Heisman Trophy winner, is staying in school. Florida receiver Percy Harvin, the most explosive player on the field in the Gators' 24-14 victory over the Sooners in the Jan. 8 FedEx BCS National Championship Game, is leaving.

The effects of those decisions probably won't be known until after their former teams begin spring practice.

But on paper, at least, there appear to be several winners and losers when it comes to losing or retaining underclassmen.

Winners


[+] EnlargeBrandon Spikes
Icon SMIBrandon Spikes' return ensures the Florida defense will remain intact in 2009.
Florida Gators
Not only did the national champion Gators keep junior quarterback Tim Tebow in school, but they had to be surprised junior linebacker Brandon Spikes didn't turn pro. Harvin, who labored through an injury-plagued college career, is entering the NFL draft.

With Spikes coming back, Florida is expected to return all 11 starters on defense in 2009. Harvin will be hard to replace because of his explosiveness and ability to run the football. The Gators will return running backs Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey and two starters on the offensive line.

With Tebow and Spikes coming back for their senior seasons, Florida will be a popular choice to win its third national championship in four seasons.

Mississippi Rebels
The Rebels received a surprise when junior defensive end Greg Hardy elected to return to school for his senior season. Hardy was one of the SEC's top pass-rushers, finishing with 8½ sacks and 9½ tackles for loss in nine games in 2008. Losing Hardy and tackle Peria Jerry would have made it tough on the Ole Miss defense this coming season.

With Hardy coming back, Ole Miss might challenge Alabama and LSU for the SEC West title next season. The offense returns most of its firepower, including quarterback Jevan Snead and running back Dexter McCluster.

Clemson Tigers
New Tigers coach Dabo Swinney gets back half of his team's potent one-two punch at running back after junior C.J. Spiller decided to return to school.

With tailback James Davis, quarterback Cullen Harper and receiver Aaron Kelly departing, Clemson's offense would have started from scratch if Spiller hadn't returned for 2009.

Spiller ran for 629 yards with seven touchdowns while battling a hamstring injury in 2008. He also caught 34 passes for 436 yards with three scores.

Oklahoma Sooners
Bradford surprised a lot of Oklahoma fans when he opted to come back to school for his junior season. The redshirt sophomore might have been the No. 1 quarterback selected if he'd entered this spring's draft. Bradford led the Sooners to the BCS National Championship Game, throwing for 4,721 yards with 50 touchdowns in 14 games.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Gresham
Julie Scheidegger/US PresswireJermaine Gresham gives Sam Bradford a familiar target to throw to in 2009.
Getting junior tight end Jermaine Gresham back for one more season might have been the icing on the cake for the Sooners. Last season, Gresham led all Big 12 tight ends with 66 catches for 950 yards with 14 touchdowns. His return gives Bradford at least one big target for 2009; leading receiver Juaquin Iglesias was a senior.

Junior right tackle Trent Williams also opted to return to school, meaning he might protect Bradford's blind side next season. The Sooners lose left tackle Phil Loadholt and left guard Duke Robinson.

Junior defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, another top NFL draft prospect, also decided to return to Oklahoma.

South Florida Bulls
The Bulls kept their most visible player, junior defensive end George Selvie, who overcame an ankle injury and constant double-teams to record 5½ sacks in 2008.

The only repeat All-American in South Florida history, Selvie had 25½ sacks the past three seasons. Even after his injury-plagued junior campaign, Selvie was projected as a potential first-round pick.

Texas Longhorns
The fact that Heisman Trophy runner-up Colt McCoy returned to Texas for his senior season wasn't much of a surprise.

But the Longhorns were concerned about losing junior linebacker Sergio Kindle, who was second on the team with 10 sacks in 2008. Kindle didn't wait long to announce he was coming back, and he'll become the team's top pass-rusher with senior Brian Orakpo leaving.

UCLA Bruins
After little went right for the Bruins in Rick Neuheisel's first season as coach of his alma mater, the Bruins received a double dose of good news heading into the offseason.

Cornerback Alterraun Verner, who led the country in passes defended last season, will return for his senior season. So will linebacker Reggie Carter, who led the Bruins with 83 tackles in 2008.

Losers


[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireWith Knowshon Moreno and Matt Stafford departing Athens, the Bulldogs lose most of their offense from last season.
Georgia Bulldogs
As expected, Georgia lost junior quarterback Matthew Stafford and redshirt sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno, who accounted for 88 percent of its offense last season. Stafford was the SEC's leading passer with 3,459 yards with 25 touchdowns, and Moreno was the league's top rusher with 1,400 yards with 16 touchdowns. Neither will be easy to replace, although the Georgia coaching staff feels good about quarterback Joe Cox, a rising senior.

The Bulldogs didn't expect to lose junior cornerback Asher Allen, who was perhaps the most reliable player on Georgia's disappointing defense in 2008. Redshirt sophomore safety Reshad Jones thought about entering the draft, but decided to stay in school.

Offensive coordinators
Offensive coordinators at a few FBS programs will have to work even harder this offseason after losing workhorse tailbacks. Connecticut junior Donald Brown, the country's leading rusher, decided to turn pro.

So did Alabama's Glen Coffee, Iowa's Shonn Greene, Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy and Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells.

Of the aforementioned runners, all but Wells and Coffee had at least 250 rushing attempts in 2008. Wells missed three games with injuries; Coffee shared carries with freshman Mark Ingram.

Quarterbacks
Several teams will not only be losing their record-setting quarterbacks to graduation, but they'll also have to replace their favorite underclassman targets. Texas Tech won't have Michael Crabtree, Missouri will be without Jeremy Maclin and Rutgers will be without Kenny Britt.

Boise State's Jeremy Childs, BYU's Austin Collie, Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey and North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks also said they're turning pro.

[+] EnlargeJared Cook
Paul Abell/US PresswireSouth Carolina lost its second-leading receiver in TE Jared Cook.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Steve Spurrier has struggled to transform South Carolina into a legitimate threat in the SEC East, and now he'll go into the 2009 season without three of his team's best players. Junior tight end Jared Cook, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Emanuel Cook are entering the NFL draft.

The Gamecocks did receive some good news when linebacker Eric Norwood decided to return to school. Initially, Norwood said he would enter the draft. Norwood is South Carolina's career leader with 43 tackles for loss.

Texas Tech Red Raiders
Not only will Red Raiders coach Mike Leach have to replace record-setting quarterback Graham Harrell next season, but his team will also be without Crabtree, a redshirt sophomore, who entered the NFL draft.

Crabtree was arguably the greatest receiver in Texas Tech history, finishing his career with 231 receptions for 3,127 yards with 41 touchdowns in 26 games.

The Red Raiders also lost junior defensive end Brandon Williams, who led the Big 12 with 13 sacks last season. While Crabtree was expected to turn pro, Williams' decision reportedly caught Texas Tech's coaches off guard.

USC Trojans
The good news? Hard-hitting safety Taylor Mays surprised a lot of NFL scouts when he opted to return to USC for his senior season. The Trojans will lose a boatload of talent on defense, including linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing.

The bad news? Junior quarterback Mark Sanchez entered the NFL draft, leaving the USC offense just when it seemed to be coming together. Sanchez threw for 3,207 yards with 34 touchdowns in 2008, including a record-setting performance in the Trojans' 38-24 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi.

If Sanchez had come back, the Trojans might have had one of the country's most explosive offenses in 2009. Receiver Patrick Turner is the only other starter on offense leaving. Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain, current freshman Aaron Corp and incoming freshman Matt Barkley are expected to battle for the starting quarterback job in 2009.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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