Five players outperforming the stars they replaced
One of the things that makes college football so fun to follow is the constant turnover on rosters. Each year players transfer, graduate, and leave school early for the draft, meaning there are often several starting spots up for grabs by the time spring camp rolls around. Factor in the influx of talent teams experience every season with each new recruiting class, and the returning players who felt secure in their starting roles a year ago must start looking over their shoulder. Whether it’s a true freshman, a JUCO transfer, or a veteran who has been waiting in the wings, new stars seemingly emerge each and every season, adding to the already exciting drama that is college football.
This week, we take a look at PFF data to determine five players across the nation who have outperformed the guy they replaced.
Drafted player: Jameis Winston
Replacement: Everett Golson
How would you like to be the guy who has to replace the former Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft? Well, Everett Golson seems to like it just fine. Golson transferred to Florida State after graduating from Notre Dame this past May and still having a year of eligibility remaining. Because he was a graduate transfer, Golson was eligible to play immediately, rather than having to sit out a year as most transfers do.
Golson has put together quite an impressive first half of the season. While Jameis Winston obviously did tremendous things during his time at FSU, Golson has performed admirably in his place, earning PFF’s highest QB rating in the nation this year (108.11) — nearly 20 points higher than Winston’s at this time last season.
While they have similar yardage and touchdown numbers, Golson has been a substantial improvement over Winston when it comes to accuracy, ranking first in the nation in overall accuracy percentage (84.3) and fifth in accuracy while under pressure (76.1). For comparison, at the halfway point last season, Winston was only completing 58.3 percent of his passes while under pressure. Throw in the fact that Golson has yet to thrown an interception this year, and FSU couldn’t have asked for a better transition under center.
Drafted player: Shane Ray
Replacement: Charles Harris
Typically, when a player leaves school early to become a first-round NFL draft pick, the team he left expects to have a difficult time filling his shoes. Even more so when that player had just earned All-American honors as well as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Luckily for Missouri, that has not been the case in their quest to replace last year’s star defensive end, Shane Ray. Charles Harris, Ray’s replacement, has outperformed Ray in nearly every significant statistical category through seven weeks this season.
Harris (+32.5) is PFF’s second-highest graded defensive end this year, grading positively in every game and comparing favorably to Ray’s +20 rating through seven weeks last season. While at this point last year Ray had more sacks than Harris does currently, Harris has over twice as many QB Hits (nine) and Hurries (14). Harris has also been stouter against the run, earning a +11.7 Run Grade versus Ray’s +6.6. While Mizzou lost an outstanding player in Ray, they don’t seem to be wanting for any production at his previous position thanks to the performance of Harris.
Drafted player: Stephone Anthony
Replacement: Ben Boulware
Largely a backup player in 2014, junior linebacker Ben Boulware finally earned a starting role this year for the Clemson Tigers. Boulware had to bide his time behind a standout linebacker in Stephone Anthony, who would eventually go on to be drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. Boulware has taken advantage of every additional snap as a full-time starter, playing his way to a PFF overall grade of +17.6 (third-best among 4-3 outside linebackers), compared to Anthony’s +8.1 rating at this point last year. Though Anthony had a stellar season of his own in 2014, Boulware has outperformed him in several key statistical categories.
The greatest difference between the two players can be seen in their run defense, where Boulware’s +11.1 run grade and 10.3 run stop percentage far surpass Anthony’s +2.3 and 3.6 percent ratings, respectively. Lastly, despite his lack of sacks so far this year, Boulware has been far more productive as a pass rusher, collecting 10 total pressures versus only two for Anthony. Clemson may have lost a star linebacker to the draft last year, but it seems they’ve found another in Boulware.
Graduated player: Malcome Kennedy
Replacement: Christian Kirk
Malcome Kennedy had a very productive career at Texas A&M, offering a reliable target to his quarterbacks, providing veteran leadership on and off the field, and always doing the little things well (as evidenced by his grading as one of the 10 best blocking WRs in the nation in 2014). However, with Malcome’s college career ending last year and the highly-touted Christian Kirk taking over as A&M’s primary slot receiver this season, the Aggies gained something that they have lacked at the position for some time: explosiveness.
Kirk has brought an entirely new dynamic to an already potent Kevin Sumlin offense. Through seven weeks, Kirk’s total YAC (yards after catch) nearly equals Kennedy’s total receiving yardage at this point last year (372). In addition, Kirk has posted a higher YPRR (yards per route run) from the slot, gained four more yards per reception (15.7), and has earned a PFF WR rating of 114 — nearly 25 points higher than Kennedy’s.
So while Kennedy had a great career in his own right, Kirk’s unique skillset has allowed Texas A&M to get increased production out of the slot this year — the kind of production that that will cause defenses to game plan specifically for Kirk.
Former starter: Marcus Hutchins
Replacement: Connor Williams
The Texas Longhorns have taken a step back in recent years, but they have to be excited about the performance of their most recent recruiting class — particularly freshman offensive lineman Connor Williams. With Marcus Hutchins struggling mightily at left tackle last year, the door was wide open for Williams to steal away the starting job, and that’s exactly what he did. Williams has started every game this year for the Longhorns and has yet to grade out negatively, earning an impressive +9.1 overall grade through seven weeks of play. Williams has shown particular effectiveness when pass blocking (+6.0), ranking in the top 10 nationally among offensive tackles and surrendering only seven pressures versus the 14 Hutchins had allowed midway through last season.
Overall, Williams has been a vast improvement over the performance of Hutchins, who at this point last year ranked near the bottom of the nation with a grade of -5.0 in pass blocking and -13.9 overall. Needless to say, Williams has been a welcomed addition to an otherwise struggling Texas offensive line.