Several college stars from the 2021 season will make their NFL preseason debuts this weekend.
Najee Harris already made a strong first impression for the Steelers at the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 5.
Kyle Pitts will make his debut with the Falcons on Friday. Zach Wilson, Travis Etienne and Jaylen Waddle will be in action Saturday. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith is out with a knee injury, but he should return soon.
That group of 2021 first-round picks left huge shoes to fill at their respective colleges. Who will step into those roles? Sporting News takes a closer look.
Who replaces Zach Wilson at BYU?
Wilson, who was selected No. 2 by the New York Jets, finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting and led the Cougars to an 11-1 record last season. He finished with 3,692 passing yards, 33 TDs and three INTs. It re-established BYU as an independent program worth watching.
Now, the Cougars have a three-way quarterback battle in fall camp with Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover battling for the starting job.
Hall was projected to be the starter, but Romney and Conover are making it interesting.
Hall is a sophomore who had the edge entering fall camp. Jaren’s father Kalin played running back for the Cougars from 1992-93. Jaren is a two-sport athlete who also plays for the BYU baseball team.
Romney is the only QB among the three who saw game action last season. He battled with Wilson for the starting job in 2019. He is a distant relative of U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, and another interesting tie is his brother Gunner, a BYU receiver, was a high school teammate of Conover.
Kalani Sitake will have a tough decision with these three quarterbacks leading up to the opener against Arizona on Sept. 4.
Who replaces Najee Harris at Alabama?
Harris scored 50 total TDs the last two seasons for Alabama and is stepping into the lead running back role in Pittsburgh.
Now, it’s redshirt Brian Robinson’s time to shine. Robinson, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., native played at Hillcrest High School, has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in a backup role for the Crimson Tide the last four seasons.
At 6-1, 228 pounds, Robinson is a physical runner, and he offered a glimpse of what is to come with 10 carries for 69 yards in the College Football Playoff championship game against Ohio State. That gives new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien a lead back to work with, and Alabama has other options at the position.
Sophomore Jase McClellan, who had 23 carries for 245 yards last season, is another option. He could challenge for a split, and Roydell Willliams and Trey Sanders will fight for touches.
Who replaces DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle?
Waddle was the early Heisman Trophy front-runner last season before suffering a leg injury on the opening kickoff against Tennessee. Smith stepped in and became the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991.
The tandem combined to average 16.9 yards per catch with 27 TDs. Where is O’Brien going to find that explosion in the passing game with his new receivers?
Metchie emerged as Alabama’s third-best target last season. He averaged 16.7 yards per catch with nine TDs, and he’ll step into Smith’s role as the lead receiver.
Metchie is well-traveled. He was born in Taiwan before his family moved to Ghana and then Canada. Metchie had his best game when Waddle was injured with seven catches for 151 yards against Tennessee.
Williams was a surprise pickup in the offseason. He transferred from Ohio State’s loaded receiver room. He averaged 17.7 yards per catch with three TDs for the Buckeyes the last two seasons.
Williams nearly committed to Alabama in the recruiting process, and he made that decision to go back in the offseason.
“I wasn’t certain of my role in the offense,” Williams told Bama Insider. “The receiver room got crowded. I just decided I needed a fresh start.”
Metchie and Williams will be the vertical threats, and senior Slade Bolden figures to be another target for new starting quarterback Bryce Young.
How will Clemson replace Travis Etienne in the backfield?
Travis Etienne left Clemson as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards (4,952) and rushing TDs (70).
Lyn J Dixon has flashed in a backup role behind Etienne the last three seasons. He averages 6.6 yards per carry with 13 TDs on 208 attempts, but he has not been as much of a factor in the receiving game. Dixon had 7,201 all-purpose yards and 88 TDs in high school, so the talent to be an every-down back is there.
Five-star freshman Will Shipley is another name to watch. The 5-11, 200-pound running back was the top all-purpose back in the class in 2021 and has a similar skill set to Etienne. Dixon will get the carries early, but Shipley has already made an impression at fall camp.
How will Dabo Swinney divide those carries against Georgia in the opener? That is one of the most intriguing Week 1 storylines.
Who fills Kyle Pitts’ spot at tight end?
Pitts had a dominant season for the Gators where he hauled in 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 TDs. He was a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses while averaging 17.9 yards per catch, and the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Who will new quarterback Emory Jones look to in the middle of the field? Kemore Gamble, a 6-4 redshirt senior, is the next man up. He caught 10 passes for 160 yards and three TDs behind Pitts last season, and he looks the part in fall camp.
Gamble played well in the Georgia game when Pitts was injured last season. He had three catches for 51 yards and a TD.
Will a full-fledged breakout follow in 2021?
“Kemore Gamble is going to be the best tight end in the SEC,” Gators tight ends coach Tim Brewster said via Gator Sports on Monday.