- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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For most big-time college football programs, January is a time of letting go.
On Friday, Alabama had to do just that as three of the program's most prolific underclassmen -- Landon Collins, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon -- announced that they would forgo their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
Really, who can blame them? For three years they've been an integral part of the Crimson Tide's success, leaving no stone left unturned in their careers.
Yeldon ran for 100 yards in his first game and has proved himself ever since. Cooper caught the game-winning pass in the SEC title game as a freshman and made it all the way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December. Collins may have taken a little longer to develop than his fellow juniors, but when he shifted from special-teams stud to a starting safety as a sophomore, you knew he would become an All-American.
But now they must move on.
And now Alabama must move on.
While no one should weep for coach Nick Saban as he sends this latest trio of underclassmen off to the pros, it should be said that his job of replacing them won't be easy. Granted, the duo of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake should pick up right where Yeldon left off, but in the case of Cooper at receiver and Collins at safety, there are no obvious replacements.
Three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes have assured Alabama plenty of talent from which to draw, but there's a difference between a potential star and an already-known commodity.
In fact, what's known about the secondary without Collins isn't necessarily promising. Setting aside the rocky situation at cornerback, there are two vacant safety positions ahead of spring practice, and there's no clue who will fill them.
Alabama's amazing run of continuity at the position is over. This won't be 2011 when Mark Barron returned for another year. It won't be 2012, with a seasoned Robert Lester. It won't be 2013 with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri, and it won't be this past season with Collins stabilizing the back end of the defense as a veteran starter.
While there's Geno Smith, who has played at safety and nickel, and Hootie Jones, who saw the field as a true freshman, neither has shown he's ready for the spotlight. It could be a wild card who ends up starting, such as redshirt freshman Ronnie Clark or one of the two top-10 rated safeties Alabama has committed in its 2015 signing class (four-star Deionte Thompson is already on campus).
The situation at receiver without Cooper is just as murky, because it's not just Cooper and his 124 receptions heading out the door. It's the next two leading receivers, too, as Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have moved on.
So who is Alabama's top returning receiver? That would be Chris Black, who caught 19 passes this past season. Besides him, there's ArDarius Stewart, who caught 12 balls, Cam Sims (seven) and Robert Foster (six). It's a talented group, to be sure, but none of the four underclassmen has had to deliver in crunch time.
With a new quarterback set to take snaps under center, it will be interesting to see who develops into the go-to targets in the passing game.
Don't discount someone like the 6-foot-4 Raheem Falkins or the 6-5 Derek Kief getting into the mix. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1 receiver in the 2015 class and an Alabama verbal commitment, could vie for playing time right away, too.
With so much up in the air, stay tuned for what unfolds during spring and fall practice.
It will be a different group of playmakers leading Alabama next season now that Collins, Cooper and Yeldon are gone, but by now Saban and his staff should be used to this game of plug-and-play.
It's January, which is as good a time as any to start anew.
Alabama must move on without Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon