Myles Garrett left a huge hole in the Texas A&M defense when he chose to skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft.
The Aggies know there isn't one player who will be able to fill the shoes of the top overall pick. But coach Kevin Sumlin is confident a team effort can make up for the loss of the standout defensive end.
The leading contender to take his spot is junior college transfer Michael Clemons. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Clemons had 8 1/2 tackles for losses in six games as a freshman at Cisco Junior College last season and was rated as the fifth-best junior college prospect in the state.
"We've got to have some depth," Sumlin said. "You don't ever replace a player like ... Myles Garrett. But by committee and by who we are and maybe with Michael being the type of talent that he is, he can generate some things early that can give us the pass rush."
Sumlin usually doesn't rave about players, but seemed excited about Clemons and the progress he's made since arriving in College Station.
"Everything he's done with workouts and our strength coaches and around our players has been phenomenal," Sumlin said. "And just in case you guys don't know, his nickname is Cyclops. So I'm into recruiting anybody who's 6-6 and his nickname is Cyclops. I don't care if he's got one eye or not. If he can rush the passer, he's good with me."
The Aggies also must find a replacement for their other defensive end after four-year letterman Daeshon Hall was a third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers.
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Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are also candidates to help fill in for Garrett and Hall. Johnson could have a leg up on the competition after serving as a backup for both players over the last couple of seasons. He appeared in 12 games last season, with three starts when Garrett was injured and finished with 4 1/2 tackles.
Sumlin is considered by many to be on the hot seat and last year's 8-5 finish didn't help, a mark that included four losses in the last five games. Some things to know about the 2017 Aggies, who open the season on Sept. 3 at UCLA:
After replacing Garrett, Texas A&M's biggest question entering the season is who will take over for Trevor Knight at quarterback. Knight spent just one season with the Aggies after joining the team as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma. Sumlin won't say much about who he expects to start, but Jake Hubenak appears to be the front-runner after appearing in seven games with two starts as a junior last season. He threw for 884 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
"He's older, been in games," Sumlin said. "I think the first couple years he's a little tentative because he was behind some guys and really wanted to learn. But I see him right now as a mature guy that understands that he wants it."
He'll compete with Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond to be A&M's starter. Starkel is a redshirt freshman who threw for 3,091 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior in high school. Mond was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation after throwing for 1,936 yards and 20 touchdowns and running for 775 yards and 18 more scores last season at IMG Academy.
"The guy who understands that he doesn't have to do everything because of the players that are around him ... that understands he doesn't have to do all that and takes care of the ball and can make some plays for us, that will be the guy that will play for us," Sumlin said.
Texas A&M's top returning starter is receiver/punt returner Christian Kirk. The junior had a Southeastern Conference-leading 83 receptions for 928 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He added three touchdowns on punt returns. After losing 10 starters, Kirk is prepared to step up and be a team leader this season.
"I have wanted to step into that major leadership role," he said. "Last year it was Trevor Knight, who had to lead the team as captain and was very vocal person. Now I have to step into that role."
While Texas A&M hasn't decided on a starting quarterback, they're set at running back with two players who are coming off big seasons. Trayveon Williams became the first true freshman in school history to rush for 1,000 yards by finishing with 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns on 156 carries. Keith Ford also returns after ran for 669 yards with six touchdowns in his first season at Texas A&M after transferring from Oklahoma.
After visiting UCLA, the Aggies will have a couple of games to tune up by hosting Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette before opening SEC play with their annual meeting in Arlington, Texas with Arkansas on Sept. 23. Alabama comes to town on Oct. 7 and two road trips, to Ole Miss and LSU, wrap up the regular season.