Replacing departed senior talent is never an easy job in college football. But replacing NFL caliber talent is a different animal.
Seven such vacancies were created in April at the 2023 NFL Draft, when the Mid-American Conference saw some of its most talented players watch their NFL dreams come to fruition. Producing pro talent is the goal of every college program, but filling the voids left behind is the bittersweet part of the process.
The majority of the MAC’s 2023 NFL Draft picks will be replaced by incumbent talent, as the transfer portal was not heavily utilized to lure reinforcements. Below is a list of each NFL Draft selection and the ‘next man up’ taking on the challenge of replacing that role for the 2023 college football season:
Eastern Michigan, left guard
The draft pick: Sidy Sow (4th round, 117th overall to New York Jets)
Next man up: Mickey Rewolinski
Sidy Sow was the highest MAC player selected in 2023 NFL Draft and the first Eastern Michigan player off the board in four years. Sow attained All-MAC honors for the third time as an Eagle and warranted First Team designation for the second consecutive year. The dominant run blocker lined up at left guard and consistently paved paths for running back Samson Evans, who attained 1,166 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. In order to sustain those numbers, Evans will need a viable replacement at left guard. The expected Eagle to fill the massive vacancy left by Sow is Mickey Rewolinski.
Rewolinski saw action in two games in 2021 and ramped up his playing time last fall with 10 appearances. He stepped up into the right guard spot when starter Alex Howie went down with an injury last October against Western Michigan, but the majority of Rewolinski’s snaps transpired on special teams. Howie returns to the lineup presumably at right guard, but Eastern Michigan could shift him to Sow’s position, if the staff sees fit. Regardless of which side he is positioned, Rewolinski is expected to play a vital role on the offensive line in relief of Sow. He possesses the most experience of all candidates, but several transfers may be vying for that left guard spot in fall camp, including Chris Mayo who played 22 snaps at West Virginia and Owen Snively who saw zero snaps at Colorado State.
Bowling Green, defensive end
The draft pick: Karl Brooks (6th round, 179th overall to Green Bay Packers)
Next man up: Jordan Porter
Only 14 FBS players registered double-digit sacks in 2022, and one of them suited up in orange and brown. Karl Brooks was a clear-cut First Team All-MAC selection and the driving force behind a Bowling Green defense which tied for 13th nationally with 38 sacks on the season. A résumé of 18.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, and four deflections at the line of scrimmage is difficult to replace over night, but there is certainly a Falcon up for the challenge this fall.
Jordan Porter has suited up in every game since first arriving on campus for the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. Despite 30 appearances, Porter has yet to make a start but that is expected to change soon. The 6’4”, 260-pound defensive end registered 11 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in 2022, and the opportunity to expand upon those numbers will exist in Brooks’ absence. Another name gunning for the spot is Adrian Wilson — with no relation to the five-time Pro Bowler from the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson produced similar stats to Brooks last year, tallying 12 tackles and one sack in 12 appearances. Both players first arrived on campus in 2020 and should have an extraordinary grasp on the playbook in their fourth year as Falcons. Regardless of who lines up at defensive end, the commanding presence of an adept pass rusher like Demetrius Hardamon (6.0 sacks from the outside linebacker spot in 2022) should allow the new starter to ease into the role.
Western Michigan, strong-side linebacker
The draft pick: Zaire Barnes (6th round, 184th overall to New York Jets)
Next man up: Donald Willis or Damari Roberson
Zaire Barnes wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, but the Western Michigan linebacker put up eyebrow-raising numbers at Pro Day which helped warrant a sixth-round selection. Barnes was an extremely versatile defender in Kalamazoo, producing 93 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss as a viable run stopper, all while breaking up eight passes and recovering three fumbles as a havoc enforcer. Barnes was one of the best at reading plays in the MAC last year, allowing him to be a disruptive run defender while exuding impressive on-ball coverage skills. That’s one loaded individual skillset to replace, so Western Michigan looked toward the transfer portal for assistance.
Donald Willis hails from Minnesota, where he spent three seasons under former Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck. Willis accumulated ample experience in Minneapolis with 46 tackles across 37 contests. He hasn’t been tasked with coverage as much as Barnes, but he possesses a similar frame and has shown good play recognition when defending the run. The other candidate to succeed Barnes is the incumbent Damari Roberson, who was second on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker in 2022. Injuries prevented Roberson from seeing the field from 2019-21, but the longtime Bronco capitalized on a full season of availability last year with 14 tackles and two tackles for loss. Roberson also has the arsenal to excel as a coverage linebacker given his experience as a star high school wide receiver.
Eastern Michigan, ‘BULL’ edge rusher
The draft pick: Jose Ramirez (6th round, 196th overall to Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Next man up: Mikah Coleman
Only two players in the FBS averaged at least one sack per game last year. One was Wisconsin outside linebacker Nick Herbig, and the other was Jose Ramirez. Ramirez ranked second in the country in total sacks last year with 12.0 and fourth in tackles for loss with 19.5. Simply put, he was a devastating backfield presence, and that earned him MAC Defensive Player of the Year and AP All-American honors. Ramirez operated out of the “bandit” position, which is the term for a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid in Eastern Michigan’s defense.
Eastern Michigan didn’t acquire defensive end or outside linebacker talent from the transfer portal, so the Eagles will rely on their returning roster to replace the All-American “bandit.” Mikah Coleman is the ideal fit for the role after serving last season as Ramirez’s understudy. Coleman stands at a towering 6’5”, weighing 245 pounds, and he gained valuable experience in 12 appearances last fall. He registered 12 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks, accruing the majority of those stats during the second half of the season. If that late-season blossom is any indication, Coleman is ready for a full-time starter role, even if that entails replacing the irreplaceable Ramirez.
Central Michigan, running back
The draft pick: Lew Nichols (7th round, 235th overall to New York Jets)
Next man up: Myles Bailey or Marion Lukes
No FBS player rushed for more yards in the 2021 season than Lew Nichols, who battered his way to 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns — the driving force behind a 9-4 Central Michigan season which was accompanied by a Sun Bowl victory. The Chippewas’ run game did not thrive on the same level in 2022 with the losses of two NFL caliber linemen in Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke, but Nichols managed to leverage his rampant 2021 success into a draft pick. After posting 616 rushing yards and six touchdowns to cap a spectacular career in the MAC, Central Michigan must now search for a feature back.
The likely choice is Myles Bailey, who suited up seven times last year before an October injury spoiled the remainder of his season. In those seven games, Bailey fielded 32 carries for 176 yards, while operating as a receiver to the tune of nine receptions for 83 yards. Racking up a respectable 5.5 yards per carry prior to the injury, Bailey possesses a skillset which could complement quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. — one of the nation’s most lethal rushers at the position. Given Central Michigan’s recent shift toward favoring the run, more than one running back will be necessary to guide this offense — similar to the dynamic in 2019 created between Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis. Thus, expect Marion Lukes to handle a significant portion of reps from the backfield as well. Lukes made a name for himself during a monstrous 160-yard, 2-touchdown outing at Akron, and the fleet-footed back concluded the season averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Given the success both running backs saw in limited action last year, the Chippewa offense should remain potent on the ground as their reps increase.
Ball State, cornerback
The draft pick: Nic Jones, CB, Ball State (7th round, 250th overall to New York Jets)
Next man up: Tyler ‘Red’ Potts
Ball State experienced massive roster turnover from 2021 to 2022, but Nic Jones was the leader to keep the Cardinals’ secondary afloat. In his first full season as a starter uninterrupted by injury, Jones proved his merit with 12 pass deflections and two interceptions — leading a commendable aerial defense which only yielded 216 passing yards per game. Not only does Jones depart for the NFL, but longtime starter Amechi Uzodinma graduated as well, so there are major renovations in store for Ball State’s cornerback room.
The Cardinals acquired safety depth from the transfer portal, but they didn’t land any cornerbacks to fulfill the vacancies. Thus, they’ll look toward sixth-year senior Tyler ‘Red’ Potts to headline the new-look unit. Potts saw his first collegiate snaps as early as 2018 and he escalated his playing time in 2019, but last year was the most substantial action the longtime Cardinal has seen to date. The Columbus native contributed 26 tackles and broke up five passes — both good for career-bests. Potts has one career interception to his name, and he should expect to add more as Ball State’s prime candidate to shadow No. 1 receivers on the boundary this fall.
Toledo, defensive tackle
The draft pick: Desjuan Johnson (7th round, 259th overall to Green Bay Packers)
Next man up: Darius Alexander
Desjuan Johnson was granted the honor of Mr. Irrelevant as the 259th and final selection of the 2023 NFL Draft. The First Team All-MAC defensive tackle rounded up his Toledo tenure in desirable fashion — claiming Toledo’s first MAC title since 2017 and first bowl win since 2015. Johnson was a force on a defense which ranked 18th in the FBS in fewest yards allowed. He was a TFL monster with 16.5 takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, and he complemented that impressive number with 5.5 sacks and 65 total tackles. The preseason MAC favorites return plenty of pieces on their defense, including defensive tackle Judge Culpepper, but Johnson’s exit creates a gap they must fill.
The easy choice to satisfy that gap is Darius Alexander, who proved to be a TFL machine himself as a reserve last season. Alexander totaled 7.0 tackles for loss and one sack while breaking up three passes at the line of scrimmage. This will be his fifth season suiting up for Jason Candle’s Rockets, and there shouldn’t be much of a learning curve as he transitions to full-time starter. The 6’4”, 305 pound defensive tackle has four starts under his belt (three in 2021, one in 2022) and should come with enough experience to sustain Toledo’s recent tradition of defensive excellence.