Breakout players from the top 25 teams to watch in 2024

Sports

Last week we took a look at season-defining matchups from the Way-Too-Early Top 25 teams ahead of the 2024 season.

This week, our writers picked potential breakout stars from each of those top 25 teams to watch for this upcoming season.

With former starting inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson transferring to Kentucky, the Bulldogs are looking for someone to start next to Smael Mondon Jr. in the middle of their defense. After a knee injury that he suffered in preseason camp in 2023, sophomore Raylen Wilson showed flashes of why he was one of the most coveted linebacker prospects in the country as a senior at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida. Wilson was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after totaling 15 tackles and a half-sack in 12 games. He was one of the fastest runners in the state in the 100-meter dash and was once clocked at 24 mph on GPS. — Mark Schlabach


Five-star wide receiver Jeremiah Smith (No. 4 in 2024 ESPN 300) was the crown jewel of a recruiting class for Ohio State that ended up third in ESPN’s rankings. With Marvin Harrison Jr. prepping for the NFL draft as a probable top-five pick, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Smith will likely be given every opportunity to help fill that void. Smith, who played for Florida powerhouse Chaminade-Madonna Prep, had 90 receptions for 1,389 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior. His arrival will give Ryan Day, new OC Chip Kelly and transfer QB Will Howard an exciting addition to play around with. — Blake Baumgartner


As the Ducks transition from Bo Nix to transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel, it would not surprise me to see the running game become an even bigger part of the Oregon offense in 2024. With standout Bucky Irving headed to the draft, the stage is set for running back Jordan James to take on a bigger role in the backfield. The rising junior from Tennessee is coming off an extremely efficient season in his second year with the Ducks, averaging over 7 yards per carry on 107 attempts along with 11 rushing touchdowns. James might have already broken out in 2023, but a second leap this season could establish him as one of the more productive backs in the country as part of an offense that will score and score often. — Paolo Uggetti


Last year, five-star recruit Anthony Hill Jr. played a major role at linebacker as a true freshman. This year’s version could be Colin Simmons, a coveted edge rusher who was No. 12 overall prospect in the final ESPN 300. The Longhorns boasted one of the best defensive lines in the country last year, but T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II provided most of the push up the middle and are gone to the draft. Adding an elite pass-rusher at end to pair with UTSA transfer Trey Moore, who had 14 sacks last year, gives the Longhorns a whole new element on defense. — Dave Wilson


Notre Dame should have one of the best tight end tandems in the country with Mitchell Evans and Eli Raridon. Both are big targets in the passing game and should provide nice safety valves and imposing red zone targets for transfer QB Riley Leonard, but both have a lot of room for growth after solid showings last season. Their success is critical for Notre Dame, too, as the Irish could be something of a work in progress at wideout. — David Hale


The Rebels won’t be lacking for talent in their wide receiver room this season. Tre Harris is back and so is Jordan Watkins, along with South Carolina transfer Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. But the player poised to make the biggest jump is sophomore Cayden Lee, who made his first career start last season in the 38-25 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win over Penn State. Lee showed flashes of what he’s capable of with three catches for 29 yards against the Nittany Lions. The 5-11, 175-pound Lee has elite speed and is electric after the catch. — Chris Low


Luther Burden III won’t be the only receiver Brady Cook will be throwing touchdown passes to in 2024. Marquis Johnson had his moments as a freshman a year ago. He’ll have even more moments as a sophomore, making for what should be an explosive tandem for the Tigers at wideout. The 5-11, 180-pound Johnson caught 13 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns last season, including a 76-yard touchdown against Memphis. Along with great speed, Johnson also plays a lot taller than he is. He once high jumped 6-4 when he was in high school. — Low


Quinton Martin (No. 91 in the 2024 ESPN 300) was nothing short of dynamic for Belle Vernon High School in Pennsylvania. The No. 1 player in Pennsylvania decided to stay home. He will add to the impressive stable of running backs the program has produced recently, with Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton spearheading the current roster. How the Nittany Lions choose to use the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Martin, who had 1,945 total yards and 27 total touchdowns as a senior last year, to supplant Allen and Singleton will be interesting to watch. — Baumgartner


Alabama fans were clamoring to see more of freshman running back Justice Haynes last season, but he played primarily on special teams. He got his most work at running back in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan and should be a major part of the Crimson Tide’s offense in Year 1 under Kalen DeBoer. The 5-11, 205-pound sophomore was ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 2 running back prospect coming out of high school and had three touchdowns in Alabama’s spring game a year ago. He has the family background (his father, Verron Haynes, played at Georgia and in the NFL) and the strength, power and speed to emerge as one of the SEC’s most explosive running backs in 2024. — Low


The Utes lost two key defensive backs in NFL-bound safeties Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop, turning the position from a place of strength into a question mark. However, the array of options the Utes have at the position has shown promise, including Tao Johnson — who started 12 games at nickelback in 2023 — and has the ability to slide over to safety, as he did during a few coverages last season. Johnson arrived in Utah as a wide receiver, a position where he got limited time as a freshman in 2022, before making the transition to defense. Last year, Johnson finished with 33 total tackles and five pass deflections and showed the ability to become one of the Utes’ key players on defense in 2024. — Uggetti


The void left behind at slot receiver after Jacob Cowing’s departure is not to be ignored. Cowing caught 90 passes for 848 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final season at Arizona. He may have hinted at who could be up for replacing him when he said freshman Carlos Wilson reminded him a lot of himself. The true freshman from Sacramento, California, has the speed and agility to become a big-play threat for quarterback Noah Fifita immediately, and Cowing himself described Wilson as “electric.” In players like Malachi Riley and Kevin Green Jr., the Wildcats have multiple candidates for wide receivers who could break out in 2024, but soon enough defenses might need to keep an eye on Wilson too. — Uggetti


Tigers running back Kaleb Jackson already had a viral moment early in his freshman season when he stiff-armed a would-be tackler to the ground and then bulldozed defensive backIsaac Smith on a run in a 41-14 victory at Mississippi State. Former LSU receiver Malik Nabers compared Jackson’s powerful running style to former Tigers star Leonard Fournette. ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer compared his massive legs to Eagles star Saquon Barkley’s. Jackson, who played high school football about three miles from Tiger Stadium, ran for 165 yards with four touchdowns as a freshman. With Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels, Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. leaving for the NFL, Jackson should have a much bigger role in 2024. — Schlabach


Jadyn Davis (No. 166 in the 2024 ESPN 300) is the first ESPN 300 quarterback to sign with Michigan since J.J. McCarthy in 2021. And Davis might very well replace McCarthy as the pilot of an offense that averaged 382.7 yards last season on the way to winning the national championship. The 6-1, 200-pound Davis completed 71% of his passes for 3,370 yards with 43 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 games for Providence Day School (North Carolina), and Wolverines fans will be anxiously awaiting what Davis will be able to do. — Baumgartner


A year ago, safety Peyton Bowen arrived as a five-star recruit, ranked No. 14 nationally, hoping he could help be the future of OU’s defense after a disappointing 2022 season. He was able to carve out a role, playing in all 13 games with two starts, 36 tackles (including a season-high 5 against Texas), a sack, 5 passes broken up and a forced fumble. He also showed off his game-breaking ability with two blocked punts, most in the Big 12. He is poised to play an aggressive style under new defensive coordinator Zac Allen, who worked as an assistant under Sooners coach Brent Venables at Clemson when he was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Last year, Allen’s defense at Jacksonville State allowed just 2.8 yards per carry (fourth nationally), and was in the top 10 in turnovers (25) and interceptions (16). — Wilson


When DT Darrell Jackson Jr. transferred to Florida State last year from Miami, he was hopeful the NCAA would grant him a waiver to play because he had made the decision to move closer to his ailing mother. But the NCAA decided to crack down on issuing waivers to two-time transfers, and Jackson ultimately had to sit out. Now, we will get our first extended look at the 6-foot-5, 334-pound redshirt junior since he started 12 games for the Hurricanes in 2022. Coaches have raved about his size, power and athleticism, making him a player to watch this year. — Andrea Adelson


Easy call here. It’s Nico Iamaleava‘s show at quarterback for the Vols. He accounted for four touchdowns in his first start as a freshman last season in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa and earned MVP honors. Iamaleava served as Joe Milton III’s backup during the 2023 season, and it was only a matter of time before his strong arm, quick release and presence in the pocket pushed him to QB1 for Tennessee. There’s been a ton of hype surrounding Iamaleava ever since he stepped foot on campus. He gets his chance in 2024 to show that he’s as advertised. — Low


It has to be QB Alan Bowman. If Oklahoma State is going to reach its full potential this season, it has to be Bowman. He’s entering his seventh season of college football after spending the first three with Texas Tech, two at Michigan and this past season as Oklahoma State’s starter. He completed just under 61% of his passes for 3,460 yards, 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He’ll be 24 years old by the time the season rolls around; you just have to hope there’s a leap in his game. — Harry Lyles Jr.


NC State has always done a nice job utilizing hybrid players in unique roles, from Jaylen Samuels to Kevin Concepcion. That makes UConn transfer Justin Joly a particularly intriguing addition. He’s a 6-3, 230 pounder who led the Huskies in receiving last year with 56 catches for 578 yards, working ostensibly as a tight end. He’s undersized for that role, but at NC State, he could be a nice option as an in-line blocker, working from the slot or lined up outside. He’ll create mismatches, and that plays right into OC Robert Anae’s playbook. — David Hale


Receiver has been a place for improvement for Clemson the past several years. In 2021, Beaux Collins was the breakout star as a true freshman, but injuries and regression resulted in his transfer after last season. In 2022, Antonio Williams was the team’s leading receiver as a true freshman, but he spent most of 2023 battling injuries. As a result, last year, the Tigers again relied on a true freshman to carry the unit, as Tyler Brown broke out with 52 catches. Still, Clemson hasn’t had a receiver with 700 yards since 2020. Williams should be healthy in 2024, Brown has a year of experience under his belt, and Dabo Swinney is very high on sophomore WR Cole Turner. But the biggest names to watch might be a pair of true freshmen. Bryant Wesco is an early enrollee with huge upside, while TJ Moore is a five-star recruit who figures to make an instant impact, perhaps becoming the fourth-straight true freshman to anchor the Tigers’ receiving corps. — Hale


This one is an easy selection, and it’s quarterback Avery Johnson. Replacing Will Howard, who transferred to Ohio State during the offseason, is a big task, especially given how successful this team has been over the past few seasons. You saw flashes of Johnson’s potential in the Pop Tarts Bowl against NC State, where he threw for two touchdowns, and ran for one more (including an efficient seven carries for 71 yards). He’s a true dual-threat quarterback who will be leading the Wildcats into the future. — Lyles


Tough choice here, as there are several players who are in line to have a big year, particularly among the transfer class. But I will go with transfer WR Caullin Lacy, who was extremely productive during his time at South Alabama. Last season, Lacy ranked fifth in the country in both receptions (91) and receiving yards (1,316) and had eight 100-yard receiving games. Louisville did not have a 1,000-yard receiver a year ago and loses top pass-catcher Jamari Thrash. There’s an opportunity for someone to step up among the group of receivers, and Lacy will have every opportunity to help the Cards put together a far more consistent performance from this position group. — Adelson


Perhaps this doesn’t constitute the entire spirit of a “breakout” player, but I’m going to go with wide receiver Lawrence Arnold. This is a Kansas offense that’s returning Devin Neal at running back, who certainly could have gone to the NFL, and a healthy Jalon Daniels, who we know to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Arnold has hit over 700 yards receiving the past two seasons. My hope here is Daniels stays healthy, and Arnold plays with one quarterback all season and breaks through to the 1,000-yard mark for this Kansas offense. — Lyles


Before transfer quarterback Brock Vandagriff signed to play at Georgia in 2021, then-Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley had handpicked him to run his high-octane offense. The former five-star recruit was regarded as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. In three seasons at Georgia, Vandagriff couldn’t unseat starters Stetson Bennett and Carson Beck. Vandagriff attempted 21 passes at Georgia, and Wildcats coach Mark Stoops is counting on him to lead his offense. Stoops likes Vandagriff’s experience and the fact he’ll bring a winning attitude to the locker room. He’ll get a chance to play his former team when the Bulldogs play at Kentucky on Sept. 14. — Schlabach


We have not seen TE Elijah Arroyo at his full potential because of a knee injury in 2022 that has limited his playing time with the Canes. But now healthy and participating in spring practice, Arroyo could have the type of season that adds his name to all the others who have come through Tight End U. Coaches believe he has had as good or better an offseason as anyone in the program. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Arroyo has the type of size to be a matchup advantage for the Canes, who have made it a priority, with Arroyo healthy, to make sure the tight end is incorporated far more into the passing game. — Adelson


Rueben Owens, who’s a 6-2, 200-pound running back, was one of the most coveted recruits in the country in the 2023 class, and he was a late recruiting win for Jimbo Fisher before the December signing day. Owens showed what he can do as a freshman, running for 385 yards and three touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Collin Klein’s arrival from Kansas State should be a huge boost for Owens and the Aggie running game in general, which ranked 90th last season. In both of Klein’s two seasons as OC in Manhattan, K-State ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing offense, including 11th last year (averaging 204.1 yards per game and 4.98 yards per carry to A&M’s 136.2 and 3.88 ypc). Owens stands to benefit from the new era in Aggieland. — Wilson

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