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Spring Football 2023: 10 Players Poised For the Big Sophomore Leap

Conner Weigman, Texas A&M

Players are contributing earlier in their collegiate careers than ever before, but for many their breakout campaigns come their second season on campus. Many sophomores and redshirt freshmen take advantage of a full offseason within the program to accelerate their development, and often see more opportunities to take their presence felt as upperclassmen move on. With that in mind, it's time to unveil my annual, "10 Player Poised for the Big Sophomore Leap" which has become one of my favorite articles to write each and every year. I love the idea of betting on a young player who may be unheard of by the broader college football community and seeing if they can pan out. There have been plenty that have (ahem, Ja'Marr Chase & Rashod Bateman) and plenty that haven't, but what's the offseason without some reckless speculation? These 10 are the second-year players I'm keeping a particularly close eye on in 2023.

Dane Key, WR, Kentucky

(2022 Stats: 37 receptions, 519 yards, 6 TD)

A four-star prospect who stayed in Lexington to play for his hometown Kentucky Wildcats, Dane Key was a revelation in 2022. He acclimated quickly to the Wildcat offense and was arguably their most consistent wide out from start-to-finish, finishing just behind fellow freshman Barion Brown in receptions and yards. Key's production was good enough to make him an Honorable Mention on the Freshman All-American team, but I suspect he's just scratching the surface of what he can be in the collegiate ranks. What you'll notice about him is the fluidity he plays with; he's a natural receiver with elite ball skills that makes everything look easy. Barion Brown may garner more attention with his athleticism, but Key's reliability makes him a good bet to contribute each and every week. Fortunately for him, I also think the Kentucky offense will be better catered to fit his skillset in 2023. It's no secret departed QB Will Levis was playing hurt for a major chunk of last fall, and NC State transfer Devin Leary may end up being an upgrade. More importantly, Liam Coen is back to reprise his old role as offensive coordinator after a one-year pit stop with the Los Angeles Rams. Coen has been more willing to take shots down the field and open up this offense, which should provide Key plenty of opportunities.

Marvin Jones Jr., LB, Georgia

(2022 Stats: 4 tackles, 1 sack)

Another spring, another wave of Georgia Bulldogs off to the NFL. As the Bulldogs begin their quest for a third straight National Title, they'll have to replace a big chunk of their defense. Fortunately, Kirby Smart's relentless effort on the recruiting trail means there's a collection of blue-chippers ready to step into leading roles. Among them is former five-star Marvin Jones Jr., a talented edge rusher from the state of Florida. Jones Jr. played sparingly as a freshman in 2022, seeing most of his action on special teams, but the ceiling is high for the youngster. He's always been a force off the edge, but rumor out of Athens is that he's added he's continuing to grow and adding even more weight to his frame. I think he has a legitimate chance to vie for a starting job this fall, most likely at the "Jack" position, where's competing primarily with junior Chaz Cambliss and sophomore Darris Smith. Jones Jr. did miss spring practice after recovering from shoulder surgery, which may impact his chances to start right away, but his ceiling feels unlimited with UGA's track record of producing edge rushers.

Xavier Nwankpa, S, Iowa

(2022 Stats: 12 tackles, 1 interception)

For as terrible as the Iowa offense was in 2022, the Hawkeye defense continues to be among the most consistent units in the country. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker continues to churn out elite defenses and in turn, NFL Draft selections. In fact, Iowa sent several defenders to the NFL this past week, including two in the secondary in Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather. Even so, the secondary may end up being even better in 2023, thanks to rising stars Cooper DeJean and Xavier Nwankpa. DeJean has already established himself as an All-Big Ten talent, but it's Nwankpa I'm keeping a close eye on into fall. He was one of the highest-rated recruits in program history in the Class of 2022 and flashed plenty of playmaking potential as a true freshman. Nwankpa's performance in the bowl game feels like a sign of things to come, as he notched eight tackles and returned an interception to the house. Granted, it was a game full of backups, but Nwankap's closing speed and incredible instincts feel like the perfect combination for a star safety. I firmly expect him to handle starting strong safety duties this fall and it feels likely the Hawkeyes will play him all over the field.

Ollie Gordon, RB, Oklahoma State

(2022 Stats: 62 carries, 308 rushing yards, 4 total TD)

It's been a turbulent offseason in Stillwater as the Cowboys gear up for Mike Gundy's 19th season in charge. Oklahoma State has been hit harder than most by the transfer portal and look towards the fall with serious questions on both sides of the ball. If there is a reason for Cowboy fans to tune in this year, it resides in the backfield in sophomore Ollie Gordon. Gordon seems primed for a special season for a number of reasons. First, he appears to be the clear favorite to be feature back, with veteran transfer Elijah Collins coming in from Michigan State to play more of a support role. Secondly, the Cowboy passing game could be the worst of the Gundy era, with former Texas Tech and Michigan transfer Alan Bowman an extremely underwhelming projected starter under center. Finally, this is a program that doesn't receive as much credit as they should for the quality backs they produce. From Kendall Hunter and Joseph Randle to Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State has a proven track record of quality tailbacks. Gordon certainly feels next in line and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he runs wild in 2023.

Eli Raridon, TE, Notre Dame

(2022 Stats: None)

One of the most underrated position battles set to take place over the offseason and into fall camp is at Notre Dame. With Michael Mayer off to the NFL, it's an open competition to see who will take over at a position that has been an NFL factory. Junior Mitchell Evans is the veteran in the room, but hasn't seen a lot of snaps himself, while youngster Holden Staes also reportedly flashed in spring camp. Yet, the most talented player in the room is Eli Raridon, who played in five games in 2022 before a torn ACL ended his season prematurely. I'm going out on a limb picking a player coming off such a serious knee injury on this list, especially considering he didn't record a catch last year, but Raridon is too intriguing to ignore. He's a 6'6" specimen who has significant upside as a pass-catcher, but has already proven himself as the best blocker of the three. Rumor is that his recovery is going well and he's on track to return for the start of 2023, although it's likely he'll need time to catch up to the reps of Evans and Staes. Even so, the upside here makes Raridon an excellent choice.

Conner Weigman, QB, Texas A&M

(2022 Stats: 73-132, 896 yards, 8 TD, 0 INT)

There are no sure things in college football, but a list such as this would feel incomplete without including Texas A&M's Conner Weigman. Rated as the No. 2 quarterback in the Class of 2022, Weigman entered last season buried on the depth chart behind Max Johnson and Haynes King. However, the Aggies choose to take a chance on the true frosh late in the year during a lost campaign and he looked the part, throwing for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. Included in that was a 338-yard, four touchdown performance against Ole Miss, and a win over sixth-ranked LSU to finish off the regular season. He looks to be the undisputed starter entering 2023, and has several things working in favor of a breakout. Weigman has the opportunity to throw to one of the best young receivers in college football in Evan Stewart but more importantly, he'll be operating in a new-look A&M offense. Jimbo Fisher is finally set to relinquish play-calling duties and brought on Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator, the beginning of a new era in College Station. Petrino has a long track record of producing elite quarterbacks and should have fun uncovering Weigman's vast potential.

Jordan Hudson, WR, TBD

(2022 Stats: 14 receptions, 174 yards, 3 TD)

I don't typically include players not currently on a roster on this list, but Jordan Hudson feels like a worthy exception. A one-time SMU commit who followed Sonny Dykes to TCU, Hudson flashed significant potential on the National Runner-Up Horned Frogs. He looked in line for a breakout 2023 with Quentin Johnston, Derius Davis, and Taye Barber all moving on, but instead was a surprising entrant into the spring transfer portal. Hudson has yet to announce his next destination, but the favorite right now is none other than SMU. He would be a terror in that offense, which plays wide-open and has a bunch of former Power Five playmakers defenses will have to key in on. Even if it is somewhere else, Hudson can line up just about anywhere and has the gamebreaking speed to make a major impact.

Wade Woodaz, LB, Clemson

(2022 Stats: 20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL)

Losing a host of players to the NFL has become an annual tradition at Clemson, who sent several key contributors off to the league a week ago. Among them was Trenton Simpson, a rock-solid linebacker who went in the third round to Baltimore. Simpson's absence opens up an opportunity for sophomore Wade Woodaz, who flashed plenty of potential a season ago. Woodaz played in all 14 games and posted solid numbers as a rotational piece, with 20 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He looks like an early favorite to start at outside linebacker, but could play all over the field and fill with any number of roles with his versatility. At 6'3", 215 pounds, it wouldn't be surprising to see him get reps at safety either, which could end up being more of a need position for Clemson in 2023. Woodaz reminds me a lot of former Tiger defender Tanner Muse, who had the frame to play either linebacker or safety, and put together a productive career at Clemson. Although, Woodaz seems to have a much higher ceiling than Muse, which could all start with a breakout 2023 campaign.

Squirrel White, WR, Tennessee

(2022 Stats: 30 receptions, 481 yards, 2 TD)

Marquarius "Squirrel" White not only has one of the best nicknames in college football, the sophomore has serious game. An early enrollee in January 2022, it looked unlikely White was going to see significant reps as a true freshman with the experience in front of him on the depth chart, but he still found ways to make an impact. He finished with 30 catches for 481 yards, but it was the bowl victory that seemed to given an indication of his bright future, as White caught nine balls for 108 yards against a veteran Clemson secondary. Now, with Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt both off to the NFL, White has a good chance to emerge as the No. 2 option in this explosive Volunteer offense, behind only Bru McCoy. McCoy is a traditional top receiver, but at 5'10", 160 pounds, White's size and shiftiness makes him a real wild card as a second option. I'll be interested to see if he does put on any more weight this offseason to last through increased usage in the SEC, but you always wonder how that will impact speed, which is White's most tantalizing skill.

Jacolby Spells, CB, West Virginia

(2022 Stats: 13 tackles, 1 interception)

West Virginia' underwhelming offense received most of the attention during a disappointing 2022 season, but the defense was nothing to ride home about, either. In fact, the pass defense was dead last in the Big 12 a season ago and will need to make major strides if the Mountaineers want to make a bowl game this fall. All eyes will be at the two cornerback spots, where the trio of Andrew Wilson-Lamp, Montre Miller, and Jacolby Spells will be battling for two starting jobs. Miller, a Kent State transfer, and Wilson-Lamp bring plenty in the experience department, but it's hard to imagine West Virginia keeping a talent like Jacolby Spells off the field. He's a freakish athlete who saw a healthy dosage of action as a true freshman, playing in nine contests, but can be so much more. What really intrigues me about Spells is the quick feet and ball skills, two traits that could evolve him into an interception machine on the back-end. He was a former receiver early on in his high school career and it shows, but will need refinement in his technique to reach his full potential.

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