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Spring Football 2024: 10 Players Poised for the Big Sophomore Leap

Nico Iamaleava, Tennessee

True freshman are contributing earlier and earlier in modern college football, but for many players across the country, the big leap comes during their second seasons on campuses. A full offseason with the program, where players have the opportunity to become engrained in rigorous nutrition, strength, and conditioning programs greatly accelerates their development and in turn, opens up the possibilities for a potential "breakout" campaign. That's why my annual, "10 Players Poised for the Big Sophomore Leap" article is one of my favorite to write each and every spring - 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. And, there have been plenty of hits (how about Ollie Gordon last year?!) and even more misses, but this type of speculation is one element of college sports that remains as fun as ever. These are the 10 I'm keeping a close eye on this year as we inch towards the kickoff of the 2024 season.

Nico Iamaleava, QB, Tennessee
(2023 Stats: 314 passing yards, 5 total touchdowns)

It almost feels like cheating to include a player with the pedigree of Nico Iamaleava on this list, but the former five-star prospect seems poised for a monster 2024 campaign. Iamaleava is mostly known around the college football world for the monster NIL contract he signed coming out of high school, rumored to be in the range of $8 million, but those who follow high school recruiting have raved about his skillset for years. He's the most hyped Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning, and there's multiple reasons to believe 2024 is the year we see the full breakout. Incumbent starter Joe Milton is off playing on Sundays, Josh Heupel's offense is about as QB-friendly as you can get at this level, and Iamaleava will have the luxury of passing to one of the better receiver corps in the SEC, headlined by a healthy Bru McCoy. Sure, there will be growing pains, as there always are for young quarterbacks in the SEC, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Iamaleava doesn't put up monster numbers running this offense. The expectations will be intense, and few places in college football are quite the pressure cooker Tennessee is, but Iamaleava signed up for this - he seems ready to show what he can do on the big stage.

Hykeem Williams, WR, Florida State
(2023 Stats: 5 receptions, 80 yards, 1 touchdown)

Last season's CFB Playoff snub should provide ample motivation for the Florida State Seminoles as they gear up for 2024, but there's no denying that there are major losses on both sides of the ball in Tallahassee. The passing attack in particular is in for a complete rebuild after QB Jordan Travis exhausted his eligibility, and top wide outs Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman took their talents to the NFL. Mike Norvell and staff made an understandable decision to bring in a transfer quarterback as a bridge in the first year of the post-Travis era, with D.J. Uiagalelei returning to the ACC. "D.J. U" has never lived up to his former five-star billing, but the former Clemson and Oregon State starter has made 40 starts in his collegiate career and proven to be serviceable. With that being said, losing Wilson and Coleman leaves a gap at receiver - one that may just be filled by uber-talented sophomore Hykeem Williams. A five-star recruit from last year's 2023 Class, Williams looks the part, a 6'3", 210-pounder with a wide catch radius and blazing speed. However, he wasn't able to quite make an impact in 2023, managing just five receptions for 80 yards, along with a touchdown in the Syracuse win. He is part of a crowded receiver room, one that now includes a pair of SEC refugees in Malik Benson (Alabama) and Jalen Brown (LSU), plus several notable holdovers. But nobody in this room has the pure talent of Williams, and if you are going to bet on one, why not invest in the one with the most potential? Williams could make all the difference between another FSU ACC Title, or the 'Noles sinking back down the conference totem pole.

Tackett Curtis, LB, Wisconsin
(2023 Stats: 40 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 pass deflection)

For as disappointing as USC's 2023 campaign was, including a defense that couldn't stop absolutely anyone, freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis was a notable bright spot. A four-star recruit who the Trojans originally stole out of SEC territory in Louisiana, Curtis played with fearlessness as a true frosh, and immediately became known for monster hits en route to a 40-tackle campaign. Lincoln Riley and the staff raved about him, but instead of being a building block for the future in Los Angeles, Curtis surprisingly hit the portal over the offseason and ended up at Wisconsin. He's one of several new faces in the Wisconsin linebacker corps, a group that was very un-Badgeresque during Luke Fickell's first season at the helm. However, coordinator Mike Tressel now has a lot to work with at the position and most importantly, there's athleticism at the position, which was sorely lacking in 2023. This seems like a win-win for both sides - Wisconsin adds one an incredibly talented young linebacker with experience, while Curtis goes to a school with a proven pedigree for developing the position. As long as he stays healthy, it's hard for me not to imagine Curtis making an immediate impact in Madison.

Luke Hasz, TE, Arkansas
(2023 Stats: 16 receptions, 253 yards, 3 touchdowns)

One of the 23 players who made my Freshman to Watch list last spring, Arkansas tight end Luke Hasz didn't just look like one of the best freshman tight ends in the nation through the first five games - he looked like one of the best tight ends, period. Hasz caught 16 passes for 253 yards over the season's first month and was particularly dominant against LSU, going over 100 yards and bringing in two touchdowns in a close loss. Unfortunately, a broken clavicle against Texas A&M in the final week of September ended up costing him the remainder of his true freshman season, a depressing ending to a promising start to his career. Now, Hasz is not only 100 percent, but all reports out of Arkansas in the spring were that the tight end was looking stronger and better than ever before, a terrifying scenario for the rest of the SEC. Hasz should also benefit from the changes on offense for the Razorbacks, as Bobby Petrino arrives to rejuvenate an offense that was lifeless for the vast majority of the 2023 season. Petrino will look to get Arkansas playing more up-tempo and taking shots down the field, which should in turn open up space for their sophomore tight end underneath. If he can stay healthy, there's no reason to think that Hasz can't be an All-SEC talent in 2024.

Malik Muhammad, CB, Texas
(2023 Stats: 21 tackles, 1 interception, 4 pass deflections)

The Texas offense received plenty of credit for their success in 2023, and rightfully so, but I'd argue it was the growth on defense that truly spurred the Longhorn run to the CFB Playoff. Now, as they jump to the SEC even more will be expected and in a league brimming with QB talent, the Texas secondary is going to have to keep up. The good news is that the Longhorns have a rising young talent at corner in Malik Muhammad, a Top 100 recruit in the Class of 2023 who played in all 14 games a year ago. Muhammad never seemed fazed by seeing so much action so early at an important position - on the contrary, he seemed to get better and gain more confidence each week. As he prepares for 2024, even more will be expected, with Muhammad likely to slide into the starting spot at boundary corner. In fact, he looks to be the top corner on the roster after the surprising decision by Terrance Brooks to hit the portal during the recent spring window. That will be plenty to handle, but Muhammad has all thee tools to do just that and appears ready to take up a leadership mantle on a reloading Texas defense this fall.

Kaden Feagin, RB, Illinois
(2023 Stats: 95 carries, 438 yards, 3 total touchdowns)

Kaden Feagin was so impressive as a true freshman for Illinois last fall that he essentially pushed incumbent starter Reggie Love II out the door and over to fellow Big Ten rival Purdue. But, it feels like 2023 was just the beginning for the talented sophomore. For one thing, there may not be a more physically imposing running back in all of college football, with Feagin standing at an eye-popping 6'3", 250 pounds. Despite that size, he moves pretty well and there's some real wiggle to his running style, although at his core, he's a workhorse back. Illinois will look to maintain some semblance of offensive balance as they approach the 2024 campaign, especially with former Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer ending last season strong. But when you have a player who can eat up yards like Feagin, it's going to be hard not to feed him, and he's now the clear-cut guy in the backfield in Champaign. This feels like the year he becomes a household name, and I suspect the production to pick right up in the first week against Eastern Illinois. That is, assuming Feagin is 100 percent, as he works his way back from a shoulder problem that bothered him late last fall and into this spring.

Whit Weeks, LB, LSU
(2023 Stats: 50 tackles, 0.5 sacks)

You could make the argument Whit Weeks has already emerged after totaling 50 tackles a true freshman in the SEC a season ago, but he's another guy I think is bound for a monster 2024. Weeks came on as a pleasant surprise early on for the Tigers a season ago, inserted into the starting lineup within the first month. And, he looked the part, managing 26 tackles across his first three SEC games against Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. The healthy return of veteran Omar Speights led to Weeks seeing his play time cut in half and the Tiger defense seemed to suffer when the high motor linebacker wasn't on the field. Speights is now gone and Brian Kelly completely overhauled the staff on this side of the ball over the offseason, bringing in Blake Baker from Missouri to run the defense. It's still not clear what defensive scheme Baker will deploy in 2024, and how he'll use Harold Perkins and company, but it's hard to imagine Weeks not playing an important role. The true sophomore is way too talented to keep off the field, and he has enough versatility to move around a bit. LSU is certainly hoping for a defensive turnaround in 2024 and if that does indeed take place, Weeks should be at the center of it.

Creed Whittemore, WR, Mississippi State
(2023 Stats: 11 receptions, 102 yards, 3 total touchdowns)

It quickly became clear in 2023 that Zach Arnett was not the guy for Mississippi State, and the program quickly cut ties with the interim head coach, instead bringing on Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to run the show. Lebby injects new life into a program that felt directionless after the shocking and tragic passing of Mike Leach late in 2022 and if there's one thing we know he is going to deliver, it's points. The Bulldogs are going to be running an aggressive, up-tempo scheme that challenges defenses down the field, different from Leach's old Air Raid but bringing many of its principles to fruition. That should be good news for every receiver on the roster, including a potential rising star in Creed Whittemore. The sophomore from Gainesville is an interesting piece, a player who played quarterback throughout all of high school but signed with Mississippi State as an athlete. He acclimated quickly to the wide receiver position and flashed significant potential in limited playing time, including three total touchdowns last fall. It feels like this could be the breakout campaign for him not just because he will be playing in a wide-open offense, but how the depth chart unfolds around him. The top two receivers on the Bulldogs in 2023, Tulu Griffin and Zavion Thomas, both departed and while Lebby and staff added several pieces in the portal, you would imagine the holdovers will get a chance to show what they can do. A player with Whittemore's skillset, a versatile weapon that can line up truly anywhere, is incredibly valuable to an offensive mind like Lebby and I'm curious to see what creative plays or packages he deploys to get the ball in his hands in 2024.

Rueben Owens, RB, Texas A&M
(2023 Stats: 385 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns)

A one-time Louisville pledge, Rueben Owens was a big get for Jimbo Fisher and staff to bolster their 2023 Class, and he looked to be part even as the Aggies suffered through a rough fall. Owens finished with 385 rushing yards on 101 carries, along with three touchdowns, and he also looked to be a capable receiver out of the backfield. He wasn't able to showcase his breakaway speed in a rather lethargic A&M offense, but the hope is that things will look vastly different under new head coach Mike Elko and offensive coordinator Collin Klein. Klein, who left his alma mater Kansas State to make the jump to College Station, has always put an emphasis on the ground game, with the Wildcats finishing with the nation's 11th best rushing offense in 2023. He's going to bring that same mentality to his new digs with the Aggies and with Owens looking like the clear-cut top option in the backfield, this feels like a match made in heaven.

Jackson Bowers, TE, BYU
(2023 Stats: None)

The first season in Big 12 play was a wake up call for BYU, who limped to a 5-7 mark overall and 2-7 record in the league. As a result, head coach Kalani Sitake shuffled his coaching staff in preparation for 2024, including offensive line coach Darrell Funk and tight ends coach Steve Clark. New tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride, who arrives after spending most of the last decade in the NFL, fortunately has ample talent at his disposal, including a potential breakout candidate in Jackson Bowers. Bowers didn't see the field much as a true freshman, playing in just three games and not recording a single catch, but the big-bodied pass-catcher has all the physical tools to be a force and I suspect this Cougar offense will lean on their tight ends early and often in 2024. Converted receiver Keanu Hill is likely to begin the season as BYU's starter at the position, but Bowers, who stands at 6'5", 245 pounds but boasts remarkably soft hands, could evolve into the type of reliable red zone threat every team needs at the position. He's added 20 pounds since joining the program and now that he has a full year under his belt, I like his chances to emerge in this BYU offense. 

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