Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Ohio State’s Carnell Tate, Georgia’s Joenel Aguero lead college football’s second-year breakout stars in 2024

College football players often take their biggest jump between their first two years in a program. Given the sport’s expedited timeline, in which athletes can transfer at any time if their current situation is undesirable, second-year leaps have become an expectation. 

There’s plenty of talent from the 2023 recruiting class poised to make a huge impact this year. Some of 2023’s top prospects, like USC wide receiver Zachariah Branch and Miami offensive lineman Francis Mauigoa, have already made a tangible difference for their respective teams and are penciled in as surefire difference-makers. 

Beyond prolific names like those, several top quarterbacks from that cycle are expected to step into starting jobs all across the country, but we’ve already analyzed the 2024 outlook for a star-studded crop of second-year quarterbacks. This list aims at identifying some players beyond the quarterback position entering their second year that can breakout as stars on the national scale. 

A lot of these 2023 signees will have an impact on the race for a spot in the expanded College Football Playoff. Here’s a look at college football’s second-year players that can take the biggest leap entering the 2024 season. 

Joenel Aguero, DB, Georgia 

Georgia has a lot of secondary depth to replace after NFL and transfer portal departures. Included is a vacancy at the STAR position, which has big holes to fill with a history of standouts like Javon Bullard and Tykee Smith. While there’s still an open competition, Aguero worked with the first team at STAR in spring and started there in Georgia’s spring game. It will be hard to take the 5-foot-11 Aguero off the field; the former five star’s development will be key for Georgia’s defense as a whole. 

A.J. Harris, DB, Penn State 

Given how well Georgia recruits the secondary, Harris would have had trouble consistently finding the field early this year despite his former five-star status. Penn State offers him the opportunity to lock down a starting role, something he seems to have accomplished after a strong spring with the Nittany Lions. He has the physicality to excel in the Big Ten and led all defenders with seven tackles in Penn State’s spring game.   

Justice Haynes, RB, Alabama 

Alabama will go with a by-committee approach to replace top rusher Jase McClellan. Haynes will be one of the top hands in the rotation. He’s the home-run threat in a backfield that features a handful of power options, with excellent one-cut ability and burst in open space. That’s evidenced by his 6.7 yards per carry as a freshman. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 CFP Semifinal - Rose Bowl Game - Alabama vs Michigan

Justice Haynes should provide big-play potential in Alabama’s backfield. Getty Images

Lance Heard, OL, Tennessee 

Heard, the No. 3 offensive tackle in the Class of 2023, initially signed with LSU and spent his freshman season as one of the Tigers’ top reserves. Given the loaded depth chart ahead of him in Baton Rouge, which was filled with young starting options, Heard transferred to Tennessee as one of the top offensive linemen in the portal. He’ll start at left tackle immediately for the Vols, tasked with guarding new starting quarterback and former five star Nico Iamaleava’s blindside. 

DJ Hicks, DL, Texas A&M 

Hicks is versatile and athletic enough to slot anywhere along the defensive line, which is great news for a Texas A&M team that has plenty of production to replace in the trenches after the departures of top defensive linemen Walter Nolen (Ole Miss) and McKinnley Jackson (NFL). The No. 1 defensive lineman in the Class of 2023, per 247Sports, Hicks had two tackles for loss and a sack as a freshman and started his first career game in the Texas Bowl against Oklahoma State. He has plenty of potential off which to build. 

Grayson Howard, LB, Florida 

Florida needed a more dynamic linebacker to run alongside veteran starter Shemar James, a former blue-chip prospect in his own right. After just missing out on Howard out of high school, the Gators were able to snag his services via the transfer portal after he spent a year at South Carolina. In his lone season with the Gamecocks, Howard flashed his talent despite limited opportunity with 19 tackles and a forced fumble. He’s the type of box-to-box defender that SEC programs need patrolling the middle of the field. 

Ja’Kobi Lane, WR, USC 

Lane already turned heads in USC’s 2023 Holiday Bowl win against Louisville when he hauled in three catches for 60 yards and two touchdowns, establishing rapport with quarterback Miller Moss. He’s parlayed that momentum into a great offseason with significant playing time up for grabs. At 6-foot-4, Lane has an immense catch radius and should win 50-50 balls more often than not. 

Malik Muhammad, DB, Texas

Ryan Watts is off to the NFL and Terrance Brooks transferred to Illinois, leaving Texas with an opening at each of its starting outside cornerback spots. Muhammad was actually first off the bench when Brooks missed a couple games due to injury in 2023, which means Texas’ coaching staff already has deep trust in the potential star. He rewarded that faith with 31 tackles, one interception and four pass breakups. 

Suntarine Perkins, LB, Ole Miss

Perkins had a quietly productive first season at Ole Miss, staking his spot as a key figure on defense with 38 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. Two of those sacks came in a noteworthy performance against conference foe Alabama. Now, he’ll play a central role for an Ole Miss team that’s generated considerable offseason hype as it gears up for a potential College Football Playoff run. 

Carnell Tate, WR, Ohio State 

Ohio State doesn’t rebuild at wide receiver, it simply reloads. The Buckeyes are replacing an All-American and top NFL Draft pick in Marvin Harrison Jr. and still boast one of America’s best receiving corps thanks to consistent additions of elite wideouts like Tate. The former No. 22 prospect nationally had 264 yards receiving and one touchdown as a freshman and should see a whole lot more with an expected starting role on the table. 

Matayo Uiagalelei, EDGE, Oregon 

Oregon has a deep front seven that will likely rotate plenty of players, but few have more upside than Uiagalelei. He already had three tackles for loss and two sacks in his first year of college football and provides versatility with the option of lining up at either outside linebacker or defensive end for the Ducks. He’ll play both this fall, providing him plenty of opportunity to blow his impressive first-year production out of the water. 

Oregon State v Oregon

Matayo Uiagalelei should be a key feature of Oregon’s defense in 2024. Getty Images

Hykeem Williams, WR, Florida State 

Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson, the team’s top two wideouts, are off to the NFL. The Seminoles did take receivers Malik Benson (Alabama) and Jalen Brown (LSU) from the transfer portal, but the staff has high hopes for Williams as an in-house option to pick up the slack. The former five-star recruit had five catches for 80 yards and one touchdown and flashed some playmaking ability with his relatively limited opportunities. 

Da’Shawn Womack, EDGE, LSU 

LSU’s defensive issues are well-publicized at this point. The Tigers struggled in big games and weren’t great at getting after the passer outside of Harold Perkins Jr., who profiles more as a box linebacker with elite pass-rushing tendencies. A big leap from Wommack, who had 1.5 sacks in 12 games a freshman, would be a much-needed salve. Wommack, who boasts an explosive first step, has all the tools to be a consistent terror off the edge. 

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