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2024 college football sleeper picks from each post-spring Top 25 team



2024 college football sleeper picks from each post-spring Top 25 team

With a little more than a month and a half left until college football is back in full swing, we’re taking a look at players who could be considered sleepers entering the 2024 season on each post-spring Top 25 team.

From true freshmen who could make a name for themselves to players coming back from injury to transfers looking to make an immediate impact, there are plenty of players to keep eyes on this fall.

Our reporters break down the under-the-radar players they’re keeping tabs on.

Sleeper pick: Joenel Aguero

It’s difficult to pick a sleeper from a roster loaded with former five-star prospects, but safety Joenel Aguero was limited last season because of a hamstring injury he suffered in preseason camp. He had seven tackles and one pass breakup in 12 games, contributing mostly on special teams and on defense in the fourth quarter of blowouts.

He’ll be counted on this season to compete for one of the two safety spots vacated by Tykee Smith and Javon Bullard. Aguero was the No. 3 safety prospect in the Class of 2023, according to ESPN Recruiting, and he has the speed and tackling ability to flourish at the star nickel position. — Mark Schlabach

Sleeper pick: Sonny Styles

With the arrival of Alabama safety transfer and 2023 SEC Freshman of the Year Caleb Downs, the Buckeyes slid Sonny Styles from safety to linebacker this offseason. With a 39-inch vertical and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump, the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Styles now figures to be among the country’s most dynamic players at the position for a defense loaded with playmakers. — Jake Trotter

Sleeper pick: Amari Niblack

Normally, a highly touted recruit who transfers from Alabama to Texas doesn’t quite qualify as a sleeper, but Niblack hasn’t quite had his breakout yet. The 6-4, 231-pound tight end arrives in Austin after catching 21 passes in two seasons with the Crimson Tide, and he could be a key feature in a passing game that lost TE Ja’Tavion Sanders, who caught 99 passes for 1,295 yards and seven touchdowns in the past two seasons. — Dave Wilson

Sleeper pick: Teitum Tuioti

After a strong freshman season (19 tackles, two sacks and a whopping 256 snaps) edge rusher Teitum Tuioti goes into his second year with the potential to be one of the anchors of Oregon’s defensive attack. Coming off the edge, Tuioti — the son of Oregon defensive line coach Tony Tuioti — had a great showcase during the Ducks’ spring game (2.5 sacks, four solo tackles) that earned him plenty of praise from head coach Dan Lanning. With only one season under his belt, Tuioti may not be considered a sleeper pick much longer. — Paolo Uggetti

Sleeper pick: Rylie Mills

The defensive front for the Irish includes a genuine star in Howard Cross and a big-name transfer in R.J. Oben, but that shouldn’t mean Mills, a fifth-year senior, gets overlooked. He has played the past four seasons for Notre Dame, racking up 16.5 career tackles for loss. But his impact isn’t always obvious on the stat sheet.

When he was on the field in 2023, Irish opponents mustered a woeful 4.9 yards per attempt. When the Irish didn’t blitz, opponents averaged over two fewer yards per pass with Mills on the field than when he was absent. — David Hale

Sleeper pick: Rashad Amos

Amos, a transfer running back from Miami (Ohio), has already scored points with fans after sparring on social media with departed running back Quinshon Judkins, who left Ole Miss for Ohio State. This offseason, the 6-2, 235-pound Amos has shown enough that the Ole Miss staff is optimistic he can be a key cog in the running game despite transferring after spring practice. Amos, who started his career at South Carolina, rushed for 1,075 yards and 13 touchdowns in his one season at Miami (Ohio). — Chris Low

Sleeper pick: Qua Russaw

The outside linebacker position under former coach Nick Saban was stocked over the years with future NFL pass rushers. With Kane Wommack taking over as new coach Kalen DeBoer’s defensive coordinator, Wommack will be looking for some new finishers off the edge to emerge.

One to watch is redshirt freshman Qua Russaw, a former five-star prospect who didn’t see any action last season, but has the closing speed and size (6-2, 242 pounds) to be the kind of disruptive presence that has defined Alabama defenses. Wommack has a history of developing athletes with Russaw’s skill set to their fullest. — Low

Sleeper pick: Brett Norfleet

The talent at tight end in the SEC will be on full display with some familiar names, but one of the most promising players at that position is Missouri sophomore Brett Norfleet, who caught three touchdown passes a year ago and earned Freshman All-America honors. The 6-7, 235-pound Norfleet will be a difficult matchup for opposing defenses, especially with the likes of Luther Burden III and Theo Wease at wide receiver. Norfleet is also a physical blocker in the run game and has all the skills to be one of the top breakout players in the SEC. — Low

Sleeper pick: Dijon Stanley

Utah has a host of returning backs and additions that make up a strong running back room. What makes Stanley stand out among them is his speed. The freshman from California is already wowing teammates and coaches alike with his quickness, which should be a welcome dynamic to the Utes’ offense as it welcomes back quarterback Cam Rising from injury. — Uggetti

Sleeper pick: Marlin Klein

The Wolverines already feature a preseason All-American at tight end in Colston Loveland, who had 45 catches last season (plus 64 receiving yards in the CFP national championship win over Washington). But German native Marlin Klein drew rave reviews during spring ball and figures to play a key role alongside Loveland in multiple tight end sets. Klein has only one career reception. But at 6-6 and 250 pounds, he has the tools to make a big impact in his third season. — Trotter

Sleeper pick: Blake Nichelson

While the Seminoles once again dipped into the transfer portal for players, pay attention to sophomore linebacker Blake Nichelson. He’s a four-star recruit who signed with Florida State out of high school last year, who has been praised as a player who is “light years” ahead of where he was a year ago by defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. Nichelson has the potential to make plays for a Florida State defense that is looking for someone to step up at linebacker. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, Nichelson played last season as a true freshman and appeared in all 14 games while making a huge impact on special teams. — Andrea Adelson

Sleeper pick: A.J. Harris

Harris’ arrival should provide a big boost for a Penn State defense retooling its secondary. Harris, ranked the No. 4 cornerback recruit in 2023, originally signed with Georgia. After transferring to Penn State following his freshman season, Harris impressed this spring, starring in the spring game with seven tackles, including two for loss. — Trotter

Sleeper pick: Sean Brown

How do you replace a talent like Payton Wilson? That’s perhaps the biggest lingering question of the offseason for NC State, and in fairness, there’s probably not a one-player answer. But it will be Brown who’ll get first crack at filling Wilson’s role on the Wolfpack’s defense, and head coach Dave Doeren is enthusiastic about his upside.

Brown is moving up from safety, which should make him a good fit to handle Wilson’s work in coverage as well as delivering some big hits. He got a look against Clemson last year while Wilson was out with an injury and racked up seven tackles in the second half. “We felt it was a natural fit,” Doeren said. “He’s a really smart, instinctive, quick reactor. It’s an easy transition for him.” — Hale

Sleeper pick: Da’Shawn Womack

Sophomore Da’Shawn Womack was one of the most highly rated pass rushers in the Class of 2023. The Baltimore native showed spurts of production as a freshman, finishing with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one fumble recovery in 12 games.

He was used mostly on third downs last season, and the Tigers are hoping he’ll become an every-down player if their defense is going to improve under first-year coordinator Blake Baker. The Tigers ranked 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (28 points), passing defense (255.6 yards) and total defense (416.6 yards) in 2023. If Womack can emerge as an elite pass rusher, it will make All-America candidate Harold Perkins Jr. even more dangerous. — Schlabach

Sleeper pick: Peyton Lewis

Running back Peyton Lewis was among the Volunteers’ most coveted prospects in the Class of 2024, and he could end up seeing the field early and often given the team’s lack of proven backfield threats. Leading rusher Jaylen Wright (1,013 yards) and Jabari Small (475 yards) left after last season, and Dylan Sampson probably doesn’t have the size or blocking ability to be an every-down back.

Lewis, from Salem, Virginia, was a five-time sprint champion in high school. He had 373 yards with four touchdowns on 30 carries in a Class 4 state semifinals game in 2023. Lewis missed spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp. — Schlabach

Sleeper pick: Wade Woodaz

The talk at linebacker around Clemson largely centers on three players: The one who left (Jeremiah Trotter Jr.), the one who stayed (Barrett Carter) and the one who just arrived (five-star recruit Sammy Brown). The name missing from that conversation is Woodaz, who has racked up 5.5 sacks, two picks, 11.5 tackles for loss and a ton of big reps over two years with the Tigers and will be stepping into a full-time starting role in 2024.

Dabo Swinney raved about Woodaz’s work this offseason, and he made a point of noting that, for all the buzz surrounding Brown, it’s clear who’s ahead on the depth chart today. — Hale

Sleeper pick: Dylan Edwards

DJ Giddens is the incumbent main back in Manhattan, and was great last year with 1,226 yards. But this year, the addition of Edwards should make things even tougher on opposing defenses. Edwards had 321 yards and a touchdown on just 76 carries last season at Colorado as a freshman. He also had 36 receptions for 299 receiving yards and four touchdowns. It feels like 2024 will be a great year to be in the Kansas State backfield, and Edwards should pick up nicely with the departure of Treshaun Ward. — Harry Lyles Jr.

Sleeper pick: Danny Okoye

Freshman defensive lineman Danny Okoye arrived in Norman in January and got to work, putting on more than 20 pounds. The 6-3, 255-pound edge rusher has drawn praise from coach Brent Venables this spring for his work ethic and athleticism — he reportedly runs a 4.56 40-yard dash — and as the Sooners try to find a rotation up front, Okoye could claim his share of playing time early on. — Wilson

Sleeper pick: Obi Ezeigbo

The Cowboys defense returns nine players in what should be an improved group under second-year defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo. One new face will be Ezeigbo, who transferred in from Gannon (where Nardo also left to join Oklahoma State). Ezeigbo earned first-team All-PSAC West honors for the first time in his career as a senior and should add depth along a solid line. — Lyles

Sleeper pick: Jacory Croskey-Merritt

Though his transfer portal process was not exactly traditional, running back Jacory Croskey-Merritt is set to suit up for the Wildcats this coming season after committing to Arizona, flipping to Ole Miss and then flipping back to Arizona.

Croskey-Merritt comes from New Mexico after a season during which he ran for 1,190 yards and 17 touchdowns. With so much anticipation surrounding quarterback Noah Fifita‘s sophomore season as well as wideout Tetairoa McMillan, having Croskey-Merritt man the running back position (alongside former Ole Miss running back Kedrick Reescano) should bolster the Wildcats’ already potent attack. — Uggetti

Sleeper pick: Keyshawn Burgos

The potential has always been there for Burgos, who started six games for the Hokies last season. This spring showed he can take that next step. In the spring game alone, Burgos had three sacks, in addition to four solo tackles and a pass breakup.

The Hokies return veterans across their defensive line, so there will be plenty of competition to see who starts. But Burgos has put himself in position to have his best season yet, and it comes at a time where the Hokies are trying to live up to heightened expectations heading into Year 3 under coach Brent Pry. — Adelson

Sleeper pick: Javier Derritt

Transfer defensive tackle Javier Derritt from North Dakota State could be a solid choice here. He played in 56 games over four seasons for the Bison, including 29 consecutive starts at noseguard. He’s coming off a career-best 31 tackles in the 2023 season and will be added to a defensive line unit that could use some fresh (and more so productive) faces. — Lyles

Sleeper pick: Kaden Wetjen

The Hawkeyes have to produce more pop and walk-on receiver Kaden Wetjen showed signs in the spring that he could give Iowa just that. Wetjen’s speed could parley him into a bigger role offensively, on top of returning kicks and punts. The Hawkeyes had just 20 passing plays go for more than 20 or more yards last year. That ranked last among Power 5 offenses last season. — Trotter

Sleeper pick: Isaiah Horton

Much of the conversation surrounding the Miami offense has focused on Xavier Restrepo, Jacolby George and Elijah Arroyo as natural playmakers for transfer quarterback Cam Ward. But if the spring game is any indication, keep an eye on Horton.

The third-year receiver caught six passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game and seems to have a natural connection with Ward. Coach Mario Cristobal praised Horton for having a great spring, and believes his emergence gives the Hurricanes yet another skill player to rely on and keep defenses off balance. At 6-4 and 205 pounds, Horton is the type of big-bodied receiver the Hurricanes have needed in their rotation. — Adelson

Sleeper pick: Zion Branch

It didn’t take long for everyone in the nation to know Zachariah Branch‘s name. The freshman phenom made headlines with his prowess as a returner and a receiver last year, but his brother, Zion, is set to have a breakout year of his own.

After missing his first season with a torn ACL, Zion earned the starting free safety spot only to suffer another season-ending injury early on. Now, he’s fully healthy again and ready to become a crucial part of USC’s improved defense. — Uggetti

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