By Rory Daniels

The College Football landscape is undergoing the most dramatic changes it has ever experienced: name, image, and likeness deals, as well as free movement through the transfer portal mean players finally have more power. In turn, incoming freshmen are keen to see early playing time and get ‘brand exposure’. With this in mind, we highlight the ten players we believe will stand out and hit the ground running in their first year. 

1. Cam Coleman, Wide Receiver, Auburn

Five-star receiver Cam Coleman is the poster child for Hugh Freeze’s recruiting success in Auburn. Freeze is looking to make the Tigers an SEC powerhouse again, and Coleman is the first step along the road. He is an ideal size/speed combo and figures to see plenty of action in Year 1. While QB Peyton Thorne has limitations, Freeze will be keen to show potential future recruits the opportunities afforded to highly-rated freshmen. Expect Coleman to feature heavily in 2024.

2. DJ Lagway, Quarterback, Florida

Embed from Getty Images

Head Coach Billy Napier’s seat in Florida is hot, and it’s not just the state’s climate making it that way. Performances have been poor, and to add insult to injury, the 2024 recruiting class haemorrhaged elite players as signing day drew near. Napier, somewhat fortunately, clung on to his prized asset, five-star quarterback DJ Lagway. He’s pencilled in as the backup to Graham Mertz for now, but should the Gators come out of the traps slowly, Lagway’s introduction could be Napier’s last dice roll in Gainesville.

3. Jordan Seaton, Offensive Tackle, Colorado

Embed from Getty Images

It’s tricky to get a good read on Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders when watching back the tape from 2023. The reason why? His offensive line. The group looked undermanned and out of it’s depth. While there was plenty of splash in the transfer portal elsewhere, the trenches were somewhat glossed over. That’s not the case in 2024, as the Buffs landed five-star tackle Jordan Seaton out of IMG Academy. Despite his inexperience, many hopes are pinned on the youngster immediately upgrading the team’s weakest unit. In turn, allowing Sanders to shine before leaving for the NFL.

4. Dylan Raiola, Quarterback, Nebraska

If you weren’t already a believer that Matt Rhule could make Nebraska competitive again, then wrestling Dylan Raiola out of the hands of Georgia may convert you. The five-star recruit moved high school to Buford in the heart of Bulldog territory to prepare for life at college, only to flip to the Cornhuskers late in the process. His family connections (dad Dominic was a high-profile alum, uncle Donovan is OL coach for the ‘Huskers) obviously played a part but there is a firm belief the Rhule can turn fortunes around. Raiola will be front and center of that from day one on campus.

5. Williams Nwaneri, Edge Rusher, Missouri

The departure of Darius Robinson to the NFL leaves a nice hole for freshman Williams Nwaneri to fill in Missouri. The 6’5, 265lbs edge rusher was the seventh overall ranked player in this year’s class and will hope to have similar success to Robinson, who had 8.5 sacks in his final season as a Tiger. Eli Drinkwitz has made Missouri a serious contender in the SEC, and a big part of that is landing talent like Nwaneri. The homegrown star could encourage other high-profile recruits to stay home and enjoy success in their own backyard.

6. Jeremiah Smith, Wide Receiver, Ohio State

Embed from Getty Images

Jeremiah Smith is an absolute stud. Just watch the high school tape. The only reason he lands so low on this list is the array of talent that the Buckeyes have stocked at this position. Even so, early murmurings are that Smith will be difficult to leave off the field. His opportunities will be limited by Emeka Egbuka, Carnell Tate and Brandon Inniss, but by the end of the year, he should crack the starting lineup. Under the tutelage of Brian Hartline, you can expect Smith to continue his upward trajectory towards top-5 NFL draft status.

7. Zabien Brown, Cornerback, Alabama

Finding the field as a freshman in Tuscaloosa is no easy feat. Okay, so this year is different. Losing Nick Saban did affect recruiting, but there remains enough talent on board to mount an SEC title challenge. At cornerback, though, the Tide may have to start a freshman, and the early leader in the clubhouse is Zabien Brown. He was ranked below Jaylen Mbakwe and Zavier Mincey, but head coach Kalen DeBoer said:

“Red (Morgan) made a nice play or two today, and Zabien (Brown) has been super consistent… really beyond what you would expect from guys who are so young. It has been really positive with those guys.”

Former Alabama corners who saw playing time as freshmen include Minkah Fitzpatrick, Patrick Surtain, and Kool-Aid McKinstry. With that in mind, Brown is certainly someone to keep tabs on.

8. Elijah Brown, Quarterback, Stanford

Stanford didn’t find life easy in the Pac-12, and things aren’t going to get much easier as they move to the ACC. The Cardinal went without a home win in 2023, and it must have hurt to see former head coach Jim Harbaugh take Michigan all the way to the summit of College Football. There is one sprig of hope for this team, which comes in the shape of Elijah Brown. The former Mater Dei QB is the highest-rated commit at the position since Andrew Luck. Head coach Troy Taylor can only dream of Brown having similar success.

9. Ryan Williams, Wide Receiver, Alabama

The Kalen DeBoer success story from recruiting was undoubtedly the re-commitment of Ryan Williams. The receiver looked around when Saban announced his retirement, but DeBoer and co. put in the hard sell and ensured one of the most talented guys at the position remained part of their plans. The receiving group has suffered a down period in recent years and the transfer of Isaiah Bond and the departure of Jermaine Burton give Williams a chance to have an instant impact. QB Jalen Milroe will love having a big-bodied field-stretcher like Williams to connect with.

10. Ellis Robinson IV, Cornerback, Georgia

Embed from Getty Images

As with Alabama, the Georgia Bulldogs have found themselves stretched thin in the secondary. Kamari Lassiter left for the NFL, and instantly, one of the starting corner jobs was up for grabs. The experienced Daylen Everette will hold down one side but Julian Humphrey is relatively inexperienced on the other. That’s why freshman Ellis Robinson IV could feature heavily. The cornerback was the no.1 ranked in his position and no.2 ranked recruit nationally. Robinson has a history as a ball-hawk and could make impact plays at the business end of the season.

Mock Draft

Rory-Joe Daniels

College Football Lead Writer