Transfer Portal 2024: Sleeper Picks for Biggest Impact Players Next Season

Morgan MoriartyMarch 26, 2024

Transfer Portal 2024: Sleeper Picks for Biggest Impact Players Next Season

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    Kurtis Rourke has transferred to Indiana from Ohio via the transfer portal.

    Kurtis Rourke has transferred to Indiana from Ohio via the transfer portal.Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The transfer portal has revolutionized how college football coaches build their rosters. By using it, coaches can recruit older, more experienced players to build around.

    The portal also allows players to get a fresh start on their careers, or receive more playing time at their new schools.

    Every year there are some star names who enter the portal. We can bet the likes of safety Caleb Downs and running back Quinshon Judkins will do great at Ohio State, while Walter Nolen will shine at Ole Miss.

    But what about the non-household names who entered the portal? With more than 2,000 players entering the system, there are bound to be some lesser-known names who burst onto the scene next season at their new schools.

    Let’s run through sleeper picks for the biggest impact players in 2024.

Safety Keon Sabb, Alabama

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    HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 08: Michigan Wolverines defensive back Keon Sabb (3) drops into coverage on defense during the CFP National Championship against the Washington Huskies on January 08, 2024 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    One guy who could help make up for standout safety Caleb Downs transferring to Ohio State from Alabama after Nick Saban’s retirement is Michigan transfer Keon Sabb.

    Sabb, who will be a junior this season, didn’t see a ton of playing time in 2022 as a true freshman. But he played in all 14 games for the Wolverines last season, registering 28 total tackles and two interceptions, one returned for a pick-six.

    Earlier in March, new Crimson Tide head coach Kalen DeBoer said of Sabb:

    “You bring a guy like him in to be an impact player for you. His experiences, not just each and every play, but also the experiences and the leadership that as he’s here longer and longer that we would expect from him because of the level that he took his team to winning a championship. That fits in well with what we’re trying to accomplish, what we’re trying to do.”

    Alabama’s defense will have to replace a number of veteran players this season, including Downs. Cornerbacks Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold are both headed to the NFL, as is safety Jaylen Key.

    Sabb will bring some much-needed experience to the unit, playing alongside sophomore safety Toni Mitchell in 2024.

    We’ll see how a new Alabama defense looks this fall.

Defensive Lineman Kyle Kennard, South Carolina

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 7: Kyle Kennard #9 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets reacts after a fumble recovery against the Miami Hurricanes in the second half at Hard Rock Stadium on October 7, 2023 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images)

    Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

    South Carolina will have some big-time defensive experience this fall thanks to the addition of defensive lineman Kyle Kennard. He arrives on campus in Columbia with four years of experience at Georgia Tech.

    During his first two seasons at Tech, the senior played in 12 games for the Yellow Jackets, registering 22 total tackles with 4.5 sacks. After a productive season in 2022, he had his best year in 2023, getting 54 total tackles, including 11 for loss with six sacks. He also had six sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles.

    Kennard said in February that Gamecocks defensive ends coach Sterling Lucas, who has coaching experience with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, was a big factor in his decision to move.

    “Coach Lucas loves bringing up his NFL tenure and what guys he’s worked with,” Kennard said. “And that’s a good pitch because like obviously you want to get to their level. He always brings up guys like Matthew Judon, who is probably his number one guy so he’s really heavy in that pitch.”

    The defensive end will join returning starting tackles Boogie Huntley and Tonka Hemingway next season. Kennard’s addition to the line should help improve a South Carolina defense that finished 90th in total defense last year.

Linebacker Jaishawn Barham, Michigan

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 07: Maryland Terrapins linebacker Jaishawn Barham (1) tries to fight past a block during a college football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes on October 7, 2023 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Michigan will be in a bit of a rebuilding year in 2024. Jim Harbaugh is back in the NFL, and Sherrone Moore will be replacing him as a first-year head coach.

    On defense, the Wolverines will have to replace leading tackle Junior Colson, as well as linebacker Michael Barrett. Michigan’s star linebackers are both headed to the NFL in 2024. A guy who could help fill the void in replacing them is Maryland transfer Jaishawn Barham.

    He joins Michigan’s defense after spending the last two seasons at Maryland. Over two seasons with the Terps, he racked up 95 total tackles, seven sacks and an interception. He added a forced fumble and two passes defended. Along with returning starter Ernest Hausmann, he should help shore up Michigan’s linebacking corps in 2024.

    Michigan linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary told In The Trenches podcast (h/t On3) about what Barham brings to his defense:

    “The big thing with Jaishawn, obviously, is [he’s] just a high-level athlete, high-level player, was one of the best linebackers in the country coming out of high school out of the DMV area. We actually recruited him at my previous place [Tennessee]. Just the experience coming in, we have actual game tape that shows how high of a level that he can play at.

    “He wants to immerse himself in this Michigan culture and wants to be a part of the Michigan defense. I think with that mentality, I expect him to have a great year and be even more productive wearing the maize and blue.”

    Michigan has to face Texas, USC, Washington, Oregon and Ohio State in 2024, so its defense could use all the help it can get from a linebacker like Barham.

Edge-Rusher Darris Smith, Missouri

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    ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 2: Darris Smith #19 during a game between UT-Martin and University of Georgia at Sanford Stadium on September 2, 2023 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

    Perry McIntyre/ISI Photos/Getty Images

    Missouri’s defense had a great season in 2023, helping the team finish 11-2. The unit finished tied for 25th in scoring defense, giving up just 20.8 points per game.

    As the Tigers look to build on a fantastic season, landing Georgia transfer Darris Smith should help.

    Smith, who arrived at Athens as a 4-star edge prospect and ranked 14th nationally for his position, didn’t exactly light up the stat sheet over two seasons. As a true freshman in 2022, he played in 11 games, registering just three total tackles. He played in five games for the Dawgs in 2023, getting another three total tackles with one for loss and a pass breakup.

    It was reported that Smith was out during the season for undisclosed reasons, and briefly was said to not be on the team at all, but rejoined the team later in October.

    In late November, he entered the transfer portal.

    Nate Edwards of Rock M Nation noted how Smith will fit in the Tigers’ defense next season:

    “Watching his high school Hudl film and the few plays he’s had in college shows a guy who has the moves to beat a tackle one-on-one and harass the quarterback by himself effectively. With he and [Tigers defensive lineman Nyles] Gaddy rotating throughout the game, Mizzou should have a legitimate pass rushing threat at all times.”

    Smith looks primed to have a breakout season in 2024.

Wide Receiver Will Sheppard, Colorado

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    GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 07: Vanderbilt Commodores wide receiver Will Sheppard (14) during the game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Florida Gators on October 7, 2023 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field in Gainesville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Deion Sanders’ first year as Colorado head coach got off to a 3-0 start before falling to 4-8 on the season.

    The focus for the Buffaloes this offseason has been in the trenches, where Sanders has landed the lines of offensive linemen Quencey Wiggins from LSU and Tyler Johnson from Houston, among others.

    Colorado does return star receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter this season. But there is one addition to the roster who should complement him at receiver: Vanderbilt transfer Will Sheppard.

    In addition to giving quarterback Shedeur Sanders another talented weapon to throw to, Sheppard brings a lot of experience into the receivers room in Boulder.

    Sheppard, who started his Vanderbilt career as a true freshman in 2020, accounted for 152 receptions for 2,067 yards with 21 touchdowns over four seasons with the Commodores. He should be a big-play threat for Sanders this season, as he averages 13.6 yards per reception over his four seasons in Nashville.

    Sanders should be one of the most talented quarterbacks Sheppard has played with in college, so 2024 looks like it has the potential to be his best season yet. We’ll see how far he can take this Colorado offense this fall.

Running Backs Dante Dowdell, Nebraska; Jo’Quavious Marks, USC

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    Dante Dowdell transferred from Oregon to Nebraska

    Dante Dowdell transferred from Oregon to NebraskaBrandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

    Dante Dowdell and Jo’Quavious Marks will bring immediate help to the run games at Nebraska and USC, respectively.

    We’ll start with Dowdell, who is transferring to Lincoln after spending a season with the Oregon Ducks in 2023.

    Dowdell signed with Oregon as a 4-star prospect and the No. 9 running back from the class of 2023. Although expectations were high for him as a true freshman, he joined a talented backfield, which featured the likes of Bucky Irving and Jordan James. He finished last season seeing just 17 carries for 90 yards and a touchdown.

    At Nebraska, he’ll compete for the No. 1 back spot immediately. He has plenty of weapons around him, too—the Cornhuskers return all five starters alongside the offensive line from last season.

    Nebraska is also expected to get an offensive boost from 5-star quarterback Dylan Raiola in 2024.

    Meanwhile, new USC running back Marks is expected to fill the void of MarShawn Lloyd and Austin Jones in 2024.

    Marks spent the last four seasons at Mississippi State, where he had some impressive production. He left after accounting for 1,883 rushing yards with 22 touchdowns. He’ll be a factor in the Trojans’ passing game, too, after adding 1,225 receiving yards with five touchdowns in over four seasons with MSU.

    Both players are expected to have huge seasons in 2024.

Wide Receiver Ja’Corey Brooks, Louisville

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    NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 31: Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Ja'Corey Brooks (7) cuts back during the Allstate Sugar Bowl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Kansas State Wildcats on December 31, 2022 at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Former Alabama receiver Ja’Corey Brooks entered the transfer portal prior to Nick Saban’s retirement announcement. Although he was a highly touted recruiting prospect, ranked as a 5-star prospect and the No. 2 overall receiver from 2021, his career wasn’t all that consistent in Tuscaloosa.

    As a true freshman, he had 15 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He had a breakout season in 2022, finishing with 39 receptions for 674 yards and eight touchdowns, second on the team, as a sophomore.

    But Brooks wasn’t ever able to match those numbers last season. While dealing with a shoulder injury, he finished 2024 with just three receptions for 30 yards and zero touchdowns.

    At Louisville, Brooks should elevate a Cardinals offense that will likely have fellow transfer Tyler Shough under center. Louisville reached nine wins last season in head coach Jeff Brohm’s first season.

    Similarly, Brooks feels he can elevate this system in 2024.

    “As soon as I got with [Louisville receivers] coach [Garrick] McGee and he put on the film, I was like ‘Yeah man this offense is one I can see myself being in’,” he said, per 247Sports. “This is a place that can get me to the next level.

    “I can just see the guys that have been here before from where I am from (South Florida) like Teddy Bridgewater and Tutu (Atwell), the list goes on and on. I feel like I can come in and really do something. I’m excited about (Louisville).”

    We’ll see just how far Brooks can take Louisville’s offense in 2024.

Quarterback Kurtis Rourke, Indiana

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 26: Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke (7) throws a pass in the first half of a college football game between the Ohio Bobcats and the San Diego State Aztecs on August 26, 2023, at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Tony Ding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    Tony Ding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    This was a pretty loaded transfer portal class of quarterbacks, including Will Howard to Ohio State, Dillon Gabriel to Oregon, Cam Ward to Miami, and Riley Leonard to Notre Dame.

    Although he isn’t rated as high as some of these signal-callers, Kurtis Rourke is a huge upgrade for Indiana’s quarterback room.

    Rourke spent the last three seasons as Ohio’s starting signal-caller. His best season came in 2022, when he finished with 3,257 yards with 25 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was named the 2022 MAC Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts. Over his last three seasons, he added 791 yards with 11 rushing touchdowns on the ground.

    Despite leading the Bobcats to a MAC title game that season, he suffered a torn ACL that kept him out of the game. He suffered an unrelated injury in Ohio’s season-opener vs. San Diego State in 2023 and missed a couple of subsequent games. As a result, his numbers dipped a little, finishing with just 2,207 yards passing with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

    “Their offense is very NFL-like and kind of sets you up for what an offense would look like at the next level,” Rourke said of his decision to transfer to Indiana. “One of the biggest questions I wanted answered while deciding my future … was what place would set me up best for my future and put me in the best spot for the next couple of years and I think Indiana does that.”

    Indiana is hoping to find a winning formula under new head coach Curt Cignetti, who spent the last five seasons enjoying major success at James Madison.

    Although Cignetti has said hat the starting quarterback job will have to be earned, getting an experienced, talented guy like Rourke under center is huge for the Hoosiers in Cignetti’s Year One.

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