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2024 NFL Draft: Power 5 transfers from small schools to remember

WCG’s lead draft analyst breaks down 7 enticing NFL prospects making the jump to the Power 5 level this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year, Jared Verse made the jump from FCS school Albany to Florida State, one of the most accomplished FBS football programs in history.

After two tremendous seasons at Albany, Verse dominated in his first year at the Power 5 level, finishing with 9 sacks, 16.5 tackles for a loss and both first-team All-American and All-ACC recognition. Now, he enters the 2024 college football season as arguably the best pass rusher in the nation.

Thinking about Verse’s journey got me thinking: which Power 5 transfers from small schools could follow a similar breakout path this year?

The ever-changing college football landscape has seen a handful of enticing small-school prospects receive significant looks and NIL packages from Power 5 programs. With the expansion of the Big 12 this year and the rapid deterioration of the Pac-12, it seems like “super conferences” are the new wave, thus upping the ante for those big schools to identify stars from smaller schools and give them the bag.

These 7 prospects are all transferring to a Power 5 school after previously playing at a lower level, whether it be from a Group of 5 school, FCS school or elsewhere. Any one of them could end up seeing their stock for the 2024 NFL Draft skyrocket with a strong year in a brighter spotlight.

Josaiah Stewart, EDGE, Michigan

Stewart exploded onto the scene as a freshman for Coastal Carolina in 2021, tallying 13 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss. After two strong seasons for the Chanticleers, he looks to bring his high-intensity style of play to Ann Arbor.

Though he’s smaller for an edge rusher at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he has a very quick first step and is able to win on the outside with his initial burst quite often. He has a deep arsenal of pass-rushing techniques, using his hands well to string together moves like jabs, rips, clubs, swims and swipes to get into the backfield. His flexibility allows him to generate good torque from his lower half and win the leverage battle. A lack of length and consistent pop in his jabs could limit his value a bit, but Stewart is a lightning in a bottle-type player who could serve as a good rotational pass rusher in a 3-4 system.

Isaiah Ifanse, RB, California

After breaking the Montana State career rushing yards record with 3,742 yards, Ifanse heads on out to California with the hopes of carrying on his stellar production.

Ifanse is a well-built runner with a stout frame and a low center of gravity, which helps his contact balance significantly when he gets the ball in his hands. He’s a determined runner with the mentality of a true power back, but he offers nice short-area burst that allows him to subtly change direction and explode through open running lanes, which his astute ball-carrier vision often allows him to exploit. Breakaway speed and a major knee injury from 2022 hurt his stock a bit, and while Ifanse probably won’t be much more than a late-round pick, he looks like a strong potential backup running back option at the next level.

Devontez Walker, WR, North Carolina

It was a big year for Walker in 2022, snagging 58 catches for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns for Kent State. Heading into 2023, he gets a bigger platform and projects as the top target for superstar quarterback Drake Maye.

Walker has a lanky frame at 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds with great raw length and an expansive catch radius. For a taller receiver, though, it’s his breakaway speed that’s especially intriguing. He hits top speed quickly and utilizes speed releases well near the line of scrimmage to take the top off opposing defenses. He’s creative after the catch and understands leverage well as a route runner going through his stems. He’ll need to gain some weight to translate to the pros, and he doesn’t utilize his size as well as he should. Though he’s skinny and lacks in the contested catch category, Walker’s combination of size and speed give him plenty to work with as he jumps to the ACC.

Ajani Cornelius, OT, Oregon

The top two FCS offensive tackles in terms of PFF grades were Cody Mauch and Colby Sorsdal, both of whom having been drafted by the Buccaneers and Lions, respectfully. The lineman who finished third? That would be Cornelius, who dominated at Rhode Island and is now looking to shine at Oregon.

Cornelius is a loose athlete with good lower-half flexibility and ideal weight distribution. He lands his strikes with precision in his placement and timing, and because of his pad level advantage, he’s able to generate good power when he churns his legs at the point of attack. His initial burst off the snap in pass protection isn’t all that bad, either. One could argue he isn’t the best at changing direction and can struggle against the speed rush, but Cornelius is still a steady right tackle prospect who should develop into at least a reliable swing tackle in the NFL.

Seydou Traore, TE, Mississippi State

Traore originally committed to Colorado and played there in the spring before making the jump to Mississippi State. His transfer portal situation was messy, but his play at Arkansas State in 2022 was anything but.

A former youth soccer goalie from England, Traore has made the jump to American football very well. He’s an effective ‘F’ tight end with great vertical speed and the raw quickness needed to create separation from the opposition. He’s light in the pants at 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, but he has good length and uses it well to attack the ball through tight coverage and box out defenders. He has incredible hands — his drop rate in 2022 was only 2.3% — and his athleticism gives him value out of the slot or out wide. Traore won’t bring you much as a blocker, his route tree has been pretty vanilla to this point, and he’s newer to the sport with just one high school football season to his name. That said, the athletic ability with him is obvious, and as the NFL trends more towards speed than size at tight end, he’s coming onto the scene at just the right time.

Braden Fiske, DL, Florida State

Versatility is a sexy trait for a defensive lineman to have in today’s NFL, and as a 6-foot-5, 305-pounder who looks comfortable rushing off the edge, Fiske has that upside in spades.

Fiske took a lot of reps off the edge for Western Michigan, where he had 6 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss in 2022 before making the jump to Florida State. For someone with his size, he’s super quick off the ball and showcases ideal hand activity when he engages with offensive linemen. His length gives him the raw ability to lock out blockers from his frame, too. His pad level and anchor strength need improving, as he’s a bit of a waist-bender at this stage who could struggle a bit against the run in the ACC. If you’re an NFL team who needs a 3-4 defensive end with tantalizing physical traits, though, Fiske could be your guy.

Zy Alexander, CB, LSU

After tallying 9 interceptions, 12 pass deflections and two pick-6s in his last two seasons at Southeastern Louisiana, Alexander is hoping to carry his insane production over to LSU’s defense this year.

Alexander is skinny but offers tremendous length at 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds. The length of his limbs stands out just looking at him on tape, and his large wingspan allows him to make plays on the ball that other cornerbacks are physically incapable of making. Ball skills are the name of the game with him, as he’s coordinated and competitive at the catch point. He tracks the deep ball well and is capable of shooting downhill to jump a route and intercept passes. Being a taller cornerback, he can struggle with pad level and crispness in his cuts, and he’s a bit inconsistent as a tackler. He’ll need to add some flexibility and lower-body strength to his game, but the tools are there for Alexander to really develop into a rock-solid outside corner at the next level.