The next Hendon Hooker? Josh Jacobs? We comped 10 top recruits to former stars

NCAAF

Many top college football prospects from the 2023 ESPN 300 are already on campus and suiting up for spring ball. This class was loaded with talent, and it was quite enjoyable projecting their immediate impact at the college level. Part of our evaluation process is drawing comparisons to past players with similar traits at this same stage.

Whether it’s measurables, style, tenacity or simple body movements, there can be a multitude of reasons why one player might compare to another. We often try to make these assessments to give readers an idea of what prospects might look like at the next level with a hint of the early impact.

With that in mind, here’s a look at 10 prospects ranked in the 2023 ESPN 300 and a recognizable player from their respective program to whom they compare.

Jump to:
Alabama | Clemson
Michigan State | Notre Dame
OU | South Carolina | Tennessee

2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 3
High-ceiling player comparison: Baker Mayfield (2015-17)

Mayfield completed a stellar career at Oklahoma after originally walking on at Texas Tech. During his time as a Sooner, he threw for a whopping 12,292 yards and 119 touchdowns, won the 2017 Heisman and averaged a staggering 11.5 yards per pass attempt. He was the very definition of swagger and moxie, and he had the arm to back it up.

Arnold is like Mayfield not only in stature (6-foot-1, 195 pounds), but also in style. He’s confident, poised and intellectual. At Denton Guyer High School (Texas), he ran essentially the same offensive system that he will be in at Oklahoma under Jeff Lebby, which has many similarities to Lincoln Riley’s scheme when tutoring Mayfield. The 2022-23 Gatorade Player of the Year should face a seamless transition at the next level.

In fact, Arnold is more than capable of not only competing with Dillon Gabriel, but also beating him out. Even if he ends up being the No. 2 as a freshman, he could play and redshirt with four years of eligibility remaining. If he were to burn his redshirt year, having three years of being a starter will be more than enough to make his mark in Norman.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 23
High-ceiling player comparison: Hendon Hooker (2021-22)

Hooker had one of the more up-and-down careers of any quarterback in college football until he got to Tennessee. He was streaky at Virginia Tech but did have his bright spots, throwing 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. After replacing Joe Milton III in Week 2 of the 2021 season, Hooker took the reins and never looked back. He finished with 58 touchdown passes and just five interceptions in two years, throwing for 6,080 yards, finishing fifth in the Heisman voting last year.

Iamaleava looks almost identical to Hooker at this point in his development: tall and slight with the incoming freshman standing 2 inches taller than Hooker (6-6 vs. 6-4). Iamaleava has a loose, live arm and can make all the throws by changing arm angles to suit any situation. His pocket mobility and ability to improvise strikingly resembles Hooker’s skill set. Iamaleava did not throw for a ton of yards as a junior or senior, but he did throw 58 touchdowns in his final two years.

Tennessee’s plug-and-play offense bodes well for Iamaleava, and while the incumbent Milton has already won the job once, he also lost it due to ineffectiveness in 2021. Iamaleava can be a great, productive player in Knoxville, so expect him to put up a fight for the starting job as the fall nears.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 22
High-ceiling player comparison: Josh Jacobs (2016-18)

Jacobs, a three-star in the 2016 class, was one of the greatest sleeper prospects Alabama ever signed. He developed into the ultimate every-down back who contributed on special teams and demonstrated skill as a receiver.

Jacobs looked like a scat back early in his career but developed into more of a physical runner than people expected. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards, posting 21 touchdowns. He was never the feature back, but maybe the most important component of the offense during his tenure because of all the traits he possesses.

Young is a feature back who is also effective in third-down situations. A slashing runner who can push the pile and has contact balance, he is a rare blend of power (5-11, 195) and suddenness. He may not possess elite top-end speed (he still ran a 10.8 100-meter in high school and consistently pulled away on long runs), however neither did Jacobs, who ran a 4.6 40 at the NFL combine.

Since 2008, Alabama has not been a typical featured back offense; instead, it features different skill sets and shapes and sizes with a regular rotation. Jacobs has proven a running back does not have to get every carry to develop into a first-round draft choice. Young needs to prove his value as a receiving back to produce early in a rotation with fellow freshman Justice Haynes and seniors Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 45
High-ceiling player comparison: Ryan Broyles (2008-11)

There were faster players in college football than Broyles during his Oklahoma tenure, but very few were as productive. He finished as Oklahoma’s all-time career leader in receptions (349) and scored 45 touchdowns. The ultimate slot receiver from 2008 to 2011, Broyles was one of the best route runners in recent college football memory and was a second-round draft choice by the Detroit Lions in 2012.

Pettaway may be faster (10.4 100-meter) than Broyles, and his scheme versatility and route-running precision is very similar. His ability to navigate coverage from the slot, be featured on bubble screens and jet sweeps, and win one-on-one matchups in man coverage are all strengths. Like Broyles, Pettaway knows how to get open and make plays. He could follow in his footsteps and develop into a dangerous return man for the Sooners, as well.

Oklahoma’s receiving corps ranked 48th in receiving yards and 68th in receptions per target in 2022, and with Marvin Mims Jr. entering the draft, the Sooners don’t have a strong receiving corps returning. This could provide a great opportunity for Pettaway to break in early and use his speed to develop into a go-to player who is also a feared return specialist. Plus, he is coming in early with QB Jackson Arnold, with whom he has also developed a rapport, which was on display in Under Armour All-America Game.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 60
High-ceiling player comparison: Will Fuller V (2013-15)

Notre Dame’s offense had lacked a deep downfield threat until Fuller’s arrival in 2013. He left South Bend with 144 receptions, 30 touchdowns and over 2,500 receiving yards. He was one of the best receivers at tracking the over-the-shoulder ball down the sideline and one of the most dangerous weapons in college football thanks to his electric 4.32 40 speed.

While James (6-2) may have an inch on Fuller, both are lean, speedy pass-catchers that can take the top off a defense. James may not necessarily make defenders miss on a consistent basis, but he can win footraces and has a wide catch radius to win contested balls. Prior to his senior year, he posted a laser-to-laser 4.47 40-yard dash.

It is important for James to get in the weight room, get stronger and add mass so he can handle physical press coverage. If he gets a free release, he can get vertical in a hurry and will play an immediate role in South Bend. We would expect him to have packages as a freshman to use his speed and then become a go-to player in the following years like Fuller.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 11
High-ceiling player comparison: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (2011-13)

At 6-1, 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix was one of the most productive safeties in Alabama history. He had 99 tackles, seven interceptions and 10 pass breakups in his career. He was a consensus first team All-American and first team All-SEC member in 2013 thanks to his versatility and instinctive ways. His closing speed and ability to track the football was truly unique and led to him becoming the Green Bay Packers‘ first-round pick in 2014.

Beyond Downs’ size and build (6-foot,190), his instincts and scheme versatility resemble those of Clinton-Dix. In Tuscaloosa, Clinton-Dix played everywhere in the secondary and had a linebacker’s mentality when positioned inside the box. He was a fierce tackler with great awareness.

Downs could be playing alongside a future first-round safety in Malachi Moore, which could give him the perfect blueprint of how to play the game and maximize his development. The five-star is capable of being a three-and-out player if he stays healthy and gets in the rotation early.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 4
High-ceiling player comparison: Tyler Davis (2019-23)

Davis didn’t have intimidating size (6-2, 293) in the 2019 class, but his disruptive play during Under Armour All-America week commanded attention. A top-10 defensive tackle recruit, Davis quickly earned a starting role at Clemson thanks to his excellent power and elite initial quickness. He tallied over 40 tackles with 5.5 sacks as a freshman, and though injuries hampered him in 2020 and 2021, he came back strong in 2022, voted a permanent captain by his teammates and earning second team All-America honors on the field.

Woods won’t generate buzz simply off his measurables (6-2, 275), but much like Davis, he uses an outstanding blend of explosiveness, power and effort to disrupt and make plays. One distinction: Woods enters college with a fifth star and at the same stage is a little more effective with his hands. Woods also shows similar leadership qualities that should allow his presence to be felt off the field as well as on it for Clemson.

The bar is set high for Woods, given his ranking as the No. 1 DT in the 2023 class. We are confident he will quickly work his way into the mix and be an immediate playmaker like Davis. With Davis returning in 2023, these two will have a season to play together, forming a formidable duo and allowing Woods some time to learn. Once Davis moves on, we feel a healthy Woods has the tools to exceed Davis’ impact.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 39
High-ceiling player comparison: Jadeveon Clowney (2011-13)

Clowney was the No. 1 recruit in the 2011 class and went onto to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Many still regard him as one of the most impressive high school prospects in the last 20 years before he became a dominating presence at South Carolina over three seasons. He had an immediate impact, earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors, finished sixth in the Heisman voting as a sophomore and capped his college career with the well-known crushing hit on a Michigan back in the Outback Bowl.

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Flashback: Clowney’s massive hit sends RB’s helmet flying

Back in 2013, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney knocked the helmet off Michigan’s Vincent Smith after a hard hit, causing a fumble that Clowney then recovered.

We are well aware Harbor is coming to South Carolina as a tight end. First off, Harbor’s commitment to the Gamecocks is arguably their most notable since Clowney announced he was staying home back in 2011. Their physical traits immediately draw attention — Clowney was 6-6, 240 as a recruit, Harbor 6-5, 225 — and they blend those elite measurables with rare speed and mobility. Harbor, one could argue, could be an edge defender too and in that defensive role could be as impactful to Clowney. Even on offense, Harbor gives South Carolina a player with similar eye-popping measurables and playmaking potential that cannot be taught.

Unlike Clowney, Harbor will balance training and performing at an elite level in two sports, as he is also a top track athlete (10.2 100-meter). Defense would take more time to develop, but Harbor can give the Gamecocks a feared big-play weapon — as a red zone target and seam-stretching threat if he remains on offense. Whether he gets the ball or not, he needs to be accounted for, making him a constant focal point for opponents, much like Clowney was during his South Carolina career.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 10
High-ceiling player comparison: Evan Neal (2019-21)

Neal lived up to his five-star expectations, and the No. 2 offensive tackle in the 2019 class exceeded them (if that is possible). At 6-8, 365 pounds, he was not only powerful, but also possessed excellent flexibility and balance. He quickly contributed at guard before moving to right tackle and finished as one of college football’s premier left tackles before being drafted seventh overall in 2022.

Proctor certainly has similar traits. He is tall (6-6) and massive (315) with excellent movement skills for his large stature. While physically impressive, he is still not quite as bulky as Neal was coming out of high school. Nevertheless, they demonstrate similar physical tools, functional strength and the ability to dominate at the point of attack. What separates these two prospects from others, beyond their rare power, is their flexibility and ease with which they move as they block mobile defenders.

A key late flip from home state Iowa, Proctor was an attention-grabbing signee even for a program known for dominating in recruiting. Addressing a need to strengthen the offensive line, Proctor has the tools to immediately contribute at guard or tackle, as Neal did. Strong, tenacious and mobile, Proctor has the ability and expectations to develop into Alabama’s next elite offensive tackle.


2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 147
High-ceiling player comparison: Max Bullough (2010-13)

The Bullough name is well known in Michigan State circles, but arguably none was better than Max, a three-year starter who was a multiple All-Big Ten selection and Academic All-American. He was not only highly productive on the field, finishing among the program’s leaders in tackles and tackles for loss, he was also known for his football smarts and leadership.

Hall shares common traits with Bullough. A multiyear starter at IMG Academy (Florida), his coaches raved about his “feel for the game” and ability to command the defense. Hall understood everyone’s job in the defensive scheme and became the talent-rich school’s first three-time captain. He can be an extension of the coaching staff on the field, traits Bullough was known for while leading the Spartan defense.

Hall’s blend of physical ability, instincts and leadership intangibles made for an excellent signing for Michigan State. The level of competition he faced at IMG has better prepared him to be an early contributor. Look for him to develop into the next great middle linebacker in East Lansing.

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