College Football's Top 10 Under-the-Radar Heisman Candidates of 2012

Troy BelcherCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2012

College Football's Top 10 Under-the-Radar Heisman Candidates of 2012

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    It's never too early to start talking college football in my eyes, even if the season did just end two weeks ago.

    What another great year, huh? Especially for a Michigan fan (like myself), finally beating Ohio State, and winning a BCS game for the first time since Tom Brady was on campus. And, to top it all off, finding out that the Buckeyes are banned from postseason play at the end of next season.

    There were a lot of great matchups (LSU versus Oregon, Alabama versus LSU twice), and a lot of great finishes (Michigan's win over Notre Dame in the first night game ever at the Big House, Michigan State's Hail Mary victory over Wisconsin). What really impressed me, though, was all of the great performances by teams and players you weren't expecting it from.

    Who would've ever thought that Robert Griffin III (RG3) would win the Heisman before the beginning of last season? Who expected Michigan to go from one of the worst scoring defenses in 2010 to finishing 2011 ranked sixth? And who ever thought their would be a re-match in the BCS National Championship Game?

    Like I said, a great season of college football. What I want to focus on, though, are the select number of players who could very well have a breakout season in 2012, the ones that nobody is really paying much attention to.

    Here are your top 10 under-the-radar Heisman candidates going into the 2012 season.

De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon Ducks

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    Are you kidding me? De'Anthony Thomas was by far one of the best players in college football this past season, and he's just now going into his sophomore season.

    Thomas carried the ball 55 times for 595 yards and seven touchdowns, that's an astounding 10.8 average. More notably, he led the Ducks in receptions with 46 for a total of 605 yards and nine touchdowns. That's 101 touches for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns—as a TRUE FRESHMAN!

    This kid's speed is ridiculous. He displayed that quite sternly against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, when he took a hand-off right up the middle for 91 yards and a touchdown, not a soul came close to laying a finger on the freshman sensation.

    Quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James have both declared for the NFL Draft in April, meaning that Thomas is going to be the spectacle of this Ducks offense for at least the next two seasons.

    I wouldn't be surprised a bit ifThomas carried the hardware away from New York City this December—what a dazzling athlete.

Tyrann Mathieu, LSU Tigers

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    Defensive player or not, you must recognize talent where there is talent, and let me tell you, Tyrann Mathieu has talent.

    He leads a stifling defense that only ranked behind Alabama's all year long, and now that Morris Claiborne has declared for the NFL Draft, it's up to Tyrann Mathieu to make the LSU defense No. 1 in 2012.

    He's the Honey Badger, and just ask Danica Patrick, they don't give a "crap," they just do what they want. Well, Mathieu didn't get this nickname for nothing.

    I don't know if this defensive/special teams sensation could have filled up the stat sheet anymore, with his 76 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, 9 pass break-ups, six forced fumbles, 421 punt return yards and two punt return touchdowns.

    I know some of you may be wondering why I have Mathieu in the "under the radar" category, and I understand that. Only reason he is in this category is because he's a defensive player, and as we all know only one defensive player ever has won the Heisman (Charles Woodson, 1997, Go Blue!). Just ignore my passion for Michigan, can't help it...

    In conclusion, Mathieu could be right back in New York by the end of this year.

Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Some people may not even know who this is, and that's probably because Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are too busy scorching defenses with the air attack.

    Joseph Randle is the running back for Oklahoma State, for those of you who don't know, and he is actually one of the best overlooked backs in the entire nation.

    As Weeden and Blackmon were putting up ridiculous numbers in 2011, Randle quietly squeaked out 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground.

    That's rather impressive considering how unknown he is to the college football world.

    In 2012, the Weeden-to-Blackmon combo, which was the best in college football in a long time, will be gone as both have declared for the NFL Draft. This means that Randle is going to see a lot more daylight.

    Now, if this kid can iron out over 1,200 yards and 24 touchdowns with Weeden and Blackmon, then what do you think he can do without the offense being revolved around them and revolved around him?

    If not a Heisman for Randle in 2012, I definitely suspect a Big 12 Player of the Year honor, because he's a very talented athlete.

Geno Smith, West Virgina Mountaineers

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    Not a big name by any means, but that doesn't stop Geno Smith, quarterback of West Virginia, from putting up gargantuan numbers.

    Anyone catch the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl, also known as the Geno show? If not, find a way to watch the replay of it, because you'll be thinking that this West Virginia team can play with anyone in the nation.

    By no means is Clemson, who was West Virginia's opponent in the Orange Bowl, a stingy defense, but when you hang 70 points on an FBS school, then you have bragging rights, no ifs, ands or buts about it. By the way, Smith was 31-of-42 for 401 yards and six touchdowns passing in that game, just saying.

    Smith went on to pass for 4,385 yards and a 31-7 touchdown to interception ratio in 2011, while completing almost 66 percent of his passes.

    Like I said, not a big name, but he could be a huge name by the end of 2012.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan Wolverines

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    I promise to contain by bias here, just because I'm not that type of a writer. There is no doubt that Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back for the Michigan Wolverines, had a breakout year in 2011.

    We're talking about a Michigan team who went into the season with 3-4 prospects for running back, to at the end of 2011 having two 1,000-yard rushers, obviously the other being Denard Robinson.

    Toussaint showed a completely innate ability to make defenders miss in the open field, going on to rush for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns.

    There is no question that the Wolverine offense relied heavily on the running game this year, after head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges realized after a few games that there was a lot of speed on this offense, and the pro-style form just didn't fit the personnel.

    The point being, up until the beginning of 2011, Robinson had been the entire Michigan offense through and through. Toussaint stepped up in a huge way by making the offense his and Robinson's.

    Notice that Robinson only left games once or twice this past season, when in 2010 he left basically every game, because there was nobody to take the running load off of his shoulders.

    So you combine another dimension on offense with a drastically improved defense, and you get an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl win. That definitely sat well with me...

    I expect Toussaint to become even more of a factor in the Michigan offense in 2012, so he could very well find himself in New York by December's roll around.

Eddie Lacy, Alabama Crimson Tide

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    No, he's not Trent Richardson, but he has his size, and definitely has the potential to become a big-time back.

    I have this thing where I see players make a great play, and then a year or two after it happens he's a big-time athlete, and I'm like, "Hey I remember him, he made that one play against so-and-so a couple years back." I did the same thing with Richardson when he was behind Mark Ingram, and look where he ended up.

    Eddie Lacy is your typical, big pro-style running back and can bull you over, just like Richardson. He ran for 674 yards on 95 carries (7.1 average) and seven touchdowns in 2011. That's pretty darn good considering who he was sitting behind.

    The only problem Eddie Lacy may face with a Heisman bid is his likely shared time with true freshman Dee Hart, who is highly touted.

    Other than that, he has all the tools necessary to become Alabama's second Heisman Trophy winner.

Braxton Miller, Ohio State Buckeyes

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    As much as I hate to say it, Ohio State has a very bright future under Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller. No, Miller didn't WOW anyone with statistics this year, but he definitely showed a lot of potential, ability to escape and elude defenders, and make some decent throws at times.

    He certainly had me sweating when Michigan faced the Buckeyes back in November. He threw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns, and also had a rushing touchdown, and if he would've completed a couple more throws, he would've led the Buckeyes to their eighth-straight victory over the Wolverines.

    Although the Buckeyes find themselves banned from postseason play this upcoming season, that's not going to stop Meyer from turning around a much-maligned program that finished with a 6-7 record this past season.

    You've seen what Meyer has done with Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida. Don't think things are going to be any different, if not better with Miller. Certainly he will mold Miller into the type of passer he wants him to be, and I expect this Ohio State team to be very dangerous next season, especially since it has nothing to play for but the pride of Columbus.

Stepfan Taylor, Stanford Cardinal

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    Stepfan Taylor, running back of the Stanford Cardinal, reminds me a lot of Joseph Randle of the Oklahoma State Cowboys. He's one of those backs that very quietly shreds defenses from week to week, and nobody really notices.

    Obviously for the last few years, Andrew Luck has been the face of Stanford Cardinal football, so Taylor hasn't gotten a lot of attention at all really, but that needs to change fast, because he's a very talented back.

    The Cardinal back ironed out 1,330 yards on 242 carries and 10 touchdowns in 2011; that's pretty darn good considering Andrew Luck putting the ball in the air over 400 times this past season.

    It's disappointing really, that players like Taylor and Randle are so overshadowed by other players on their teams, when in reality they are a big part of why their teams are having such success.

    We are all aware that a good running game sets up the passing game, because that dimension of the play fake that threatens the run, so if it wasn't for talented backs like this, Oklahoma State and Stanford wouldn't have such great passing offenses.

    Look out for Taylor in 2012, as Luck will likely either be playing for Indianapolis or sitting behind Peyton Manning. Much of the Cardinal offense should be centered around the big legs of Taylor.

Casey Pachall, TCU Horned Frogs

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    Andy Dalton who? TCU fans didn't have much to miss when Dalton was playing up in Cincinnati this year, as Casey Pachall, Dalton's successor, was making his name known quickly.

    Pachall threw for 2,921 yards this season, completed almost 67 percent of his passes and had a 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio.

    Not to mention that Pachall led the Horned Frogs to a victory over Boise State on the blue turf, giving the Broncos their only loss of the season, thus ultimately preventing them from receiving a BCS berth.

    Now that TCU is making a leap to the Big 12 in 2012, Pachall will receive a lot more exposure to national audiences, making him able to show his abilities to the country and Heisman voters.

    On the other side of things, although, is that level of competition week in and week out will be much more difficult than in the Mountain West, so if Pachall can put up similar numbers in 2012 against Big 12 competition, then he should certainly be in the Heisman discussion.

Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina Gamecocks

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    This big back for the South Carolina Gamecocks had an injury-plagued 2011, only playing in seven games, but Marcus Lattimore has shown that he is a beast from the east.

    In 2011, through seven games, he had 818 rushing yards. In 2010, he had almost 1,200 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.

    Lattimore is a large back, that can lay you out if you get in his way. He's tough, he's a warrior, and that's only beginning to describe him.

    When you are a dominant back in the SEC, you are going to get Heisman recognition, simple as that. When you are any sort of dominant athlete in the SEC, you get Heisman recognition.

    Lattimore will make a return to the Gamecocks in 2012, seeking to have a dominant year and win the SEC. If South Carolina has a good year, look to see Lattimore in New York.