2009 Heisman Contenders: Who Will Challenge the Big Three?

Mike PettiganoCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2009

Going into the very, very early stages of the 2009 Heisman Trophy race, we can be sure of three things: Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Colt McCoy. They are the frontrunners, hands down.

In fact, this could turn out to be the most boring race we've seen in a long time, since two of those three have already won the award.

But for those of us who like to see a more wide-open field of contenders, here are some names that should gain some votes by the end of November. Many of them will fall by the way side, some earlier than others.

We could see a few additions during the season, too.

But with 2008 drifting out of sight, and 2009 entering view, we can get a feel for who could end up on billboards in a city near you.


These Guys Are Good Enough, but Receivers Never Win It

WR Dez Bryant, Jr., Oklahoma State
2008 stats: 87 rec.; 1,480 yds; 19 TDs

Bryant is probably the premier receiver returning in 2009. With guys like Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree gone to the NFL, the Big XII could be Bryant's playground. Playing on a highly-visible BCS team, in a division that's perceived to be very, very strong, will give Bryant a good platform to work from. The problem is, Okie State hasn't come up with a signature "Holy Cow!" win under Mike Gundy. No matter what kind of numbers he puts up in 2009, the only way Bryant enters serious Heisman consideration is if the Pokes can surprise Texas or Oklahoma this season, or even better, win the Big XII South.

WR Arrelious Benn, Jr., Illinois
2008 stats: 67 rec.; 1,055 yds.; 3 TDs

Benn has been one of the Big Ten's better receivers the last two seasons, and with the development of quarterback Juice Williams, should be the top pass catchers in 2009. He's recorded a reception in 25 straight games, with a career-best 12 catches for 181 yards against Minnesota last year. The Illini's offense should be able to rely on a consistent ground game in 2009, which will help Benn and the rest of the passing attack. Although he's spotty returning kickoffs, if he can become a stronger threat in that aspect of his game, he'll be another dark-horse for a spot in New York City.

Very Dark Horses

RB Jacquizz Rodgers, So., Oregon State
2008 stats: 259 att.; 1,253 yds.; 11 TDs

He was the little back that could. In 2008, Rodgers captured the imagination of college football fans everywhere when he single-handedly pantsed USC on Sept. 25 in front of a national audience. Rodgers missed the last two games, and barely played against Arizona, yet he still managed to be one of the most electrifying backs in the country. In his first 10 games, Rodgers was only held under 100 yards three times, but two of those were 94 and 99-yard efforts against Penn State and Washington. Even with the losses at receiver, Oregon State returns enough surrounding talent to keep Rodgers rolling in 2009. Should the Beavers get a few more upsets like last year's USC, "Quizz" can cruise into November as a bona-fide Heisman candidate.

RB Noel Devine, Jr., West Virginia
2008 stats: 206 att.; 1,289 yds; 4 TDs

Devine is one of the fastest running backs in college football, usually out-running defenses before they even know he's got the ball. However, with that speed comes the sacrifice of strength. Devine has never been able to carry the ball the way Steve Slaton did, and unless the offense can keep defenses occupied elsewhere, Devine isn't very effective. He averaged better than 10 yards per carry three times in 2008, but was held under four yards per carry four times. He gouged Auburn for 207 yards, but was smothered by Pitt for 17. West Virginia is still moving to a more pass-run oriented offense, as opposed to the pure run-spread under Rich Rod. Should the new quarterback be half as effective as Pat White was, Devine could gain good enough numbers for Heisman consideration.

RB Kendal Hunter, Jr., Oklahoma State
2008 stats: 241 att.; 1,555 yds.; 16 TDs

Hunter was another top play-maker in the Big XII South. But that was his problem. With all the other offensive juggernauts in that division, it was nearly impossible for a guy like Hunter, or his teammate Dez Bryant, to break out from under the Sooners and Longhorns. He rushed for 100 yards in all but four games, and was held under 84 yards only once. But Hunter is one of the few Heisman candidates to play with another this upcoming season. There's always the issue of vote-syphoning, where Bryant would take away votes from Hunter, should both of them be in the late-season running. But that doesn't negate that Hunter is a first-rate running back that should be in the conversation.

QB Todd Reesing, Sr., Kansas
2008 stats: (Pass) 66%; 3,880 yds.; 32 TDs; 13 INTs. (Rush) 224 yds, 4 TDs

Consider Reesing the modern day Doug Flutie. He's too short and will never make it in the NFL. At least, that's what we're told. With all the faults we can find with this quarterback, he's done the most with less than anyone else in the nation, including an Orange Bowl win in 2007. His numbers actually improved in 2008, a year after his initial Heisman consideration, but he was overtaken by the Big XII South quarterback machine. Reesing can jump right back into the race with another strong team record, and only a slight improvement to his own production.

QB Matt Grothe, Sr., South Florida
2008 stats: (Pass) 63%, 2911 yds.; 18 TDs; 14 INTs. (Rush) 591 yds.; 4 TDs

Last year was supposed to be USF's year, but things didn't turn out the way anyone expected. Grothe still had a very good year, even though his touchdown-interception ratio didn't get any better. As a true pass-run threat, he won't be able to overtake Tim Tebow in terms of hype, but he has the ability to carry is team on his back when necessary. If he can improve his passer rating in 2009 (he has to keep the INTs under five), we could be talking about Grothe as a possible vote-catcher in November. Even though it's out of his control, I do think the only real way he has a chance is if the Big East makes a huge leap forward as a conference. Three of the eight teams must win 10 games, while at least five have to go bowling. Unfair, but that's life.

QB Juice Williams, Sr., Illinois
2008 stats: (Pass) 57%; 3,173 yds.; 22 TDs; 16 INTs. (Rush) 719 yds; 5 TDs

Williams was thrown into the fire his freshman season, but that experience has paid big dividends. Illinois is still growing into its role as a top-half Big Ten team, and having two Heisman candidates, however slim the chances, is a big deal in Champaign. Williams was forced to take on the leadership role last year, after the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall. The run game was unreliable at best, so Williams took charge and had one of the best rushing performances for a quarterback last year. If he can reduce the number of interceptions, while maintaining his yardage production in the air and on the ground, Williams is deserving of some attention.

As Their Team Goes, So Go They (to NYC)

QB Jeremiah Masoli, Jr., Oregon
2008 stats: (Pass) 57%; 1,744 yds.; 13 TDs; 5 INTs. (Rush) 718 yds.; 10 TDs

Oregon went through a terrible year at quarterback, but all the injuries might have unearthed a diamond for the Ducks. Masoli played sparingly early on, but was called into action as the main man down the stretch. In the final four games, he proceeded to average nearly 270 yards per game, while throwing seven touchdowns to only one interception. His performance in the Holiday Bowl win over Oklahoma State earned him instant time in the spotlight, which could translate into even better footing for a Heisman campaign in 2009. Plus, with the preference given to quarterbacks that can run, his superb mobility will do him well.

RB Jahvid Best, Jr., Cal.
2008 stats: 194 att.; 1,580 yds.; 15 TDs

Best was the best unknown running back in 2008. He averaged better than eight yards per carry, but he was plagued by inconsistency. In his first two games against Michigan State and Washington State, Best ran for 311 yards and four touchdowns, but then against Maryland and Colorado State, he only managed 110 yards and no scores. His stock may have been slightly inflated late last year, after rolling for 714 yards in the final four games, but he's incredibly talented and should be given due consideration as a dark-horse.

RB Chris Brown, Sr., Oklahoma
2008 stats: 217 att.; 1,220 yds.; 20 TDs

If Murray was Reggie Bush, then Brown was LenDale White. Brown possesses a pure power-run style that most good teams lack, and was very effective against Florida in the BCS Championship Game. As the season went on, Brown seemed to get stronger each week, and closed out averaging 125 yards and 2.14 touchdowns over the last seven games. With the loss of four of Oklahoma's top five receivers, more emphasis could be placed on the run game in 2009, which will surely benefit Brown. But having to share touches with Murray could hurt Brown's Heisman chances.

RB Evan Royster, Jr., Penn State
2008 stats: 191 att.; 1,236 yds.; 12 TDs

Royster averaged a mere 14 carries per game, only once rushing more than 20 times in a game. Early in the season, Penn State was able to jump its opponents so quickly, there was no need for Royster, and the other starters, to stay in the game. That, combined with late season slugfests at Ohio State and Iowa, a sloppy rain-soaked win over Indiana, and the complete destruction of Michigan State by the Lions' passing game, created diminished stats for Royster overall. He was an incredibly fluid runner that never, ever went down on the first hit. Against Michigan, his 44-yard touchdown run came after nearly eight defenders were shaken loose at the line. Penn State loses three All-Big Ten linemen, but return First-Teamer Daryll Clark and speedy Stephfon Green. If his supporting cast can hold their own, Royster will easily top last year's numbers.

QB Jimmy Clausen, Jr., Notre Dame
2008 stats: (Pass) 61%; 3,172 yds.; 25 TDs; 17 INTs

Whether the Notre Dame haters want to admit it, Clausen made a marked improvement in 2008. He was still plagued by inconsistency, but with better, more experienced talent around him for 2009, Clausen should be in contention for the Heisman. He's less mobile than a rock, but shouldn't have to be if his numbers through the air continue to get better. I'm a bit worried that his 401-yard, five-touchdown outing against Hawaii in the bowl was a big over-hyped. However, sometimes it only takes one big game to launch a big next season.

QB Daryll Clark, Sr., Penn State
2008 stats: (Pass) 60%; 2,597 yds.; 19 TDs; 6 INTs. (Rush) 282 yds.; 10 TDs

Clark was Penn State's first first-team All-Big Ten quarterback since Kerry Collins in 1994. But unlike Collins' year, Clark returns for another go at it. While not putting up the monster numbers, Clark was one of the most efficient passers in the nation last year, his first on the job. Clark loses his top three receivers from 2008, but the talent is there waiting in the wings, along with one of the best rushing attacks in football to help. Clark could see more rushing attempts this year, which will help his case, as long as his passing numbers don't diminish. His interception count was low enough to get by, but a few more touchdowns through the air are absolutely necessary for 2009. Clark is still in need of a signature "Heisman moment," but it's not a priority if he leads the Lions to another Rose Bowl or better.

RB DeMarco Murray, Jr., Oklahoma
2008 stats: (Rush) 179 att., 1,002 yds; 14 TDs. (Recv.) 31 rec.; 395 yds; 4 TDs

Like Best, Murray was incredibly inconsistent in 2008, having broken the 100-yard mark only five times (only one coming against a ranked foe, Texas Tech), and being held under 80 yards three times. You could say his injuries were weighing tough on him, but that was only the last two games. Regardless, Murray is a home-run hitter when he's 100 percent, and adds an extra element in the receiving game, which will always help in the Heisman race. Unfortunately for him, he will be joined on the field by another Heisman candidate, Chris Brown.


The Frontrunners

If any of these guys don't make it to the Heisman ceremony again, it will be a shock. We all know them very well, so there's not much to debate right now.

QB Colt McCoy, Sr., Texas (2008 Heisman finalist)
2008 stats: (Pass) 77%; 3,859 yds.; 34 TDs; 8 INTs. (Rush) 561 yds.; 11 TDs

QB Sam Bradford, Jr., Oklahoma  (2008 Heisman winner) 
2008 stats: (Pass) 68%; 4,720 yds.; 50 TDs; 8 INTs

QB Tim Tebow, Sr., Florida  (2007 Heisman winner; 2008 finalist)
2008 stats: (Pass) 64%; 2,746 yds.; 30 TDs; 4 INTs. (Rush) 673 yds; 12 TD


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