5 Freshmen To Watch as Heisman Trophy Contenders in 2013
While the 2012 college football season heats up down the home stretch, let's take a few minutes to daydream about the future of our favorite sport.
There has been a strong crop of standout freshmen emerging around the country, all of whom play on nationally relevant, high-exposure teams.
This class of first-year ballers is so strong that one of them is in the Heisman Trophy discussion already, while two of them are favorites to make it to the BCS National Championship Game.
Each one of these young studs has excited his respective fanbase and has the home crowd salivating at the prospect of a breakout sophomore campaign.
So what does the future hold for these five freshman phenoms?
Well, if the here and now is any indication, Heisman hardware and crystal trophies look like serious possibilities in 2013.
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We all know the rich legacy of running backs in Tuscaloosa, but true freshman T.J. Yeldon has Alabama fans excited about the future of the Tide's ground attack.
Yeldon was tasked with filling the shoes of recent Alabama greats Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, both of whom found their way to New York as Heisman finalists.
No pressure, right?
Well, it goes without saying that Yeldon has answered the call, picking up right where his predecessors left off.
The 6'2", 216-pound power back has been the go-to guy on the ground for Bama in 2012, leading the Crimson Tide with 725 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
Yeldon also got his in the passing game, grabbing eight balls for 122 yards and a score.
The on-field results have been everything that Nick Saban could ask for, as the defending national champs are 9-0 with a clear path to return to the title game should they win out.
Additionally, Yeldon's success has taken major pressure off QB A.J. McCarron, giving the junior signal-caller a lethal running threat to open up the passing game.
And while McCarron may be the Bama player with the best shot at the Heisman today, Yeldon won't be too far behind as he develops into Saban's championship-winning system.
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True freshman running back Todd Gurley has been a force for Georgia this season, rumbling for 857 yards and 10 touchdowns on 138 attempts, which works out to a solid 6.2 yards per carry.
Gurley is on pace to become just the third first-year Bulldog to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season, and his YPC average is higher than eventual Heisman winner Herschel Walker's numbers in 1980.
In his collegiate debut, Gurley went for 100 yards and two TDs, despite getting just eight touches. He also found a way to get it done on special teams, taking a kickoff 100 yards to the house.
But Gurley's legs aren't his only weapons, as the Tarboro, N.C., native has also hauled in nine receptions for 80 yards, proving his worth in every aspect of the game.
Needless to say, the 6"1", 218-pound downhill runner has become quite popular in Athens and is expected to lead the Dawgs back to the SEC championship.
Sitting at 8-1 with a tiebreaker over Florida, Georgia just needs to knock off the lowly Auburn Tigers (2-7, 0-6 SEC) on Saturday to earn a trip back to the conference title game.
Regardless of the season's outcome for Georgia, the play of Gurley has been huge. He should only become more dominant as he adjusts to the college game and the speed of SEC defenses.
Look for Gurley to break out in 2013, tossing his hat into the Heisman ring early and often.
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Redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley won the starting job over two incumbent seniors early in fall practice and hasn't let up since.
Hundley has been phenomenal under center for the Bruins, leading UCLA to a 7-2 record, the program's best start since 2005.
At 6'3" and 223 pounds, Hundley is an unshakable force with a strong arm, a quick release and make-you-regret-blitzing escapability.
Through nine games, the Chandler, Ariz., product has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 2,478 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also tacked on six scores with his legs, including a 72-yard keeper on his first collegiate snap.
Before the calendar turned to October, Hundley had already become the first UCLA QB to ever record three consecutive 300-yard passing games. He has shown it wasn't a fluke either, as he has gone for over 200 yards in five other games this season.
But what's perhaps most intriguing about Hundley is his maturity and poise, which would make you question whether he is really 19 years old. As evidence, after face-planting at Cal with four picks in Week 6, Hundley has bounced back beautifully, tossing eight touchdowns to just one pick in three games.
His command of the offense and decision-making ability has grown every week, and he looks to be hitting his stride at just the right time.
If Hundley can lead UCLA past crosstown-rival Southern Cal, the Bruins will be heading to the Pac-12 Championship.
Look for Hundley's name to pop up on the Heisman radar rather quickly next season.
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When QB Darron Thomas elected to leave Eugene early for the NFL draft, most thought Oregon would take a major step back in 2012.
Sure, the Ducks still boasted some of the best running backs in the country with Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, but questions were rampant about how a championship-caliber team could do with no experience under center.
Enter Marcus Mariota, who has been downright unstoppable in his first collegiate season, taking the reins of the most prolific offense in college football without a hiccup.
Mariota burst onto the scene in his NCAA debut, tossing for 200 yards and three TDs with no interceptions. Since then, his numbers have remained consistently dominant, as he has piled up 1,787 yards passing with 22 touchdowns.
The 6'4", 196-pound specimen has also shown flashes of dual-threat versatility, rushing for 474 yards and three scores on the ground and hauling in a touchdown catch.
His only statistical demerits are five interceptions and 12 sacks, but those are acceptable numbers, especially for a first-year starter.
Mariota's production is an obvious reason to get excited for his future, but even more important is his character and leadership ability. The freshman has put the Ducks on his back and led his undefeated Top Five team through every challenge, including a media-frenzied showdown with USC in the L.A. Coliseum.
Not only did Mariota march Oregon to victory over the Trojans, he did it without breaking a sweat.
Mariota was crazy efficient, completing 20 of his 23 passes for 304 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. In case math isn't your strong suit, he connected on 87 percent of his passes, giving the emerging superstar a gaudy QB rating of 255.4.
If Mariota shows that kind of cool composure in his first season at the helm, there's no reason to think he won't become even more dominant as he gains experience.
And if he can lead the Ducks to the BCS title right away, Mariota is a safe bet for Heisman front runner heading into 2013.
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Preseason projections pegged first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin and the Texas A&M Aggies as cellar-dwellers in their inaugural SEC season.
But after 10 weeks of football, the reality is quite the opposite, thanks in large part to the play of the man, the myth, the legend..."Johnny Football."
Johnny Manziel, a redshirt freshman turned cultural sensation, has been an amazing find for Coach Sumlin. The 6'1", 200-pound big-play machine has carried the Aggies to a 7-2 overall record, with losses to perennial powers Florida and LSU by a combined eight points.
Manziel is the definition of dual threat, having scored 16 TDs through the air and 15 on the ground. He managed to find pay dirt with his legs in all but one game this season and has thrown for a monstrous 2,527 yards.
His coming-out party was on the road at a ranked Louisiana Tech, where Manziel was virtually untouchable, accounting for 576 yards of offense and six TDs. And every inch he gained was huge, as the Bulldogs took A&M to the wire in a 59-57 shootout.
Due to his incredible numbers against high-quality opponents, Manziel has already been hearing the Heisman hype despite his freshman standing.
If Manziel and the Aggies can find a way to upset No. 1 Alabama at Bryant-Denny this weekend, the legend of Johnny Football will spiral out of control.
After all, whoever owns the Southeastern Conference owns college football, and Texas A&M is on the verge of taking over in its first SEC season.
You can expect big things for Manziel this year and into the future, as he will be a real-deal contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2013.