5 Dark-Horse Contenders for 2014 Heisman Trophy

Jeff BellCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2014

5 Dark-Horse Contenders for 2014 Heisman Trophy

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    BYU QB Taysom Hill
    BYU QB Taysom HillEd Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    It's never too early to begin looking at the college football players who will have the biggest impact on the 2014 season. Though we're still many months away from meaningful games, we're taking an early look at who belongs on a list of dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidates.

    Sometime around late July, you'll see preseason articles popping up everywhere, and the most prestigious award in sports is always a hot topic of discussion. The favorites—even from where we stand today—are obvious. There's the reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston at Florida State, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

    Lumped in with those three will be a handful of viable candidates like UCLA's Brett Hundley, Georgia's Todd Gurley or any one of Alabama's lab-created running backs. You might even throw in a guy like Trevor Knight at Oklahoma, if only because of what he was able to do against the Crimson Tide defense in the Sooners' Sugar Bowl victory.

    Finally, in the closing portion of these lists, you'll get the dark-horse crew. These are players who have a lot of potential to do great things but will need to make strong statements to climb onto the leaderboard.

    There are dark-horse candidates all around the country, but we've settled on these five as players to look out for when college football resumes. Feel free to share in the comments who you think could come out of nowhere to snare the stiff-arm statue.

     

    All stats via cfbstats.com

Duke QB Anthony Boone

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    QB Anthony Boone
    QB Anthony BooneDale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Yes, we're sure this isn't a look at Naismith Trophy candidates and no, shredding Texas A&M's defense shouldn't automatically boost a player's stock.

    But in passing for 427 yards and three touchdowns in the Blue Devils' bowl loss to the Aggies, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone showed why he should not be taken lightly in 2014.

    His mobility is certainly an asset when it comes to the Heisman Trophy race, as players who have a variety of tools tend to win favor with voters. In 2013, Boone rushed for just over 200 yards and five touchdowns, which is remarkably similar to what the most recent winner, Florida State's Jameis Winston, rushed for.

    Boone's passing numbers, however, aren't going to jump off the page in any way. He threw for 2,260 yards with 13 touchdowns, but also had 13 interceptions. Remember, though, that Boone started out the season in a battle with quarterback Brandon Connette, who saw the majority of snaps throughout September.

    A breakout performance against Navy in which Boone completed 31 of 38 passes for 295 yards and three scores gave him the starting job, which he would never relinquish.

    The biggest thing going for most of the dark-horse candidates is potential, because if they were proven playmakers of the highest order, they would be in the "favorites" category. But you also have to consider their respective situations, and Boone has a host of weapons returning to the offense.

    Start with star wideout Jamison Crowder, who had over 1,300 yards receiving. There's also tight end Braxton Deaver, who had 600 yards receiving. Finally, the Blue Devils will miss both Clemson and Florida State in the regular season, and while big games can help a player's Heisman candidacy, so can piling up wins.

    Boone may have a lot of work to do in the offseason, but don't be shocked to see him become one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in 2014.

Missouri QB Maty Mauk

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    QB Maty Mauk
    QB Maty MaukKevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    With senior quarterback James Franklin departing, the signal-calling duties at Missouri will now likely belong to Maty Mauk.

    Mauk is arguably already a better player than Franklin, though that's not meant to diminish what the senior accomplished in his final year. Mauk simply brings a different level of athleticism to the position, as evidenced by his 13-carry, 114-yard effort against Tennessee or his three carries for 73 yards against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

    But in order to jump into the Heisman Race, you have to be more than just a dynamic athlete. For quarterbacks, strong passing is a must, and in the four games Mauk started this season in place of the injured Franklin he threw 10 total touchdowns with just two picks.

    His completion percentage sits at just above 50 percent, so accuracy will undoubtedly a focal point of his offseason work. But he'll have the benefit of throwing passes to monster wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who had nearly 900 yards receiving and 12 scores in 2013.

    Another challenge facing Mauk is the fact that his Tigers are no longer under the radar. After winning the SEC East, they'll be the hunted in 2014, and there's little chance of Mauk and company sneaking up on anybody. But with the defense losing some key players such as defensive end Kony Ealy, Gary Pinkel's squad may be involved in a few more shootouts.

    Shootouts, quarterback Johnny Manziel could tell you, are not a bad thing for a quarterbacks' stat-line.

    There are a ton of good players in the SEC, and because we caught a glimpse of Mauk's potential this season, his skill set isn't going to surprise anybody in the future. But if he can improve his accuracy and continue to utilize his legs in the run game, Mauk will quickly move onto the national radar.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

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    RB Jeremy Langford
    RB Jeremy LangfordKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Because of backfield stars like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, Auburn's Tre Mason and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, it's likely that few people are aware of just how great Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford was in 2013.

    The junior had 1,422 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. In the receiving game, he caught 28 balls for 157 yards and another score. And with 292 carries on the season, he averaged nearly 21 carries per game.

    The reasoning behind Langford's inclusion here is simple: the Spartans are a run-first team that, when presented with a lead, will slow things down and pile up ground yards faster than the clock can move. Langford is often the beneficiary of that strategy, which isn't going to change in the offseason.

    But the Heisman Trophy only goes to quarterbacks now, right? Though that has been the recent trend, that doesn't mean it's impossible for a running back to claim the award. It could mean that backs will have to be extra special to get their due, and Michigan State's trip to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks will give Langford a chance to be exactly that.

    There's no doubt that running backs are at a disadvantage in the race for the Heisman, because quarterbacks are the ones that touch the ball on nearly every offensive snap. But Langford is going to get plenty of carries and a number of tough defenses in Big Ten play, giving him further chances to prove himself.

    If he can up his yards-per-carry (4.87 in 2013) and become a little more involved in the passing game, he'll have a chance to be the best running back in the country. And if he can earn that title, the Heisman will certainly be within reach.

Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

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    QB Taylor Kelly
    QB Taylor KellyMichael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Spo

    Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly's stock took a big hit after he managed just 125 yards passing in the Sun Devils' 37-23 bowl loss to Texas Tech.

    For anyone who had heard about how underrated Kelly's abilities were, it was a disappointing effort and one from which Kelly could have a hard time bouncing back. But that one game shouldn't deter anyone from appreciating what the dual-threat junior accomplished in 2013.

    On the season, Kelly threw for over 3,600 yards and 28 touchdowns. He did throw 12 picks, but he countered those by rushing for 608 yards and another nine scores. Anytime you account for 37 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards of total offense, you're doing something right.

    Like Mauk, Kelly will see his team's defense take a step back with the departure of key players such as defensive tackle Will Sutton and safety Alden Darby. However, that could mean that Kelly will be required to do even more in order to help his team win, and if he improves upon his numbers from this past season, he'll easily enter into Heisman territory.

    Of course, any more games like the one he put up against the Red Raiders and Kelly won't sniff any Heisman lists.

    But he has all the tools you need to be an accomplished dual-threat quarterback, and if he can put the Sun Devils on his back and lead them to another appearance in the Pac-12 title game, Kelly won't be the "underrated player you've only seen once or twice" any longer.

BYU QB Taysom Hill

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    QB Taysom Hill
    QB Taysom HillThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The next and final dual-threat quarterback on the list is much like the previous one: He had a poor showing in his bowl game and will enter the offseason without much buzz.

    However, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is in great position as a dark-horse candidate for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.

    This past season saw Hill throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, but his 14 interceptions remains an eyesore. If those numbers were at the top of his resume, calling him even a dark-horse candidate would be overzealous. But Hill basically had the equivalent of an excellent season for a running back as well, rushing for over 1,300 yards and another 10 touchdowns.

    Like everyone else on this list, Hill has a lot to work on in order to be mentioned alongside the best players in the game. But the Cougars' schedule next year sets up as a potential tour de force for Hill and company.

    BYU will play Texas and new coach Charlie Strong in Austin, and it also travels to UCF, Boise State, UConn and Cal.

    Hill's top two targets—wide receivers Cody Hoffman and Skyler Ridley—are both graduating, but with his ability to make things happen on the ground, his numbers might not suffer.

    As we saw in his performance against the Washington Huskies, Hill is far from a polished product. But the 6'2" 221-pound signal-caller is only a sophomore. If natural maturation and improvement occurs, he could be one of the nation's best players in 2014.