Pac-12 Football: Who Are the Dark-Horse 2014 Heisman Candidates?

Kyle KensingContributor IJanuary 24, 2014

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College football's most prestigious individual award has eluded the Pac-12 for eight years—nine if you believe asterisks work as mind-erasing devices. The conference is ready to welcome back the Heisman Trophy in 2014 and two of its quarterbacks are at the forefront of a very early conversation. 

Of course, most who follow college football are well aware of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, both of whom spurned the NFL draft to return for their redshirt junior seasons.

That the two are recognized for their prior accomplishments and high potential might actually be a Heisman burden. 

Recent precedent suggests beginning a season as a Heisman front-runner is more detrimental than beneficial. Three of the last four recipients were first-year starters and the fourth emerged from national obscurity as captain of a once-perpetually downtrodden Baylor program. 

Following this trend, the Pac-12 will need a surprise contender to lead the charge for the trophy. There is no shortage of capable contenders. 

The Heisman Trophy is a quarterback's award, thus the position is the logical starting point when looking for candidates. One need not look to hard to find a candidate in the Pac-12: The conference returns a remarkable nine starting quarterbacks—10 if Utah's Travis Wilson receives medical clearance to return in 2014. 

Oregon State's Sean Mannion set a Pac-12 passing record in 2013 with 4,662 yards and generated some modest Heisman buzz before the Beavers suffered a late-season collapse. Oregon State's struggles were a byproduct of Mannion having to put up such gaudy passing numbers. 

The Beavers' run game was inconsistent at best for most of the season, but picked up in their final two outings and Oregon State's offense as a whole was better for it.

Mannion may not break his own record next season, but if he leads Oregon State into Pac-12 North contention, expect his name to reemerge in the Heisman conversation. 

Another returning quarterback who stuffed stat sheets in 2013 is Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. "That's like having an offensive coordinator on the field," coach Todd Graham said of his QB during a conference call.

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Perhaps Kelly is deserving of the title of triple-threat quarterback. Dual-threat is already an oft-used term describing quarterbacks equally dangerous with the rush as the pass and Kelly was especially so, going for 28 passing touchdowns and nine more on the ground. 

The bevy of experienced quarterbacks in the Pac-12 fold competing for the Heisman goes against the recent trend of first-year signal-callers claiming the award. 

Washington's Cyler Miles differs from the last two Heisman winners (Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston) in that he has college game experience. He filled in capably for an injured Keith Price in wins over Oregon State and Brigham Young. Miles is an excellent ball-carrier and showed off a nice passing touch in a loss at UCLA. 

Miles is not the Huskies' guaranteed starter heading into spring practices, as Jeff Lindquist should compete. Then again, neither Manziel nor Winston were named starters until just days before their Heisman-winning campaigns. 

Should quarterbacks' stranglehold on the Heisman be loosened, it would only be fitting for a program known for its running backs to end the streak. 

USC's Buck Allen was a headline-maker in the second half of 2013, progressing from relative obscurity on the stacked depth chart to become one of the conference's most productive ball-carriers. 

He'll have to compete with the many other talented Trojans running backs on the roster for touches, including 2013 Week 1 starter Tre Madden. However, new head coach Steve Sarkisian's hurry-up offense should result in more opportunities.   

Running backs have a tough road to the Heisman, but the odds of a wide receiver ending the run of quarterback-claimed Heismans are slim to none. If one does defy those odds, look no further than Stanford's Ty Montgomery. 

Okay, so on a run-heavy offensive team, "none" is an overwhelming favorite against "slim" for a wide receiver to compete for the Heisman. Even as the team's big-play threat in the passing game, Montgomery needs to do quite a bit more.

Last season, he did just that.

Montgomery doubled as the Cardinal's kick returner and was among the nation's best at it. Only Florida State's Levonte Whitfield averaged more yards per return than Montgomery's 30.31, and he returned two for touchdowns.

Desmond Howard was the second and last wide receiver to win the Heisman, doing so in 1991 when he too doubled up as an offensive and special teams weapon. One will read and hear of a "Heisman moment," a seminal play that defines a contender's case for the award. 

Howard provided one of the quintessential Heisman moments against rival Ohio State. Perhaps a similar moment from Montgomery can live in college football lore. 

The multi-positional standout is a rare breed and few are as rare as UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.

Defensive players simply don't win the award. Ndamukong Suh and Manti Te'o were finalists in 2009 and 2012, respectively, but that's as close as a defender has come since Michigan's Charles Woodson became the only one to do it in 1997. 

Woodson's case was solidified by his contributions in all three phases, which Jack can do and has done. Jack commanded national attention in the final month of the 2013 regular season by filling in at running back and scoring six rushing touchdowns, including four in a prime-time broadcast against Washington.

UCLA should have a healthier running back corps next season, so Jack's services may not be needed on offense. However, rumbling a few more carries into the end zone may encourage voters to actually consider his outstanding work on the defensive side. 

Maybe, just maybe, Heisman Trophy voters are ready to acknowledge the importance of other positions to a team's success. Without a great offensive line, a quarterback won't flourish and Mariota is playing behind an outstanding front five.

Perhaps the award is ready to evolve to a point where center Hroniss Grasu can hoist the hardware? 

Eh, maybe not. 


Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.