Heisman Handicapper: Ranking the Top 20 Candidates Post-Spring Games

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2014

Heisman Handicapper: Ranking the Top 20 Candidates Post-Spring Games

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    As long as he can stay out of serious trouble this offseason—lest we forget last year's "Summer of Johnny"—Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will return to defend his Heisman Trophy as a redshirt sophomore in 2014.

    Competing to best him is a field of candidates who didn't come close last season, as the other five finalists who joined Winston in New York for the Heisman ceremony have all entered the 2014 NFL draft.

    But that doesn't mean there's a lack of quality options.

    Four quarterbacks who could have entered the NFL draft—and whom many experts were surprised to see return to school—highlight the cast that could knock Winston off his throne, along with some other talented QBs and running backs.

    Those players all have the capability to put up Heisman numbers—numbers that are, fair or not, required to win this award.

    If their teams have a successful season behind those numbers, they will turn their early candidacy into a Heisman nomination, a trip to New York and a potential victory.

    Or maybe the man to unseat Jameis will be a dark horse—the exact title Zac Ellis of SI.com gave to Winston at the start of last season.

    Here are some names to keep an eye on.

Lurking in the Weeds

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    QB Everett Golson/Malik Zaire, Notre Dame

    It's hard to list either when the starter seems in doubt. But whoever wins the job between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will have earned it against capable competition and will have a tough schedule that allows for some showcase moments.

     

    QB Maty Mauk, Missouri

    He played well in the spring game and has the dual-threat component of so many recent Heisman winners, but can Maty Mauk overcome the recent loss of WR Dorial Green-Beckham on an offense that already lost L'Damian Washington and Henry Josey?

     

    QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State

    Arizona State should take a big step back on defense, which will put more pressure than ever on the shoulders of Taylor Kelly. He's good enough to make a run—especially with receiver Jaelen Strong returning on the outside. But unless the Sun Devils contend for another Pac-12 title, he is not a realistic Heisman threat.

     

    QB Cody Kessler, USC

    This is still the quarterback position at USC, after all. And even though the offense struggled under Lane Kiffin, Cody Kessler came on down the stretch last year, has looked good in spring camp and still has a talented group of receivers, highlighted by Nelson Agholor. If the Trojans make a run in the Pac-12 South, Kessler will be a big reason why and could reap the benefits.

     

    QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall

    The numbers should be there for Rakeem Cato, but the Heisman will not go to a Conference-USA player—no matter his team's record or how many yards/touchdowns he accumulates. The best Cato can hope for is a Jordan Lynch-type invitation to New York.

20. QB Davis Webb, Texas Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Don't laugh. 

    Now the last man standing on the Texas Tech quarterback carousel, Davis Webb has a chance, in his sophomore year, to make a run at the Heisman Trophy—even if it's a little far-fetched.

    Head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M when Johnny Manziel won the Heisman two seasons ago, and Webb ended last season with the best performance of his young career, throwing for 403 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions on 28-of-41 passing in a Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.

    Webb's close to the season helped make Baker Mayfield expendable in Lubbock, and we all saw how good he looked in the spring game at his new school, Oklahoma. There's a reason Webb was able to beat such a quality player out: He, himself, is really quite good.

    If Texas Tech sticks around in the Big 12 title chase next season, Webb should have the numbers to merit Heisman consideration.

19. RB Karlos Williams, Florida State

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    Karlos Williams is not the top Heisman candidate on his own team, for obvious reasons, but that does not mean his candidacy should go overlooked.

    He certainly has the talent to get to New York. Williams was the No. 4 overall player on the 247Sports Composite in 2011, and even though he was projected as a linebacker or safety, he rushed for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 91 carries in his first year on offense (albeit mostly in garbage time).

    The situation stacks up nicely, too. Florida State returns four offensive linemen from one of the best units in college football, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. are gone from the backfield rotation and defenses will be zeroed in on stopping last year's Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Ryan Green, Mario Pender and early enrollee Dalvin Cook are all around to steal carries, and head coach Jimbo Fisher prefers to share the wealth among tailbacks to keep them fresh, which could throw a wrench in Williams' final numbers.

    But if FSU goes undefeated again, he will likely be a big reason why.

18. QB Bo Wallace, Ole Miss

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Bo Wallace is the most tenured starting quarterback in the SEC—how weird does that sound?—and has shown flashes of greatness these past two seasons. The only things holding him back, it seems, have been his inconsistent accuracy and (as a result) turnovers.

    But could it be that he's always just been injured?

    "I’ve never really been healthy my whole career here," said Wallace, according to Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "I’ve probably played two healthy games, and those were my first two my sophomore year."

    Wallace told Aschoff that his shoulder feels healthier now than at any point last year. If that's indeed the case, he and sophomore pass-catchers Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram could form a dangerous connection behind the strength of a talented offensive line.

    Stranger things have happened.

17. RB Derrick Henry, Alabama

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    On talent alone, Derrick Henry would rank much higher on this list.

    I don't care what anyone says about sample size: That beast I saw running in the Sugar Bowl is the scariest thing I've seen in college football since Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma.

    Seriously.

    The only reason Henry ranks this low is opportunity. His backfield companion, T.J. Yeldon, is more experienced and ranks higher on this list. He's a safer bet than Henry to receive the majority of carries, although it's unclear how, exactly, the workload will be split.

    Still, new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin managed a similar binary with Reggie Bush and LenDale White at USC in 2005.

    During that season, White, who is nowhere near the talented runner Henry is, went for 1,521 total yards and 26 total touchdowns in the power back role behind Bush. And Yeldon, while good, is not the once-in-a-lifetime talent Bush was, so Henry should see even more touches than White did that year.

    Especially with some unrest at the quarterback position, Kiffin and head coach Nick Saban will lean heavily on their two running backs this season. Henry should have a chance to make his mark.

16. QB Sean Mannion, Oregon State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Sean Mannion led all power-conference quarterbacks in passing yards per game last season (358.6), trailing only Derek Carr at Fresno State for the overall FBS lead.

    He also tied for second with 37 touchdown passes by a power-conference QB, sandwiching him between a pair of players—No. 1 Jameis Winston (40) and fellow No. 2 Johnny Manziel (37)—who have won the last two Heismans.

    So why shouldn't Mannion contend in 2014?

    Because he lost Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks? Sure, yeah, that hurts. But Oregon State returns its other four players who had more than 300 receiving yards last season, and an improved offensive line should give it at least a semblance of a running game—sort of like it had in 2012—to keep defenses honest.

    Cooks was the best player on this offense last season, but Mannion wasn't far behind. He'll get the respect he deserves, finally, if he puts up similar numbers after losing such a potent weapon.

15. RB Duke Johnson, Miami

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    If healthy, Duke Johnson might be the best all-purpose back in the country. No player poses such a distinct threat both carrying the football and catching it out of the backfield.

    So far, the rehab has sounded good. In mid-April, Johnson said his ankle "couldn't feel any better right now," per Christy Chirinos of the South Florida Sun-Sentineland that he plans on resting up the next few months to make sure he is full go for the season.

    Miami's going to need him. Even before presumed starting quarterback Ryan Williams tore his ACL, the graduation of longtime starter Stephen Morris meant this offense was going to revolve around getting Johnson the football.

    Now, it looks more like he'll see a Le'Veon Bell-type workload.

    That could bode well for his Heisman chances.

14. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    According to ESPN's Total QBR metric, which takes rushing numbers and strength of opponent into account, Dak Prescott was the No. 10 quarterback in the country last season, placing ahead of AJ McCarron, Braxton Miller, Teddy Bridgewater, Connor Shaw, Tajh Boyd, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and other more well-known commodities.

    Dak Prescott!

    There is reason to believe he'll be even better this season, too.

    Prescott wasn't even the starter to begin 2013, backing up Tyler Russell, and an offseason working with the "ones" should do well to improve his rapport.

    What's more, 17 of the 18 players who caught a pass for the Bulldogs last season were freshmen, sophomores or juniors, with only running back LaDarius Perkins graduating this offseason. Prescott's receiving corps is wholly intact, and it looked that way when MSU's top three quarterbacks combined to throw for 653 yards during its spring game, per The Associated Press.

    This team—and player—might be the biggest sleeper in the SEC.

13. QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma

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    Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    Trevor Knight looked bad in the Oklahoma spring game, getting outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield—the man Davis Webb made expendable—and generally showing a lack of command.

    In most cases, this would be nothing to worry about—especially for a Heisman candidate. For Knight, however, it felt more important than a tiny spring screwup. It felt like it actually mattered.

    Why?

    Because Knight didn't exactly set the world on fire last season.

    He was benched more than once for Blake Bell and is (mostly) only considered a Heisman candidate because of how he played against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl upset in January.

    When he's on, Knight is a poor man's version of Johnny Manziel—which is intended as a compliment. He plays for the tentative Big 12 favorite and has a great defense and decent cast of weapons around him. These are all things that work in favor of his candidacy.

    The only thing that can stop him, it seems, is himself.

12. RB Mike Davis, South Carolina

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    Mike Davis moves like a faster version of Ray Rice: He's small but compact, and he's not afraid to initiate contact on the edge.

    As a true sophomore in 2013, that led to 203 carries for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns. Decent numbers, for sure, but not something that would put him in Heisman contention.

    However, the departure of quarterback Connor Shaw could do wonders for Davis' production. Shaw was more mobile than most folks—the uninitiated—gave him credit for and finished last year with 558 rushing yards on 154 carries.

    I repeat: 154 carries!

    Brandon Wilds is still around to poach some touches. But for the most part, the brunt of those lost Shaw carries will go to Davis, who is, as alluded to by Adam Kramer in the video above, talented enough to be the best running back in college football next season.

    And the best running back in college football—especially on a team that has made 10 wins the norm—should always be a candidate for this award.

11. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Before the start of spring camp, I was critical of the Connor Cook postseason-accolade bandwagon, ranking him No. 7 on a list of contenders for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and calling his Heisman odds—18-1—a sucker bet for anyone who takes them.

    Many of my concerns still exist. Michigan State has been a run-first, ball-control offense these past few seasons, and fair or not, winning the Heisman requires lofty numbers.

    I don't know if Cook can get there.

    However, Cook's performance in spring practice was encouraging, and it looked like the time he spent with George Whitfield in San Diego this offseason made him a more consistent player.

    He guided the winning drive in the spring game last weekend, per Brian Bennett of ESPN.com, and helped the offense (for once) look decent against the MSU defense this early in the season.

    If he can cut down the stupid interceptions—lest we forget this egregious pick-six in the Rose Bowl, which was supposedly the best game of his career—Michigan State has a chance to pick up where it left off and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

    If the team makes it that far, Cook will (at least) make it to New York.

10. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Ameer Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards last season—more than any returning player in college football.

    He did so on "just" 281 carries also, which was fewer than all five players who finished ahead of him, sans Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews. And there's a difference between doing this against the Sun Belt and doing it against the Big Ten.

    This season, Nebraska knows from the onset what kind of team it will be. Taylor Martinez is gone, and head coach Bo Pelini knows he must rely on his tailbacks—both Abdullah and Imani Cross—to carry the offense through conference play.

    Those carries should move into the low 300s this season, and there's no reason to think Abdullah is not up for the task.

9. RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Yes, as alluded to earlier, Derrick Henry is a beast and will take some touches away from T.J. Yeldon this season.

    So what?

    Mark Ingram won the Heisman with Trent Richardson poaching his carries in 2009, and if the spring game was any indication—which, for a number of reasons, it might not have been—this year's Alabama team might have to rely on the run even more than that one did.

    Yeldon is still a fantastic player in his own right, and he's coming off his third consecutive MVP performance at the Alabama spring game, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com.

    On an offense that projects to have the best rushing attack in the country, per Football Study Hall, there is room for two Heisman candidates—and maybe even one Heisman winner—in the backfield.

8. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Melvin Gordon plays like Jamaal Charles reincarnated, and now that he finally has a chance to be the No. 1 back after years spent running behind James White and/or Montee Ball, he could easily put up the same type of numbers Charles did at Texas in 2007...only better.

    Gordon did, after all, need just 208 carries to reach 1,609 yards last season—good for an average of 7.81 yards per attempt. He also finished third in Highlight Yards at Football Study Hall, behind just Andre Williams and Jordan Lynch and ahead of every returning player.

    We know Gordon's carries will go up this season, although, with Corey Clement also in the backfield rotation, it is unclear by how much.

    Let's assume for the time being that he gets between 250-275 carries. Based on his per-attempt numbers from 2013, Gordon's totals would inflate into the realm of 1,950-2,150 rushing yards with 14-16 rushing touchdowns—or, as some might call them, Heisman-type numbers.

    Who's to say what will happen if his carries get up to 300?

7. RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley is an animal.

    Bleacher Report's Michael Felder ranked him No. 17 overall in last year's CFB 250 series, ahead of every other running back in college football and every returning player sans Leonard Williams, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Jameis Winston.

    This season, unlike his breakout freshman and injury-plagued sophomore campaigns, Aaron Murray will not be taking the snaps in Athens, which should put an even bigger onus on the running game.

    Hutson Mason looks like a capable replacement for Murray under center—he's certainly been training for this moment long enough—but the Bulldogs have delusions of College Football Playoff-sized grandeur this season, and they know their best chance to get there is by riding the country's top ball-carrier.

    If he's healthy, Gurley could put up scary-big numbers this season.

6. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Brett Hundley unlocked his potential at the end of last season, using his legs as a primary weapon (as opposed to a bailout strategy) and rushing for 241 yards in wins over USC and Virginia Tech in the Bruins' final two games.

    This is important for a number of reasons.

    Primarily, it was just impressive. USC and Virginia Tech were the fifth- and third-best defenses in the country, respectively, according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, and Hundley made running through them look far easier than it actually was.

    More than that, though, it gave teams a new dynamic to worry about when scheming to stop Hundley, which should open up more room for him as a passer. For someone who finished seventh overall (and fourth among returning players) in ESPN's Total QBR, it's almost scary to think what his efficiency numbers might look like in 2014.

    I've been high on UCLA this entire offseason, and if the Bruins do as I predict—i.e., contend for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff—Hundley has a real chance of winning this award.

    He can get there if he stops taking so many sacks.

5. QB Bryce Petty, Baylor

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Baylor's offense loses running back Lache Seastrunk, wide receiver Tevin Reese and guard Cyril Richardson—three players who, when on, played like All-Americans—but still might be just as good as last year's Big 12 champion in 2014.

    If Bryce Petty keeps improving, it might be even better.

    Petty didn't appear to miss a beat during the spring game, completing 10 of 15 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns, despite head coach Art Briles resting some of his projected top skill players and breaking in some of the young prospects he appears so keen on.

    With Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood, Corey Coleman and a deep stable of young, scheme-tailored pass-catchers returning—or incoming—Petty has all the weapons he needs to repeat his numbers from last season, in which he finished second in the country behind Jameis Winston with a QB rating of 174.29 and with a TD-INT ratio of 32-3.

    Heading into the season, he's one of the safest bets on the board.

4. QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    We all know Nick Marshall can run.

    The converted defensive back made that clear alongside Tre Mason last season, leading Auburn to the SEC championship and within seconds of a national title despite throwing for less than 2,000 yards.

    If the spring game was any indication, however, Marshall has grown a lot as a passer this offseason, and without Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson, the running game, while still great, might take a teeny step back in 2014, putting more pressure on Marshall to produce.

    In this regard, the addition of receiver D'haquille "Duke" Willaims, the top-ranked JUCO player on the 247Sports Composite, should be a boon. He looked every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver during spring camp, and Marshall connected with him on a beautiful back-corner fade for a touchdown on A-Day.

    The passing game and defense should both be improved at Auburn, and Marshall still has his legs to rely on when the going gets tough (or he needs to pad some Heisman stats).

    The momentum is flowing his direction.

3. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Braxton Miller might, unthinkably, still be underrated.

    Critics will point to his two-game losing streak at the end of last season—his first two losses since Urban Meyer arrived, mind you—and say it proves he can't handle the spotlight, or win the big one, or some other trite football platitude that doesn't mean squat.

    Those weren't exactly push-over defenses, after all. According to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, Michigan State ranked No. 2 and Clemson ranked No. 13 in the country. And Braxton still hung 142 rushing yards on the former and 35 points on the latter.

    There's a reason he's won two straight Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards, and there's a reason Ohio State hadn't lost in two years until the end of last season. Miller puts up numbers through the air and on the ground, and he wins a lot of football games.

    To me, that sounds like a good Heisman formula.

2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Marcus Mariota was the Heisman front-runner for much of last season, but a knee injury took a toll on his performance, Oregon lost ugly games against Stanford and Arizona, and before long, he wasn't even suitable enough to be invited to New York for the ceremony.

    If he's healthy, that should all change in 2014.

    Yes, the Ducks lost Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins to graduation and Bralon Addison to a torn ACL this spring, but this team recruits speed well and has never had trouble replacing talent on the outside.

    Even if it requires a learning curve—and even if Michigan State is not an ideal Week 2 opponent to play during said learning curve—he will find a way to run this offense properly.

    Despite the injured knee that had a palpable effect on his form, Mariota still finished first in ESPN's Total QBR last season—ahead of Jameis Winston, ahead of Johnny Manziel, ahead of Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, the whole lot of them.

    It's hard not to bet on a guy this good in an offense this fast.

1. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    There are things working against Jameis Winston, no doubt.

    That he found himself back in the news (and on the wrong side of the law) for lifting crab legs from a supermarket is troubling, as is the loss of Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr., Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and Bryan Stork from the offense.

    There's also the curse of the repeat Heisman candidate. No player has won two since Archie Griffin at Ohio State in 1974 and 1975, with Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow most recently attempting the feat but coming up short in their bids.

    Still, after the redshirt freshman season Winston just had, it would be blasphemous to rank him anywhere but first to start the year. He did lead the nation in QB rating—by a long shot—and he did lead his team to an undefeated record and national championship.

    If all odds were the same, he is still where the smart money would lie.