College Football Underclassmen with Best Shot to Win Heisman Before Graduation
The Heisman is a young man's trophy.
Though seniors still make up the bulk of the trophy's 79 winners since 1935, over the past decade, the underclassmen have taken over when it comes to winning the award given to college football's top player. Things have skewed even younger the past two seasons, with Johnny Manziel and then Jameis Winston winning as redshirt freshmen.
Until Tim Tebow in 2007, no player with more than one year of college eligibility won the award, and that started a run of three straight sophomores taking the trophy.
Because of this, we can no longer just look to the junior and senior classes for Heisman candidates. Though there are plenty to choose from, the crop of underclassmen who could vie for the Heisman over the next few years is as plentiful as ever.
Taking out reigning Heisman winner Winston, here's our look at the 10 underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) with the best chance to claim the trophy between now and when their college careers are over.
10. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
Big numbers often lead to big awards, and there aren't going to be many quarterbacks putting up numbers bigger than the ones Davis Webb will be recording in Texas Tech's backfield.
It's been a rotating cast of characters at that position over the last decade, though, with the Red Raiders using three different guys last season. But Webb made the most of his turn at the controls in the Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns, and he's locked in as the starter for 2014.
The 6'4", 195-pound Webb put up the most yards ever for a true freshman quarterback at Texas Tech, and assuming he continues to hold that job and keeps churning out big numbers, he'll have a chance to be his school's first-ever Heisman winner. The Raiders will need to win, though, as the Heisman tends to go to a player on one of the best teams each season.
9. Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee
Year: True freshman
First impressions go a long way toward helping enhance a player's reputation. Just ask Jameis Winston, whose near-perfect college debut at Pittsburgh on Labor Day weekend last year set the stage for his runaway Heisman victory.
Josh Malone's official premiere will be in a similar scenario, albeit with slightly less national attention, when Tennessee opens the 2014 season at home Aug. 31 against Utah State.
But that's OK, because Malone got the ball rolling on his coming-out party with an amazing performance in the Volunteers' spring game. The 6'3", 195-pound wideout had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns, turning Neyland Stadium into a sea of 65,000 giddy and ecstatic orange-clad fans.
Malone should have a chance to put up big numbers in his first season, and while he might not be able to do enough to vie for the Heisman in 2014, he could help set the stage for a contention later on in his career. Wide receivers have only won the award twice, but Malone could change that.
8. Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
Year: True freshman
To hear Michigan fans talk about incoming recruit Jabrill Peppers, you'd think they were talking about the second coming of Charles Woodson rather than a 5-star prospect who hasn't even enrolled in school yet. But then again, the Wolverines haven't had a player with this type of two-way potential since Woodson, who also happened to be the school's last Heisman winner back in 1997.
The 6'1", 205-pound Peppers was a star cornerback in high school, where he's apt to play right away for Michigan. But he's also shown great success as an offensive player and a special teamer, as shown in the Under Armour All-America Game when he completed a pass, returned two kickoffs and blocked a field goal that led to a negated touchdown.
If Peppers were to play both ways, it would definitely beef up his Heisman stock, since defense-only guys haven't gotten much love from the voters of late. Michigan can use all the help it can get on offense, and having a special athlete such as Peppers catching passes or taking handoffs could turn him into a legitimate candidate within a year or two.
7. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
A wide receiver hasn't won the Heisman since 1987, when Desmond Howard rode his great receiving and return skills—not to mention a pretty spot-on version of the Heisman pose—to victory. Tyler Boyd hasn't shown us his statue impression yet, but everything else points toward an award-winning career.
The 6'2", 185-pound Boyd put up very unfreshman-like numbers in 2013, setting school freshman records for yards (1,174) and touchdowns (seven) to surpass marks previously held by Larry Fitzgerald. His 85 receptions were also the second-most in school history and beat the ACC record for a freshman previously held by former Clemson star Sammy Watkins.
Boyd also showed off his return skills at the end of last season, returning a punt 54 yards for a touchdown as part of a 242-yard all-purpose effort in Pittsburgh's bowl win over Bowling Green. Another year or two like that, and Boyd could best another feat of Fitzgerald's, that being a runner-up Heisman finish in 2003.
6. Myles Jack, RB/LB, UCLA
The bona fide two-way star hasn't been that prevalent in college football during the past decade, but Myles Jack showed just how exciting that kind of player can be last year. After his sudden insertion at running back for UCLA in early November, Jack took the country by storm with six rushing touchdowns on just a handful of carries.
That was while still starting at linebacker for the Bruins, which is where he'll be when the 2014 season begins. The 6'1", 230-pound Jack is far more valuable on that side of the ball, especially with Anthony Barr off to the NFL, and last year, he had 75 tackles. That was second-most in school history for a freshman.
The idea of Jack playing on both sides regularly doesn't appear to be in the cards for UCLA, but stranger things have happened. If injuries or ineffectiveness plague the Bruins backfield, like in 2013, don't be surprised if Jack is back there again. And if the same results occur, don't be surprised if his Heisman stock takes a huge leap.
5. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for just 471 yards in Oklahoma's first 12 games, seven of which he didn't play in, Trevor Knight seemed to be a completely different player when he ripped through Alabama's vaunted defense to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. And, just as suddenly, Knight was a trendy pick for the 2014 Heisman.
Oddsmakers think the same, as Knight opened as a 25-1 pick for the Heisman, per Odds Shark. While it seems like this is all because of one game, Knight showed flashes of future promise at numerous times in 2013, such as when he threw for 171 yards and ran for 82 against Kansas State.
That came while in a season-long battle with Blake Bell for playing time, but now that Knight is firmly entrenched as Oklahoma's quarterback, he'll have had an entire offseason to prepare for the full-time gig. Sooner passers have won a pair of Heismans since 2003, and with that kind of history behind him, it won't be hard for Knight to get media backing for another trophy.
4. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
It's very understandable that an Alabama running back is finding his name on early Heisman watch lists, but it's not just T.J. Yeldon who's garnering such advance praise.
Derrick Henry is on the radars of Heisman Pundit and Sports Illustrated, this despite only getting a few brief chances to perform thanks to the presence of Yeldon and Kenyan Drake ahead of him. The 6'3", 238-pound Henry had 394 yards, but that came on just 35 carries, including 100 yards and a touchdown on eight rushes and a 61-yard TD reception in the Sugar Bowl.
That one game is what launched Henry into the discussion, but he's really just following Alabama's recent running back trend. A highly touted recruit who set national rushing records in high school, he's having to take what's given to him until the more experienced guys move on, much like Mark Ingram did as a freshman in 2008 before winning the Heisman in 2009.
3. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Year: True freshman
Not every Heisman winner comes into college as a 5-star recruit (Johnny Manziel only garnered three stars from most scouting services, including 247Sports' composite rankings, Scout.com and Rivals.com), but the ones who do, often also come in with a level of hype that puts them into instant contention for numerous awards.
Leonard Fournette is no different, as the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class comes to LSU with some of the highest expectations of any high school player in years. But the 6'1", 226-pound running back seems ready to take on all that conjecture, telling Sports Illustrated's Ben Glicksman that he wants to be a Heisman candidate, All-American and national champion.
Fournette has yet to take a snap, but as the Tigers' projected starting running back and with a coach in Les Miles who will maximize his talent and abilities, the lofty expectations aren't that far-fetched.
2. Max Browne, QB, USC
Year: Redshirt freshman
We can't have a list of underclassmen with great chances to win a Heisman without tapping into the fertile redshirt freshman market, which has given us our last two winners. Of this year's crop of guys who sat out their first season of college ball for various reasons, Max Browne looks the most promising.
There's a caveat to this, though: As it stands, the 6'5", 215-pound Browne doesn't know when he'll make his USC debut, since Cody Kessler has been announced as the Trojans' starting quarterback after a competition during spring practice.
Browne might see time in mop-up duty or in dedicated packages, or he could come on in relief of an injured or ineffective Kessler and, reminiscent of Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, join the long list of USC players to win the Heisman, including quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart in 2002 and 2004.
1. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
Year: True freshman
No list of potential underclassmen who could win the Heisman is complete without an heir apparent or two to recent winners. But Jameis Winston's successor can't be named until he's done in school, so that just leaves Kyle Allen.
While the 6'3", 200-pound Allen is still battling with Kenny Hill to be Texas A&M's starter this fall, his early arrival at the school and Hill's suspension following a public intoxication arrest during spring practice put him in great position to step right in and lead the Aggies as a true freshman. And if that happens, he'll already have a leg up on Manziel, who had to sit out a year behind Ryan Tannehill.
Allen was the top-rated pro-style quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class, so expectations are high for him. He could be the key to long-term program success for A&M and coach Kevin Sumlin, and that kind of success would make for a great resume builder for a Heisman campaign.
All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.