College Football Predictions 2014: Breaking Down Sleeper Heisman Candidates

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College Football Predictions 2014: Breaking Down Sleeper Heisman Candidates
USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive year, a Heisman winner returns to reclaim his throne atop the realm of collegiate football.

Except the task continues to become more difficult with each passing year. Jameis Winston is the defending champ at the moment, but as ESPN Stats & Info's Sharon Katz notes, he—like many who attempted a repeat bid before—simply set the bar too high for himself:

There have been 13 players who returned to college football the year after winning the Heisman Trophy, and only one -- Archie Griffin in 1975 -- was able to repeat.

...

Of those 13 Heisman winners who came back to school, two (Leinart and Walker) accounted for more yards of total offense in the season after winning the award. On average, these players accounted for almost 650 fewer yards of total offense the next year.

Plenty of household names will make a run at the hardware. Braxton Miller will run Urban Meyer's spread for Ohio State. Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty orchestrate offenses that tally videogame-esque numbers. Running backs Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are sure to do much of the same.

But a new problem has emerged, too—the landscape of college football continues to expand on its parity, and as that happens, players from all crevices of the nation enter the picture as contenders.

Below, let's take a look at a few under-the-radar names who certainly have the talent to steal the award from Winston and the major stars.

 

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (Fla.)

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Yes, the Heisman has pretty much been a bigger, better version of the Davey O'Brien Award as of late, but running backs can very much still steal the show if the gaudy numbers they post form a nice marriage with team success.

One candidate who has the skill to post such numbers and does not necessarily qualify as a household name? Miami's Duke Johnson, who in two seasons has flirted with serious totals on rather limited usage:

YEAR ATT YDS AVG LNG TD ATT
2012 139 947 6.8 65 10 139
2013 145 920 6.3 59 6 145

ESPN

Only a broken ankle slowed Johnson last year, though, and coach Al Golden is rightfully eager to see what his junior tailback has in store for opposing defenses, as captured by NFL.com's Mike Huguenin:

I think the biggest thing is we all want to see him pick up where he left off. He was pressing his runs, they were hitting where they were designed to hit, so he had great discipline at the end of last year. He was running between the tight ends really well; then when he got to the second level, he would allow his talent to take over. He was very disciplined in that.

So the natural talent is there, obviously. But what makes Johnson even better as a candidate is his ability to add bulk to his frame and not lose quickness. According to Pat Lammer of caneinsider.com, he has done just that:

Want the team aspect to wrap up the picture? Last season, in Golden's third year, the Hurricanes seemed to finally turn a corner and wound up at 9-4.

Things are on an upward trajectory for the program on the field, and Johnson continues to spearhead the effort. An ACC title, bowl win and perhaps more might just be enough to allow Johnson to pull off the major upset and win the award before he jumps to the pro level.

 

Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina

USA TODAY Sports

That's right, two running backs might just have what it takes to steal the award in 2014.

Look, there are a ton of quarterbacks in the running for the award without even playing a snap yet this season, but a back who can capture the imagination of the country right away and never relinquish the grip stands a chance.

It might just be South Carolina's Mike Davis.

Free from the shackles of Marcus Lattimore last season, Davis erupted for 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on just 203 carries for a 5.8 per-carry average. Go ahead and compare that to Lattimore's highest collegiate usage rate—2010, when he took 249 carries for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns on a full yard less per carry.

The point is twofold. One, Steve Spurrier loves to run his backs into the ground with a traditional approach. Two, there is an argument to be made that Davis is simply a better collegiate back.

"He reminds me of former Florida Gators star Fred Taylor with his all-around combination of speed and power," says NFL.com's Chase Goodbread.

The above numbers are even scarier when one realizes that Davis missed one game and parts of two others last year. This time, Davis and Co. enter off an 11-win season and stand a strong chance at a national title in the nation's most popular conference.

Should the Gamecocks live up to expectations, it will surely be thanks to Davis. The efforts certainly won't go unnoticed, especially if he can grab the attention of the nation in a nationally televised affair with Texas A&M to start the season.

 

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Most of the quarterbacks who have a serious shot at the Heisman are known commodities.

It is not often, though, that we can kill two birds with one stone and peg a sleeper for the hardware and one of the most downright underrated players in all of college football at the same time.

That would be Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, a dual-threat quarterback who posts gaudy numbers in all areas, as one can glean from his last two seasons of work:

YEAR CMP ATT PCT YDS AVG TD INT
2012 241 359 67.1 3039 8.5 29 9
2013 302 484 62.4 3635 7.5 28 12

ESPN

Suffice it to say, Kelly has a strong understanding of coach Todd Graham's offense as he enters 2014 after a 10-4 campaign. More importantly, he has his eyes firmly set on accomplishing the unthinkable, as captured by NFL.com's Bryan Fischer:

I've always been an underdog my whole high school and college career. I just have to put up those numbers, get those wins in the column. Coach (Todd) Graham always tells me, 'If you win the national championship, you'll get all those individual goals and attention.' That's the ultimate goal for me, put my team in a good position and get my name out there that way.

It is an unthinkable feat that is all the more obtainable thanks to the college football playoff, and the Heisman Trophy will follow a similar trajectory.

Should Kelly thrive in the shadow of Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley and nab a Pac-12 title, he will be a difficult signal-caller to ignore. He will have to turn down the interception numbers, but lofty numbers on the ground and through the air with a large dash of team success tend to work wonders for quarterbacks of his talent when it comes to individual awards.

 

Honorable Mentions

Name Pos. Team Reason
Ameer Abdullah RB Nebraska Elite player and the sole reason his team stands a chance in the conference.
Rakeem Cato QB Marshall Ranked among the statistical giants last season.
Jacob Coker QB Alabama What, the guy who almost beat out Winston for a job and is surrounded by Nick Saban recruits is not one to watch? Please.

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