10 Dark-Horse Candidates for 2015 Heisman Trophy

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2014

10 Dark-Horse Candidates for 2015 Heisman Trophy

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    The 2014 Heisman Trophy was awarded to Marcus Mariota, the preseason front-runner and wire-to-wire favorite.

    But Mariota's win was more of the exception than the rule. More often than not—and especially these past five seasons—the Heisman ends up in the hands of a less-heralded player. Three of the four winners before Mariota were first-year starting quarterbacks.

    Depending on who returns to college next season, the list of front-runners will be obvious. Trevone Boykin at TCU. Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. Cody Kessler at USC. J.T. Barrett and/or Braxton Miller at Ohio State. Samaje Perine at Oklahoma. Nick Chubb at Georgia. Leonard Fournette at LSU.

    The list goes on and on.

    But instead of listing favorites, let's instead turn our attention to the dark horses: players who might make a Johnny Manziel-type run despite failing to move the needle at the moment.

    Sound off below and let me know whom else you'd add.

    Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

QB Kyle Allen/Kyler Murray, Texas A&M

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle Allen played well enough down the stretch to keep the job from Kenny Hill this offseason. The question is whether he played well enough to keep it from incoming 5-star prospect/Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Kyler Murray.

    For the purposes of this list, however, it doesn't matter which young quarterback wins the job. Both came to A&M as 5-star recruits, and both have the talent to succeed in Kevin Sumlin's system. The Aggies are going to break scoreboards next season regardless.

    Whichever of these guys is picked to run Sumlin's offense alongside receivers such as Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil (and potentially undecided 5-star recruit Christian Kirk) will be given every advantage one could ask for in a Heisman competition.

    Age would be the only looming question.

RB Corey Clement, Wisconsin

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Wisconsin is a conveyor belt of high-performance running backs, and Corey Clement is the next man up.

    Melvin Gordon's backup rushed for 844 yards and nine touchdowns on 132 carries this season, thrice breaking the 100-yard benchmark. He had nine runs of 20-plus yards and five runs of 30-plus yards, both of which ranked top 10 in the Big Ten.

    Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst will return to replace head coach Gary Andersen, who left to accept the same job at Oregon State. Even though it has not been made official, the thought of Chryst returning would do wonders for Clement's stock.

    Chryst helped breed Wisconsin into the running back factory it currently calls itself and did the same thing at Pittsburgh these past two seasons. Panthers sophomore James Conner, a bruiser who lacks Clement's home-run ability, finished No. 5 in the country with 139.58 rushing yards per game with Chryst as a head coach in 2014.

    Clement has the talent to flirt with (and exceed) those numbers.

QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Joshua Dobbs breathed life into Tennessee's offense after becoming the full-time starter against Alabama on Oct. 25.

    The Vols won three of five games down the stretch to make a bowl game, riding Dobbs' dual-threat ability to beat South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. His rushing opened up the offense and forced linebackers and safeties to play honest, and his passing was surprisingly polished.

    Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee thinks Tennessee can win the SEC East and compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff next season, and it's not hard to see why. The Vols might return their 10 leading pass-catchers from 2013 and add 5-star freshman Preston Williams, a 6'4" freak who was college-ready in 11th grade.

    The past five Heisman winners have included four dual-threat quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton) and one pocket quarterback (Jameis Winston) with the raw tools to play like a dual-threat quarterback when the situation calls for it.

    Dobbs, it would seem, fits the mold.

QB Jerrod Heard, Texas

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    Tyrone Swoopes had a plucky but underwhelming year in 2014, leading many to believe Jerrod Heard can win the job this offseason.

    Heard took a redshirt behind Swoopes as a freshman but has always been the more intriguing option because of his dual-threat ability. He was the No. 72 overall player in the 2014 class and led Guyer High School to back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013.

    Adjustment-starved Longhorn fans spent much of the season clamoring for Heard to play, but the coaching staff didn't think he was ready. Co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, however, did offer some encouraging words about Heard's progress at the end of November, per Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation.

    "He's been growing, he's progressed, especially in the latter half of this season has been good; he's coming along a lot better. He didn't have the spring as for example Tyrone Swoopes did, and that's really where you see him right now.

    ...

    He's just coming out of high school; he's been getting his feet on the ground with the system. He's got a better understanding today of what college football is, what is going to require to be an elite player. That's going to be a lot of study and hard work, which he's going to put in.

    ...

    "Now he's starting to get it. He'll be really competitive for us in the spring."

    Heard is a special talent with the framework in place to succeed. Watson coached Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville, and fellow offensive coordinator Joe Wickline was around some very good quarterbacks—one of whom, J.W. Walsh, was Heard's former teammate at Guyer—during his nine years at Oklahoma State.

    Prior to this season, two consecutive redshirt freshman had won the Heisman Trophy including one, Johnny Manziel, who also became a legend playing high school football in the state of Texas.

    This would not be devoid of precedent.

QB Taysom Hill, BYU

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Taysom Hill led BYU to a 4-0 start and was a legitimate Heisman candidate before tearing his ACL against Utah State.

    He was only a junior, however, and he confirmed he plans to return to the Cougars in 2015, per Talo Stevens of Scout.com.

    Hill will not be mentioned alongside other Heisman front-runners this offseason, which is fair. He already had the disadvantage of playing for a non-Power Five school; now he adds the disadvantage of rehab. It doesn't help that another star quarterback in Utah, Chuckie Keeton, had such a disastrous return from knee surgery in 2014.

    But if Hill can get back to his previous form, he will have the pieces in place for a Heisman run. BYU returns three of its top four receivers, chief among them 6'6" monster Mitch Matthews, and road games at Nebraska, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri will give Hill some national exposure and respectable competition.

    And he's always played his best against the big boys.

QB Jeremy Johnson, Auburn

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Auburn thinks the world of its backup quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, who will be handed the keys to the offense next season.

    Johnson is not as mobile as Nick Marshall but has the superior frame (6'5", 230 lbs) and a more polished arm. He played the first half of the 2014 season-opener against Arkansas and completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall was suspended for a marijuana citation but relieved Johnson after halftime.

    If D'haquille Williams or Sammie Coates (or both) return instead of declaring for the NFL draft, Johnson will have at least one star receiver in an offense with a proven track record. He has learned the system for two years, and his feet are already wet.

    The only thing holding him back might be a Will Muschamp-coached defense that does not require Auburn score as many points as it has the past two seasons.

    But Johnson is talented enough to stay in the picture regardless.

QB Cyler Miles, Washington

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Cyler Miles struggled through much of his first year as a starting quarterback but still posted pretty good numbers.

    He finished three of nine starts against Power Five opponents with a QB rating above 189 and another with a QB rating above 170. His completion percentage against Power Five teams (67.1) was No. 4 among players with three or more qualified starts.

    He did all this despite an offseason suspension that impeded his learning curve under first-year head coach Chris Petersen. Miles didn't take to the system as well as many might have hoped, but a month of bowl practice combined with a full offseason of work should have him up to speed by the start of next fall.

    Petersen groomed Kellen Moore into a College Football Hall of Fame candidate at Boise State and also found success with Jared Zabransky and Taylor Tharp. This is a quarterback-friendly scheme if there ever was one. And Miles, the No. 2 dual-threat passer in 2012 recruiting class, has the raw talent to run it to perfection.

QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

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    No true freshman has ever won the Heisman Trophy, which might make this a flight of fancy. But as recently as three seasons ago, no redshirt freshman had won it.

    It's only a matter of time until the next glass ceiling is shattered.

    Josh Rosen is a rare physical talent with the mental makeup to do that shattering. He is the No. 8 overall player and top-rated quarterback in the 2015 class for a reason. He is 6'4" with a live arm and led St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) to consecutive CIF-SS Pac-5 Championship Games, winning in 2013 before falling just short this season.

    With Brett Hundley set to declare for the NFL draft, UCLA needs a new starting quarterback. And as scrappy as he played against Texas, Jerry Neuheisel is not that guy. Rosen is the type of player one can build an offense around, and he's likely to get a shot in 2015.

    All eight Bruins who finished with 100 or more receiving yards in 2014 are slated to return next season.

QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

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    Brett Deering/Getty Images

    Oklahoma State didn't want to have to burn Mason Rudolph's redshirt, but after watching him lead a win over Oklahoma in Bedlam, it has to be happy it did.

    In two games against Baylor and Oklahoma, Rudolph threw 60 passes and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt. The upset over the Sooners extended Oklahoma State's season, giving Rudolph an extra month of practice to assume his role as the leader of its offense.

    "Oklahoma State has a rising star at QB in Mason Rudolph," tweeted Jake Olsen of ESPN.com during the Oklahoma upset. "Kid has the 'it' factor. Cowboys could be dangerous next year."

    Mike Gundy's offense is amenable to huge passing numbers, and the Cowboys are slated to return every meaningful pass-catcher (sans recently dismissed Tyreek Hill) to the roster next season.

    This has all the makings of an out-of-nowhere season.

RB Storm Woods, Oregon State

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    Troy Wayrynen/Associated Press

    Storm Woods had a bounce-back year in 2014, improving his yards per carry from 3.61 as a sophomore to 6.33.

    He carried the ball just 121 times but did his best work in November, topping 120 yards against both Arizona State and Oregon. His Civil War performance left Gina Mizell of The Oregonian wondering if this was a sign of things to come.

    And that was before Gary Andersen came over from Wisconsin to replace departed head coach Mike Riley. Andersen is not a run-first coach by trade but proved in two years with the Badgers that he will force-feed his best player when necessary. Melvin Gordon rushed for 2,336 yards and finished second in the Heisman voting this season.

    All five offensive linemen who started in the Civil War are slated to return next season. Quarterback Sean Mannion will not, however, which casts the Beavers' passing game into doubt. Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio is a fine option but is not the type one builds an offense around. He is a game-manager more than anything.

    Woods will do heavy lifting.

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