12 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2015 Heisman Trophy

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2015

12 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2015 Heisman Trophy

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    While Marcus Mariota at least temporarily reversed a trend by claiming last year's Heisman Trophy as a junior, college football is still in the midst of an underclassmen revolution when it comes to said award.

    Five of the last eight Heisman winners have been freshmen or sophomores, including the first two frosh honorees in Johnny Manziel (2012) and Jameis Winston (2013). Both of those players had redshirted the years before they won, which only added to their legends, as they journeyed from the bench to the podium in a matter of months.

    While upperclassmen such as Ohio State junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, TCU senior quarterback Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State senior passer Dak Prescott are among the early Heisman favorites, per Odds Shark, there are a number of sophomores getting Heisman hype as well. And no doubt some freshmen will emerge during the 2015 season and have their names thrown into the hat, much like Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett did last fall.

    Who among the nation's top underclassmen have the best shots of getting invited to New York City in December and taking home an iconic statue? Check out our list of the most likely potential winners and then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

Kyle Allen, Texas A&M

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

    It took until midway through last season for Kyle Allen to get his turn at the wheel, and it took him a few games to figure out the pedals. But by the time his freshman year was over, the Texas A&M quarterback looked mighty comfortable operating the Aggies offense.

    He'll be a seasoned driver by the time the 2015 season gets underway, and with a schedule full of high-profile games to showcase his skills, Allen could rocket toward the top of the Heisman list with some strong performances.

    He has a great game to start off his campaign with, facing a strong Arizona State team on Sept. 5 in Houston. Three weeks later he gets to face Arkansas' tough defense in Arlington, Texas. There's also the rest of the SEC slate, including an early October showdown with Mississippi State quarterback (and Heisman contender) Dak Prescott.

    Remember this: After the first day of the 2014 season, a breakout game from A&M sophomore QB Kenny Hill made him an instant Heisman hopeful. Can Allen make it two years in a row that an Aggies passer gets ahead of the pack early?

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

    Very few people outside of Columbus, Ohio, knew who J.T. Barrett was until he became Ohio State's starting quarterback just before the 2014 season. It didn't take long for people to remember his name, though, and for a while last year he was on his way toward continuing the recent trend of redshirt freshmen Heisman winners.

    If not for a fractured ankle suffered late in the Buckeyes' late November win over Michigan, Barrett very likely would have been a fourth invitee to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York. Even without playing in OSU's Big Ten title win over Wisconsin, Barrett had won over enough voters to finish fifth overall, though he was not listed first on any of the 59 ballots that named him.

    Despite that past success, borne from setting numerous school single-season records for passing and total offense, Barrett's path to a Heisman might be tougher than any other player on this list. That's because he's the one with possibly the most likely chance to not even be his team's starter this fall, as Cardale Jones' performance in relief of Barrett during the postseason and the return of senior Braxton Miller have made for a heated three-man race to be the Buckeyes quarterback.

    If Barrett does win the job, though, the only thing that might keep him from claiming the Heisman is how well teammate Ezekiel Elliott, a junior running back and early award favorite, performs alongside him in the backfield.

Nick Chubb, Georgia

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

    At this point last year, there were many experts who listed Georgia running back Todd Gurley as a strong Heisman contender, and the junior did little to dampen that sentiment through the first five games of the 2014 season. However, an NCAA suspension knocked him out for the next four games. Then, in his first game back from the suspension, Gurley injured his knee and was done for the year.

    That's the prologue to Nick Chubb's origin story. Before Gurley became unavailable, the true freshman had been limited to only a handful of carries and the talk of his promise for the future after Gurley was gone. That future became the present in October, and it resulted in one of the best seasons in school history, despite the fact that Chubb played only eight games as the starting rusher.

    All eight of those games saw Chubb go for 100-plus yards, and he finished his first season with a 266-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Belk Bowl that also served as a solid jumping-off point for a major Heisman campaign this year.

    JC Shurburtt of 247Sports recently wrote about five reasons why Chubb can win the Heisman this year, noting that Georgia's offense is apt to run the ball a lot this season with a new quarterback and Chubb's legacy as a workhorse last season will help his case. He also points to Georgia's strong national profile as a key to Chubb's candidacy.

    "To win a Heisman, you need eyeballs on your work and there always are plenty of eyeballs on the running back for the Dawgs," Shurburtt wrote.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

    Florida State may have lost a past Heisman winner this offseason, but the team has another potential candidate who figures to be the centerpiece of its offense this season. Last season, Dalvin Cook didn't become a major player in the Seminoles' scheme until October, but by January he had become one of its most consistent pieces.

    This season, Cook will serve as the "veteran" in terms of experience when it comes to FSU's skill positions, as the team will be breaking in a new quarterback and a new tight end, and it will have to replace its leading receiver. Cook rushed for 1,008 yards a year ago despite not playing in the Seminoles' first game and having five other games in which he carried the ball fewer than 10 times.

    Cook ran for 100 or more yards in FSU's final three games, but his last outing saw him lose some key fumbles in the team's Rose Bowl semifinal loss to Oregon. Those mistakes could serve as a major motivator for Cook to build off of and have a huge season.

    "I felt like the success I was having last season and the things I was doing, I felt like that shouldn't have happened," Cook told Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat. "And I know me, and I know myself, and I know I can do better than that."

Leonard Fournette, LSU

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

    Leonard Fournette entered college with an immense amount of hype, but it was matched by his own confidence and conviction. Before ever playing a game, he told Sports Illustrated's Ben Glicksman his goals were "Heisman candidate, All-American, national title. That's just my first year as a freshman, though."

    Fournette fell short of those self-assigned benchmarks, though he still had a heck of an opening act, especially in his final scenes. Fournette set an LSU freshman single-season rushing record thanks to breakout performance in the Tigers' Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. During the game, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and added two rushing TDs to net 264 all-purpose yards on 13 touches.

    It was a heck of a way for Fournette to head into the offseason, the first one that would consist of wall-to-wall college-level training and preparation for the upcoming year. Expected to be bigger, faster and stronger this season, not to mention the lifeblood of an LSU offense that is desperately searching for a quarterback to step up and be a leader, Fournette has everything working in his favor to be on pace for a December trip to New York.

    His team's success, or lack thereof, could have the greatest impact, however. LSU's nonconference schedule lacks any notable games for him to gain publicity from, and the Tigers are coming off of a disappointing 4-4 record in the SEC.

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Defensive end

    There's always at least one defensive player who gets early mention as a Heisman candidate, and it's often someone who gets a lot of TV time by way of frequent trips into an opponent's backfield. Myles Garrett spent plenty of time doing just that as a true freshman, setting the SEC sack record for first-year players, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

    Garrett had to do it mostly alone up front for Texas A&M last season, as his 11.5 sacks were only slightly less than what the Aggies' seven other most-used defensive linemen recorded. But with the arrival of 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack this summer, Garrett won't have to take on as many double-teams, and he therefore could have an even bigger year.

    If that happens, it also likely means A&M's defense as a whole will have improved. The Aggies were 104th in total defense this past season, according to CFBStats, and if Garrett helps trigger a major turnaround it will even further enhance his Heisman stock.

Adoree' Jackson, USC

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Cornerback

    Adoree' Jackson's official position is cornerback, but the talented athlete is so much more than just a one-spot player for USC. And he'll need to be if he has any chance of getting into the Heisman conversation and ending the long drought since a non-offensive player won the award.

    Michigan's Charles Woodson was the last to do so, winning in 1997. He beat out Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning thanks not only to his defensive skills (eight interceptions), but also to how much he contributed to the Wolverines' perfect season as a receiver and return specialist. Jackson does all three of those things, too, and the plan is for his involvement on offense to be much greater this season.

    Last year, Jackson made numerous starts at corner but also lined up as USC's starting wide receiver on one occasion. He was the Trojans' top return man, too, averaging close to 30 yards per return on 23 attempts and bringing two back for scores.

    Jackson had a touchdown catch and a kickoff return TD in the Holiday Bowl, and if he can manage a few games with major impacts in all three facets in 2015, he should be right in the mix for the Heisman.

Jeff Jones, Minnesota

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    247Sports

    Year: Redshirt freshman

    Position: Running back

    Projecting which redshirted players from the previous year will burst onto the scene is one the most inexact sciences there is, because the factors that led to those players being held out are so varied. Jeff Jones was frankly not needed by Minnesota last year, because David Cobb was coming off of a strong junior year and had an even better senior season.

    But now it's Jones' time to handle the heavy workload that Minnesota coach Jerry Kill gives to his running backs.

    Cobb ran the ball 315 times in 2014, the third straight season a Golden Gopher has rushed at least 200 times. But Jones can separate himself from his predecessors with his pass-catching ability, a skill he showed off in his last competitive football game.

    Jones earned MVP honors at the 2014 Under Armour All-America High School Football Game with 72 all-purpose yards and a receiving touchdown.

    If Jones is going to throw his hat into the Heisman race, he'll get a big-time opportunity to do so right away. His likely collegiate debut will come on Sept. 3 in a Thursday night game against national title contender TCU.

Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

    Though he might not be able to surpass the yardage numbers he put up as a true freshman, Samaje Perine's chances of getting Heisman consideration figure to be better as a sophomore. That's because Oklahoma's switch to the Air Raid offense is apt to reduce his touches, but if things go according to plan, the Sooners should be much better as a team.

    Perine's unexpected performance in 2014 came in spite of a disappointing season for the Sooners, who lost five games and were one of the least efficient passing teams in the country. Perine didn't begin the year as the starting tailback. Instead, he shared carries as part of a three-man rotation (with Keith Ford and Alex Ross).

    Ford got hurt and Ross became better used as a return man, paving the way for Perine to get his big break in a September trip to West Virginia. In that game, he carried the football 34 times for 242 yards and four touchdowns. He scored three more times the following week and more or less locked up the No. 1 spot.

    A few weeks later, he broke the FBS single-game rushing record, going for 427 yards with five TDs against Kansas.

    Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said he believes Perine could actually get better rushing opportunities this year with a more wide-open offense, per Ryan Aber and Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman, but the real key will be how many wins the Sooners notch in a schedule that includes a trip to rising power Tennessee and Big 12 clashes against Baylor and TCU.

Josh Rosen, UCLA

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    247Sports

    Year: True freshman

    Position: Quarterback

    A true freshman has never won the Heisman Trophy, but to believe this isn't possible is to ignore the direction college football is headed. With coaches more willing than ever to throw fresh-out-of-high-school players into live action, particularly at the skill positions, it's trending more toward when rather than if a first-year player will claim the Heisman at some point.

    If it's going to happen in 2015, consider Josh Rosen a strong contender to be that pioneer.

    The UCLA quarterback enrolled early and has reportedly looked quite good during the Bruins' first week of spring practice. He's competing with junior Jerry Neuheisel and redshirt freshman Asantii Woulard for the starting job, which for the past three years was held by Brett Hundley, and many experts are predicting he'll end up atop the depth chart when the season begins in September.

    UCLA is one of the favorites to unseat Oregon as the Pac-12 champion this year, and the media attention that a freshman quarterback would get in a major market on a top-level team could lead to Heisman history being made.

Anu Solomon, Arizona

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

    No freshman threw for more yards last season than Anu Solomon, and only Ohio State's J.T. Barrett had a higher per-game average in total offense. Solomon did all that despite not winning his job as Arizona's quarterback until the days leading up to the season opener, and he managed to play through some hobbling leg injuries and the expected hiccups that young players have.

    Now a grizzled veteran as a third-year sophomore, Solomon will once again be at the helm of one of the nation's most uptempo offenses, and with a talented group of receivers to throw to again, he should be able to surpass the school-record 3,793 passing yards he had in 2014.

    Solomon will need to become better with his mobility and decision-making, however. Last year he had one 100-yard rushing game but was also sacked 38 times, and while his nine interceptions in 540 pass attempts were exceptional, Solomon's completion rate was 58 percent.

    If he's able to correct those areas, and he continues to develop elsewhere, that overall improvement would serve as a strong foundation for Solomon to build off of for a run at the Heisman.

Deshaun Watson, Clemson

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

    By enrolling early last season, Deshaun Watson got a jump-start on his college career at Clemson and was ready for action when his freshman year began. And when he was given opportunities to play, he made the Tigers a lot better on offense.

    Only injuries prevented Watson from demonstrating his true potential in 2014. He missed time because of a broken bone in his hand and then tore a knee ligament, which required surgery. Even with that last injury, he managed to play through it and lead Clemson to a signature win over rival South Carolina in September.

    Watson's surgery was in December, and he's been participating in Clemson's spring practice at a level that no one expected. Assuming he's at full strength this fall and able to run and throw like he did last season, Watson has the potential to be a major player in the Heisman race.

    Clemson's schedule doesn't have as many big-time games as the schedules of other Heisman candidates' teams, though the Tigers do face Florida State and Notre Dame, and they end the regular season at South Carolina. There's also the possibility of an ACC championship game to cement a Heisman campaign.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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