10 Sleeper Heisman Trophy Candidates in 2016

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystApril 14, 2016

10 Sleeper Heisman Trophy Candidates in 2016

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    Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

    There's no shortage of recognizable names for even the most casual of college football fans in the preseason projections of the 2016 Heisman Trophy race.

    The second- and third-place finishers from last year, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, are back. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who some thought deserved a finalist invite last year, will get another crack at the trophy. LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Florida State running back Dalvin Cook are some of the best bets in the field.

    But, right now, let's go away from those well-known superstars and their front-runner statuses in the early predictions. What about the sleepers, the dark horses, the undervalued playmakers who could explode onto the scene with a huge game or two in 2016?

    Here are 10 sleeper picks for this year's Heisman Trophy race, which are largely based on the potential of the players in their individual systems and the returning talent they have around them. 

    For a reference point, "sleepers" are defined here as anyone who has Heisman Trophy odds at or below the 40-1 mark in the most recent list from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, which came out late last month. This is a good cutoff point between the more talked-about contenders (ending with Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and Oregon's Royce Freeman) and those who are largely viewed as long shots.

    Which sleeper picks for the 2016 Heisman Trophy race are you valuing this offseason? Let us know in the comments below.

Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Current odds: 50-1

    The chances of a Group of Five player winning the Heisman Trophy are extremely low. But Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has a great chance to at least make it to New York City for the final ceremony if he stays healthy and continues to produce at the level he did last year for a team that will command quite a lot of attention in 2016.

    Ward thrived last season as the dual-threat destroyer in Tom Herman's "smashmouth spread" offense, leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record, an AAC title and a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State. (An injured Ward only played in the final drive of Houston's only loss of the season, a heartbreaker against UConn.)

    The Houston quarterback completed 67.2 percent of his passes last season, good enough for a top-10 finish nationally. He had almost three times as many touchdowns (17) as interceptions (six), but his work on the ground is what will truly set him apart from the rest of the pack in the Group of Five leagues.

    Ward rushed for 21 touchdowns last year, which was fifth-best nationally behind a who's-who trio of Power Five running backs and now-departed Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. What's even more impressive is that Ward did that in virtually 12 games, because he was injured in a win against Memphis and didn't record a single carry against UConn.

    Herman's Houston version of Braxton Miller knows how to rack up ridiculous stats both through the air and on the ground, and he'll have an opportunity to kick off a Heisman push in a Week 1 showdown against defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma. If he shines there, he could be in the Heisman discussion all year long.

Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Current odds: 100-1

    Continuing the theme of undervalued dual-threat quarterbacks who could explode in 2016, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson just barely cracked the latest list of Heisman odds. But if what he was able to show in the final games of 2015 is any indication, Jackson could be a breakout star this fall.

    Jackson's 2015 campaign was up and down as he looked to take control of Louisville's offense as a true freshman quarterback. His passing numbers ranged from 307 yards and three touchdowns against Florida State to 103 yards and a 37 percent completion rate against NC State. However, in his final four appearances of 2015, he threw six touchdowns to just one interception. 

    His biggest weapon was his rushing ability, as he rushed for 100 yards in five different games. He averaged over 10 yards a carry and scored a pair of touchdowns in both victories over rival Kentucky and Texas A&M—breaking the 200-yard mark in the latter contest.

    This spring—his first with the Cardinals—Jackson has made a focused effort on improving his pass accuracy, and reports out of Louisville indicate he has made tremendous strides in that area.

    With a full offseason of preparation behind him, Jackson could explode onto the national scene, especially considering Louisville returns all but one offensive starter with him in 2016. And in a division that features national title contenders Clemson and Florida State, he'll have plenty of chances to grab attention.

North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Current odds: N/A

    North Carolina's Elijah Hood was a deeply underrated running back last season, and he has his own long shot Heisman odds for 2016 after averaging an absurd 6.67 yards per touch and scoring 17 touchdowns. But his new backfield partner might be an even better pick to challenge for the stiff-arming trophy.

    Mitch Trubisky backed up Marquise Williams in North Carolina's big-play offense last season, and he was deadly efficient in his limited work. He threw only seven incompletions all last year, with none of them coming after the month of October. Trubisky also showcased his wheels, rushing for 101 yards and three touchdowns.

    While his overall season stats were heavily affected by a rout of FCS school Delaware, Trubisky looks like a better and more consistent quarterback for North Carolina's offense than Williams, who scored 37 touchdowns last year but was prone to cold spells. Trubisky hasn't officially been named the starter yet in Chapel Hill, but it's clear the Tar Heels are expecting big things out of him in 2016.

    "Plenty of North Carolina fans thought Trubisky should have been the starter the past two seasons, and he will step into an uptempo offense loaded with weapons at the skill positions," David M. Hale of ESPN.com wrote in January, predicting Trubisky would be the ACC's most prolific quarterback in 2016.

    Trubisky will be able to lean on Hood, an almost completely intact offensive line and four of UNC's top five receivers from a season ago, when the offense was one of the best in college football. If Trubisky can keep up his efficiency in a starting capacity, he has the potential for outstanding numbers this fall.

Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Current odds: 50-1

    In his first season as the starting quarterback for Oklahoma State, Mason Rudolph posted some strong numbers through the air, including yards per attempt (tied for 10th nationally with 8.9) and passing efficiency (26th nationally at 149.04). 

    Now just a junior, Rudolph has the chance to improve on those statistics even more with an offense that returns nearly everybody of note, including big-play wide receiver James Washington. Rudolph can rely on the talents of Washington, who averaged 20.51 yards per catch last season and scored 10 touchdowns for the Cowboys.

    More importantly, Rudolph should take even more snaps this season after the departure of J.W. Walsh, who came into the game in red-zone situations last year. Walsh scored 26 touchdowns—most of them coming in that specific situational package—and now those scoring opportunities will be freed up for Rudolph. 

    Rudolph came close to a Heisman campaign last season as the Cowboys stormed out to a 10-0 start with a favorable schedule. This year, Oklahoma State will have a tougher slate in the conference with more road games, but one can't completely rule out an improving Big 12 signal-caller who will have a lot of returning talent around him on offense.

    The Cowboys will need to find a consistent running attack to complement Rudolph, but he has shown he can put up impressive numbers even when he's not taking all of the snaps at quarterback. This year, he'll have more chances to find the end zone and lead the Cowboys to even more wide-open offensive success.

Oregon QB Dakota Prukop

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    247Sports

    Current odds: 40-1

    While Oregon running back Royce Freeman is the better Heisman candidate from the Ducks, the oddsmakers are well aware of the Heisman campaign power of a great quarterback playing in this system. Two years ago, Marcus Mariota ran away with the trophy. Last year, Vernon Adams Jr. put up ridiculous numbers despite injuries and a slow start by the team.

    If Oregon can get back to Pac-12 title contention in 2016, look for Dakota Prukop to make some noise in the awards races. Like Adams, Prukop is a talented graduate transfer from the FCS ranks who is coming from a big-play offense. He had 3,825 all-purpose yards and 39 touchdowns at Montana State last season, according to Steve Petrella of Sporting News.

    Prukop hasn't been named the starting quarterback at Oregon just yet—he's receiving a challenge from Travis Jonsen this spring—but he's widely expected to be the guy when the Ducks start their 2016 campaign this fall. If Prukop can get settled into Oregon's offense, there's no doubt he has plenty of weapons around him and a system that thrives on putting up some of the best numbers around.

    The key for Prukop and Oregon will be getting off to a better start to the season than what they had last year. Had the Ducks turned around some of those early missteps, Adams definitely had Heisman potential as the nation's most efficient passer.

    Perhaps Oregon's changes on the defensive side of the ball this offseason will lead to a better overall record in 2016 for the Ducks. Prukop has the experience and skill set needed to be a star quarterback in Oregon's system, which has no problem churning out stat-happy signal-callers.

Penn State RB Saquon Barkley

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Current odds: 80-1

    Saquon Barkley is definitely a big-time sleeper for the Heisman Trophy this year, but the oddsmakers have noticed his potential after what he was able to produce as a freshman last season for Penn State.

    In 2015, Barkley rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 11 appearances—but he recorded only one carry in the season-opening loss against Temple and eight in a win over San Diego State a few weeks later. In the nine games in which he recorded double-digit carries, Barkley rushed for more than 100 yards five different times, including a 194-yard day against Ohio State's star-studded defense.

    Now consider the fact Barkley put up those numbers: first, as a freshman; second, behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football last season; and, third, in an offensive system that struggled to move the ball well against anyone.

    This year, Penn State's offensive line won't be thin on numbers or experience, and Barkley will be playing in a brand-new offensive system conducive to big numbers. At FCS school Fordham, new Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead engineered an offense that produced Chase Edmonds, the subdivision's No. 4 leading rusher with 1,648 yards and 20 touchdowns. 

    Moorhead's faster-paced system relies on the inside-zone running game, which could turn into big numbers for Barkley in the 2016 campaign. By playing at a brand name like Penn State, Barkley would definitely be a nationally known Heisman contender if the new offense takes off and the Nittany Lions compete for a Big Ten championship.

TCU QB Kenny Hill

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    Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    Current odds: N/A

    Kenny Hill was a contender for the Heisman Trophy once before, when he was a starter at Texas A&M in 2014. Starting with a 511-yard season opener against South Carolina, Hill threw for 1,745 yards, 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his first five games of the season.

    Things started to go sideways for Hill against Mississippi State, where he threw for 365 yards and four scores but three picks in a loss. He posted a similar stat line against Ole Miss the next weekend—another loss—before Alabama slammed the door on his awards race in a 59-0 throttling that would mark his last game as an Aggie.

    Hill decided to transfer to TCU, where he sat out the 2015 season behind Trevone Boykin, who had emerged as a Heisman contender for two campaigns in the Horned Frogs' recently installed uptempo offense. Now Hill is the front-runner to replace Boykin this season.

    The former Aggie quarterback's start to 2014 shows he has the ability to put up monster numbers in the right system, and TCU definitely has that. Even though the Horned Frogs don't return the likes of Josh Doctson or Kolby Listenbee at wide receiver, they still have plenty of standout offensive talent in KaVontae Turpin, Shaun Nixon and Deante Gray.

    Hill has had an opportunity to settle down and grow as a quarterback since his benching at Texas A&M, and he's back in an offense that can put up a plethora of points and yardage with the right signal-caller in charge. Don't be completely surprised if Hill is able to put up similar numbers in 2016—after all, he doesn't have to face the likes of an Alabama defense in the Big 12.

Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Current odds: 80-1

    It's tough for a wide receiver to break into the Heisman race, and Christian Kirk might be behind the eight ball a bit more considering Texas A&M's recent quarterback turmoil. However, if Trevor Knight can get him the ball consistently in 2016, Hill has the potential to have a strong do-it-all campaign for the Aggies.

    As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote in February, new Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is the ideal coach to utilize the talents of someone like Kirk, who can impact the offensive game in a wide variety of plays.

    "He will also be prominently featured deep thanks to his top-notch route running and ability to high-point the football, as well as a rusher on jet sweeps and reverses," Sallee wrote. "Kirk only had 11 rushes for 54 yards a year ago, but if he doesn't top the 30-carry mark in 2016, something will have gone terribly wrong in College Station."

    Kirk also has the advantage of being a special teams speed demon, something that played a huge role in Christian McCaffrey's run to the runner-up spot in last year's Heisman race. As a freshman last year, Kirk took two punts back for touchdowns and averaged 24.36 yards per return. On kickoffs, he posted a respectable average of 19.25 yards and should only get better in both categories.

    The switch to a new offensive system should be good for Kirk, and Texas A&M will have a tough defense in 2016 to help out the transitioning offense. As the top offensive star on a potential bounce-back team, Kirk has some intriguing potential as a sleeper Heisman pick.

USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Current odds: 80-1

    Many of the nation's top receivers who threatened to crash the back-dominated Heisman party last season, such as Baylor's Corey Coleman and TCU's Josh Doctson, are now off to the NFL. But JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a superstar sophomore campaign for USC, is back and ready to take over as the nation's top wideout.

    "I don’t pay much attention to [awards chatter], but everybody's dream as a kid is to be one of those guys people talk about," Smith-Schuster said, per Ted Miller of ESPN.com. "So it gives you some motivation to be the best in the country.”

    Last year, Smith-Schuster led the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game and finished 11th nationally with 103.5 per contest. He recorded six different games that featured at least 100 yards receiving and at least one score. His "worst" day of the season still finished with 55 receiving yards and a victory for the Trojans. 

    Smith-Schuster is physical and explosive at the wide receiver position, eager to burn defenses deep or rearrange face masks with a stiff arm like the one he delivered to Utah's Dominique Hatfield last season. And with USC returning everyone but the starting quarterback to its first-team offense in 2016, defenses won't be able to solely focus on slowing down Smith-Schuster.

    He'll need to establish chemistry with whoever takes over as the new No. 1 quarterback at USC, but Smith-Schuster definitely has the talent to solidify himself as college football's best receiving weapon. He could go after more than just the Biletnikoff Award, too, if he steps up his stats as the Trojans contend for titles in 2016.

Washington RB Myles Gaskin

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Current odds: N/A

    Another young running back who could soar up the national charts this season, Washington's Myles Gaskin has everything one would want in a sleeper Heisman Trophy pick.

    As a freshman last season, Gaskin ended the year on an extremely high note, so he'll have plenty of momentum to carry into the 2016 season. He rushed for more than 100 yards in seven of his last eight games, including a 181-yard, four-touchdown performance in a bowl victory over Southern Miss. If he would have been Washington's No. 1 running back from the 2015 opener, Gaskin could've been a top-10 rusher nationally.

    Gaskin has plenty of room to grow as a running back over the offseason, and he'll do it as part of a Washington team that brings back a ton of talent for 2016. The Huskies have 15 returning starters—including eight on the offensive side of the ball—and Gaskin will carry on the excellent tandem he built with fellow rising sophomore quarterback Jake Browning this fall.

    Finally, Washington is a great dark-horse pick as a team for 2016. According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation and his S&P+ ratings for the upcoming season, Washington is statistically projected to be a Top 10 team. Even though the extremely young Huskies finished 7-6 last season, they were outstanding in their victories and lost five games by 11 points or fewer.

    Gaskin could be the offensive leader of a breakout Pac-12 title contender in 2016, and he has the potential to be one of the nation's best running backs based on the numbers he put up in the second half of last season. This time around, he'll be getting plenty of carries from the start for a now-experienced team that might make some serious noise. 

    Stats courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

    Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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