Ranking the Top Candidates for the 2019 Heisman Trophy

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2018

Ranking the Top Candidates for the 2019 Heisman Trophy

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    Now that the dust has settled in the close Heisman Trophy race between Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma dual-threat signal-caller Kyler Murray, it's time to look ahead.

    After all, there may still be bowl season to go, but a lot of teams already have an eye toward the future.

    At this point, it's difficult to see Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins bypassing a chance to be an NFL first-round pick to come back to Columbus for his redshirt junior season. He proved enough in his only year as a Buckeyes starter to make a lot of money in the pros.

    Kyler Murray already has a lot of money after becoming the Oakland A's No. 1 draft pick in this year's Major League Baseball draft. So while he technically could come back for another year at Oklahoma, he has millions of reasons not to.

    Neither of them is on this list.

    Also, after Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton's season-ending knee injury, it's hard to include him based on the uncertainty surrounding a timetable for his return.

    So, who did make it?

    Factoring in talent above everything else, quality of play, ability to impress voters in marquee games and potential, let's take a look at the top 10 candidates for next year's Heisman Trophy. You may think it's too early to move on, but where's the fun in that?

10. JT Daniels, QB, USC

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    There were times during 2018 when you could see JT Daniels' immense potential. Many others, he looked like a true freshman that, quite frankly, should be a senior in high school (which he should).

    The Mater Dei High School product has all the tools to be an elite college quarterback, and while you may think it's a reach to have him in the top 10, he should thrive with a little maturation. He finished the year with a pedestrian 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 picks.

    Things are going to get better in a hurry.

    It's going to help him considerably now that the Trojans and coach Clay Helton secured former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury to be the offensive coordinator. Expect the Trojans to fling it around a little more, and there will be a lot more creativity with Kingsbury calling plays.

    "Kingsbury's units are more reminiscent of another Pac-12 North team: Washington State, which Mike Leach flipped from a perennial bottom-feeder to a serious contender," SI.com's Daniel Rapaport wrote. "There is a precedent for such a pass-heavy offense working in the conference."

    Can you imagine a player with Daniels' skill set and talent playing in that offense? That's why we're projecting big things and a major leap forward for the sophomore.

    With Aca'Cedric Ware out of eligibility, USC should be a little more pass-heavy in '19, and that plays right into the hands of Daniels, Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns and others.

    Daniels isn't going to win the Heisman Trophy in 2019, but he'll at least be in the thick of the conversation.  

9. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

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    How good is D'Andre Swift? With Georgia having both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the same backfield in 2017 on its way to the national championship game, Swift stole meaningful carries as a true freshman.

    This year, he battled an array of nagging early-season injuries and still came on late to finish with 1,037 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry. He added 267 receiving yards and another pair of touchdowns.

    That's just a glimpse of Swift's do-it-all ability, and he should ride a monster junior season on his way to leaving for the NFL a year early. He may just author a Heisman Trophy campaign in the process.

    Though he took it easy in a late-season win over Massachusetts, take into consideration what a healthy Swift did in the meaningful three-game stretch against Florida, Kentucky and Auburn. After mustering just 72 yards in a loss to LSU, he had 104, 156 and 186 yards and four total touchdowns in those games.

    The best recognize just how good Swift is.

    "I liked him before, but live, there were some plays where he was making it his game and dictating what was going on," former Alabama great and NFL MVP Shaun Alexander told Dawg Nation's Mike Griffith. "There were some runs, and he caught a couple of passes, and it was like, you have to circle his name and really play him, because he is that guy for Georgia."

    If Swift stays healthy and gets enough reps in a crowded Georgia backfield that already includes Elijah Holyfield and could see increased action from James Cook and even Zamir White, he will post big numbers.

    He could even do enough to win college football's top individual honor.  

8. Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

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    Speaking of players who could thrive in a system, Nebraska coach Scott Frost has the ideal weapon for his offense in California signal-caller Adrian Martinez.

    The longtime Tennessee commitment flipped to the Cornhuskers in the 11th hour and signed last December. Though he didn't get the kind of headlines JT Daniels, Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields did, he arguably had the best season of the bunch.

    Nebraska didn't have the year it would have liked as the roster adjusts to Frost, going 4-8, but when the coach gets more of his players in there during his second year, things will get better. We've already seen what can happen during his time at UCF.

    Martinez will be the centerpiece of it all.

    The 6'2", 220-pound quarterback from Fresno finished the year having completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He added 629 rushing yards and eight more scores on the ground, proving to the nation he is worth the price of a ticket.

    He's only going to get better as he grows and matures and gets more star athletes around him. Martinez ran the ball nearly 13 times a game, and that probably needs to decrease if he's going to stay healthy. But it will once the offense gets in a groove. When that happens, the sky is the limit.

    "They’re gonna win a ton of games here," NU senior linebacker Luke Gifford told the Omaha World-Herald's Chris Heady. "They’re good kids. They work hard, Coach (Scott) Frost is awesome, and I can’t wait to come back and watch them."

    Added senior running back Devine Ozigbo about Martinez: "He’s gonna be a lot better next year. There’s just no doubt about it."

    He may be one of the best.  

7. Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

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    There's been plenty of discussion about Memphis junior running back Darrell Henderson leaving a year early for the NFL. But even though he's a dynamic collegiate force, he isn't the prototypical pro running back.

    So, the bet here is that he returns for his final season to prove his durability rather than be a second- or third-day pick.

    If Henderson returns to the high-octane Tigers, he can put up big enough numbers again, even in a Group of Five conference, that makes Heisman voters take notice. Also, there's no question the 5'9", 200-pound running back can cut it in the NFL, especially with his speed and ability to run inside, too.

    "He's got everything," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo told The Athletic's Chris Vannini. "He's got speed, power, vision. He's so hard to bring down. He's put together, a physical back, and he has the speed to take it to the house. Plus, he’s got great vision and can make you miss. We’ve seen him for the last couple years, and he's as good as we've seen."

    In 2018, Henderson led the nation by averaging 8.9 yards per carry and was second nationally behind Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor with 1,909 yards. He tied Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary with 22 rushing touchdowns.

    The South Panola High School product did it all, and if he's back in the Bluff City and healthy, he's guaranteed to load up on big numbers yet again. Given his success this season, he'll be on the Heisman radar earlier and may build up enough clout to earn a trip to New York.

    Think of Marshall Faulk at San Diego State in 1992. It could be the same kind of situation for Henderson. If he gets more than 2,000 yards, perhaps proves his ability in the passing game and scores 25 or more touchdowns, it'll be tough to shut him out.

    Henderson is good enough to win the Heisman; it's just a matter of whether the conference he plays in and the competition he plays against will allow him to.

6. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    Clemson, it seems, always has some big-time offensive playmakers. That's been a staple for coach Dabo Swinney as he's built the Tigers into a college football powerhouse.

    Travis Etienne is the next in a long line of showcase players.

    In a year when Clemson had to bring along freshman phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence slowly at times, Etienne carried a championship-caliber team that will enter the College Football Playoff as the nation's No. 2 team.

    That's not bad for a sophomore. If he didn't play in a backfield with so many capable weapons who took away his carries, he may have made even more of a dent in the Heisman Trophy race this year. As it stands, he was a fringe candidate who was a trendy talking point at times and nothing more.

    After a 766-yard freshman season, Etienne broke out this year for 1,464 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, which ranked third nationally behind Devin Singletary and Darrell Henderson. He was a scoring machine for the Tigers, who ran a lot and let their defense control games.

    Etienne's ceiling is going to be interesting to watch. At 5'10", 200 pounds, he may not be an every-down back, but he proved he can carry the load when asked. Guys like Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon were viable options coming out of the backfield, too.

    What would benefit Etienne and the Tigers is for him to have a breakout postseason this year and really make some noise heading into the offseason. If that's the case, he can generate plenty of buzz before 2019 even starts.

    You have to believe that, even as Lawrence grows, Etienne will remain a focal point of the offense, and the Tigers have shown they've got staying power as one of the nation's perennial favorites.

5. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

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    One of the trendy picks for this year's Heisman Trophy heading into the season was Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who has a ton of pro upside and was thought to be a potential breakout candidate in 2018.

    Though the Ducks signal-caller had a quality season, it was a bit uneven, and coach Mario Cristobal's team went as Herbert did. 

    Most of the headlines were stolen by two other Pacific Northwest teams, as the Washington State Cougars were the story of the year in the Pac-12 and the Washington Huskies stole all the thunder at the end. The Ducks, meanwhile, were mired in mediocrity at 5-4 in the Pac-12 and 8-4 overall.

    Herbert is probably coming back for his senior year to season his game a little more.

    He completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 2,985 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. If he returns in 2019, the Ducks could take the next step and perhaps contend for the conference title.

    "At this point it would be a surprise if Herbert opted to leave the school," CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora wrote in October. "His family is secure with him playing out his college eligibility, this is not a financial hardship situation, and Herbert has seen other top-overall picks like  Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning stay in school for their senior season and remaining the first-overall pick."

    NFL draft analyst Jon Ledyard tweeted that he heard Herbert "is 'leaning heavily' toward returning," but a final decision won't be made until after the Redbox Bowl versus Michigan State.

    With Herbert's strong arm, 6'6", 233-pound frame and all-around ability and athleticism, he has NFL scouts drooling. But there's apparently no real hurry to head to the pros.

    That's massive news for the Ducks, who could surge in '19 with their leader back.

4. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

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    It may seem a little odd to have Trevor Lawrence higher on this list than Travis Etienne. But the Heisman Trophy is traditionally a quarterback's award, and when you talk about upside, the freshman should have his picture beside that word in the dictionary.

    Though he's still a little lanky and unseasoned, the 6'6", first-year player was too good to keep off the field, chasing incumbent starter Kelly Bryant out of the starting lineup and off the team.

    The Tigers didn't look back once they made the move, with the only hiccup coming early in Lawrence's tenure when he was knocked out of the Syracuse game, giving way to Chase Brice.

    Lawrence wound up with a brilliant freshman season, completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards, 24 touchdowns and just four picks.

    "Certainly, their offensive firepower is outstanding," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told the Associated Press (h/t Richmond Times-Dispatch). "Etienne at the running back position, great depth. We all know about Trevor Lawrence and what he can do at the quarterback position."

    Added Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Brian Batko: "This guy is a future first-round quarterback. Period. No. 1 pick, I think. He's got the best release I’ve ever seen."

    It would almost be an upset if Lawrence didn't have a Heisman in him. He is the former top-rated high school player in the nation, and his freshman season really couldn't have gone any better. With all the immense ability around him in the Tigers' talented youngsters, they'll all grow together.

    Lawrence will benefit from Dabo Swinney's recruiting ability, and he'll be the guy who makes it all tick. It's not out of the realm of possibility he puts everything together in '19 and wins the Heisman Trophy.

3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

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    Jonathan Taylor won the Doak Walker Award given to the nation's top running back this year as a sophomore. He did so with his Wisconsin Badgers having one of college football's most disappointing seasons.

    The second-year New Jersey native has taken the sport by storm his first two seasons in Camp Randall, shredding Big Ten defenses and dominating basically everybody he plays.

    After finishing third nationally as a true freshman with 1,977 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, he improved on those numbers slightly this season, even as his team struggled. Taylor had 1,989 yards and 15 scores, and though he probably won't get a lot of Heisman buzz, his value is immense.

    Taylor is just the type of running back who can eventually win this award as a career achievement but only if his single-season statistics are worthy. They likely will be if the first two seasons for the 5'11", 214-pound running back are any indication.

    With 3,966 career rushing yards, Taylor has more than any other FBS player through his sophomore year. He shattered 1999 Heisman Trophy winner and Wisconsin alum Ron Dayne's record of 3,566.

    "I think I've gotten better from last year, especially as far as patience and letting blocks develop," Taylor told the Wisconsin State Journal's Jason Galloway. "Sometimes I could be a little quick last year and just take off and not really let them develop. So I feel like I've slowed it down a bit this year and improved in that area."

    Just think if Taylor's team improves. His freshman year, he was still learning, but the Badgers were one of the Big Ten's top programs. If they get there again with a better runner in Taylor next year, he'll get the national attention it takes to win the Heisman.

    He may bring it home for running backs once again.

2. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

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    Texas sophomore Sam Ehlinger wasn't even the guaranteed full-time starter heading into his second season in Austin, but he eclipsed Shane Buechele's shadow and wound up not only starting but starring for the Longhorns.

    He's a big reason why Texas was in the Big 12 Championship Game and enjoyed a program-changing season under second-year coach Tom Herman.

    Ehlinger grew up wanting to be a Texas Longhorns star quarterback, and he fulfilled that dream this year, completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 3,127 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions. He added 418 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.

    When Texas fell just short of beating Oklahoma for the second time, as the Sooners won the conference title, Ehlinger didn't pout. Instead, he issued a very Tim Tebow-esque proclamation, according to Burnt Orange Nation's Wescott Eberts:

    "I will make it my mission to never let this team or this school feel this disappointment again," Ehlinger said.

    When you couple Ehlinger's statistics, his growth and maturation in 2018 and his drive to make his childhood favorite one of the nation's best teams, it's easy to like how '19 shapes up for him being one of the best players in the nation.

    Ehlinger is a do-it-all player who can beat teams with his arm and his feet. With Herman calling plays, it's only going to get better for the 'Horns as they continue to improve their arsenal of offensive weapons.

    It also will help Texas that Oklahoma could be losing 2018 Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray and West Virginia definitely will have to move on from Will Grier. That means it may very well be the Longhorns' turn again in the Big 12.

    If they rule the conference, it'll be because of Ehlinger's leadership and ability. The Heisman may wear burnt orange again.

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

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    Tua Tagovailoa may have fallen just shy of winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore at Alabama, but there is no reason to believe he won't be right in the thick of the race again in 2019.

    As a junior with all those weapons around him, including Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Jerry Jeudy and stud first-year phenom Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa should be the maestro to yet another dynamic Crimson Tide offense.

    If Kyler Murray turns pro in football or baseball, and Dwayne Haskins follows through with the NFL draft as expected, Tagovailoa will be the runaway favorite.

    This year, he completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 3,353 yards, 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Had he played full games earlier in the year when Alabama was blowing everyone out, he certainly would have padded those numbers even more.

    Late in the year, however, he battled injuries that kept him from finishing some games, and as the Tide came back to beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Tagovailoa stood on the sideline as backup (and former starter) Jalen Hurts was the hero. That may have been the game that sealed his fate as the runner-up.

    Tagovailoa lost gracefully, and while it's mostly because he is a class act, it also has something to do with having unfinished business. Alabama is undefeated and marching toward another national title, but it has to get through Murray and the Sooners in the semifinals first.

    He has to return to Tuscaloosa at least one more season, and '19 looks like it could be his year to win college football's top individual honor if he can remain healthy and keep maturing.

    Obviously, some of that has to do with whom he meshes with following the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley to become Maryland's head coach, but if Alabama promotes quarterbacks coach Dan Enos to the position, it will help that he has a standing relationship with Tagovailoa. It could be another big year at the Capstone.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.