10 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2020 Heisman Trophy

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2020

10 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2020 Heisman Trophy

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    Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will open next college football season as the leading candidates for 2020 Heisman Trophy honors.

    Fields finished third in the balloting last year with 3,273 passing yards and 41 touchdowns against just three interceptions. The Georgia transfer added another 484 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground while propelling the Buckeyes to a 13-1 season.

    Lawrence finished seventh in the voting with 3,665 passing yards and 36 touchdowns. He also became more of a running threat than he was as a true freshman, tallying 563 rushing yards and nine more touchdowns. All of that helped him lead the Tigers to the national title game for the second straight season.

    After those two made a run at the award as underclassmen last year, which freshmen and sophomores could be in the running in 2020?

    Ahead, we've highlighted 10 underclassmen with the best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy during the upcoming season. Players are listed alphabetically by last name.

QB Dillon Gabriel, UCF

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    2019 Stats: 156.9 QB rating, 3,653 passing yards, 29 TD, 7 INT

    A dislocated knee and subsequent knee surgery at the end of the 2018 season left incumbent UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton sidelined for the entirety of 2019.

    That opened the door for 3-star recruit and true freshman Dillon Gabriel to seize the starting quarterback job, and he helped lead the team to a 10-3 record and the No. 24 spot in the final AP poll. While he was not a highly touted recruit, Gabriel had offers from Georgia and USC, so his talent was evident even if he was not aggressively pursued during his prep days.

    In his breakout performance last year, Gabriel threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Stanford, and he didn't slow down the rest of the way.

    UCF should have a legitimate shot at the Group of Five spot in the New Year's Six bowls next year, and if the Knights can pull off an upset of North Carolina during the nonconference slate, they will be nationally relevant.

    He'll be a long shot to win the Heisman Trophy regardless, but Gabriel could find his way onto some ballots if he can build off his strong freshman performance.

QB Sam Howell, North Carolina

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    2019 Stats: 160.2 QB rating, 3,641 passing yards, 38 TD, 7 INT

    The Tar Heels had not had an impact player at the quarterback position since Mitch Trubisky left for the NFL following the 2016 season.

    Enter Sam Howell.

    A 4-star recruit and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, Howell was the starting quarterback from the jump and finished as the ACC leader in passing touchdowns.

    Standout receivers Dyami Brown (51 receptions, 1,034 yards, 12 TD) and Dazz Newsome (72 receptions, 1,018 yards, 10 TD) will both return after terrific seasons, giving Howell two trusted targets in the passing game.

    After improving from 2-9 in 2018 to 7-6 last year, the Tar Heels are expected to be nationally relevant for the first time in years, and that should help Howell earn another degree of recognition.

QB Bo Nix, Auburn

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    2019 Stats: 125.0 QB rating, 2,542 passing yards, 16 TD, 6 INT, 313 rushing yards, 7 TD

    Thrown into the fire that is the SEC West, Bo Nix held his own as a true freshman starter at Auburn. He led the Tigers to wins over Oregon (27-21) and Alabama (48-45) while keeping things close in losses to LSU (23-20) and Georgia (21-14).

    A 5-star recruit and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, Nix was tested as much as any newcomer in the nation, and he will need to take a step forward for the Tigers to improve on last year's 9-4 finish.

    Among his recent list of bold predictions for the upcoming season, Bud Elliott of 247Sports forecasted that Nix would eclipse 4,000 passing yards in 2020:

    "Only two quarterbacks have ever thrown for even 3,000 yards for Auburn, and none over 3,300, so this would be pretty aggressive. But Bo Nix has a lot of arm talent. He has some quality receivers. The Tigers brought in coach Chad Morris to run the offense, and Morris likes to chuck it around a bit. Plus, with how much Auburn is losing on defense, the Tigers could be in some shootouts. I’d say smashing a record at a school which has played football for 100-plus years would be bold."

    Regardless of his ultimate yardage total, Nix should be able to take a significant step forward as a sophomore.

QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

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    2019 Stats: 155.5 QB rating, 81 passing yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

    With Heisman Trophy runner-up Jalen Hurts moving on to the NFL after throwing for 3,851 yards and 32 touchdowns with adding another 1,298 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground, it's time for a new signal-caller to take the reins of the high-powered Oklahoma offense.

    No high-profile transfer has been added to the mix this time around, due in large part to the level of confidence the team has in Spencer Rattler.

    A 5-star recruit and the No. 11 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class, Rattler is the total package, as Barton Simmons of 247Sports explained: 

    "Natural passer with a quick release. Does not need to load up to generate velocity. Throws with more zip than power. Sharp all over the field. Accurate in ball placement. Disassociates his upper and lower half to make off-platform, unconventional throws with ease. Fluid athlete with the ability to extend plays. Has some natural confidence and magnetism as a leader."

    With Kennedy Brooks (1,011 yards, 6 TD) and Trey Sermon (385 yards, 4 TD) returning at running back, and receiver Charleston Rambo (43 receptions, 743 yards, 5 TD) coming back in the passing game, Rattler will be surrounded with plenty of experienced weapons on offense.

    That should be a recipe for success as the Sooners look to remain atop the Big 12 heap.

QB Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State

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    2019 Stats: 145.4 QB rating, 2,065 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT, 628 rushing yards, 2 TD

    After redshirting as a freshman, Spencer Sanders was well on his way to a breakout season in 2019 when he underwent surgery on his thumb in late November.

    Hawaii transfer Dru Brown replaced him under center the rest of the way and performed well, but he has since graduated, leaving no question the job will belong to Sanders in 2020.

    A 4-star recruit out of high school and the No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class, Sanders solidified his hold on the starting gig with a brilliant debut against Oregon State last year. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 109 yards rushing on 13 carries.

    That is the type of multifaceted production Sanders is capable of going forward.

    The Cowboys went 8-5 last year and are one of a handful of Big 12 squads capable of chasing down Oklahoma for conference supremacy in 2020. The upside Sanders provides is a big reason for that optimism.

QB Tyler Shough, Oregon

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    2019 Stats: 226.6 QB rating, 144 passing yards, 3 TD, 0 INT

    With Justin Herbert moving on to the NFL, the Oregon Ducks' quarterback situation will be one of the most compelling roster battles to monitor this spring.

    The front-runner appears to be Tyler Shough, though he will have to hold off a trio of other viable candidates:

    • Jay Butterfield: 4-star in 2020, No. 146 overall recruit
    • Robby Ashford: 4-star in 2020, No. 291 overall recruit
    • Cale Millen: 3-star in 2019, No. 423 overall recruit

    Shough, a 4-star recruit and the No. 7 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 class, appeared in four games last year and completed 12 of 15 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns.

    "He's really smart," Herbert told reporters of Shough. "He's really athletic, as well. He makes some plays in practice that sometimes I don't even believe. He's done such a great job, and I have complete trust in him and faith, and I know the other guys do, as well."

    If any underclassman quarterback is going to come out of nowhere to become one of the nation's top passers at a marquee program in 2020, Shough just might be the guy.

QB Kedon Slovis, USC

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2019 Stats: 167.6 QB rating, 3,502 passing yards, 30 TD, 9 INT

    After failing to crack the final AP poll each of the past two years and going a combined 13-12, USC enters 2020 with something to prove.

    Luckily, things are looking up thanks to Kedon Slovis.

    A 3-star recruit in 2019, Slovis began last season behind JT Daniels on the depth chart, but he quickly moved into the QB1 slot after Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.

    In his first start, Slovis threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-20 victory over Stanford, and his numbers became more prolific as the season progressed.

    Over the final five games of Pac-12 play, Slovis threw for a staggering 2,023 yards and 19 touchdowns, and a full season producing at that level for a nationally relevant USC squad could put him squarely in the Heisman Trophy mix.

CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

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    2019 Stats: 38 tackles, 6 INT, 15 pass deflections

    A first-team All-American as a true freshman, Derek Stingley Jr. turned in a dynamic debut for national championship-bound LSU. He led the SEC in interceptions (six) and pass deflections (15) while also making his mark in the return game with 17 punt returns at 9.6 yards per return.

    The No. 3 overall recruit in the 2019 class wasted no time living up to the hype, and he is already being billed as a future top-five pick in the NFL.

    Paul Myerberg of USA Today shared some of the early praise the cornerback has received from his own position coach:

    "LSU assistant coach Corey Raymond has led the Tigers' defensive backs for eight seasons, coaching three first-round picks, seven overall draft choices and seven first-team All-America selections. At this stage, Raymond said, Stingley is the best he's had. Nobody within the program is surprised — not by the six interceptions, not by the All-America accolades, not by how Stingley has embraced playing on an island in LSU's defensive scheme and more than held his own against a parade of upper-echelon talent."

    Defensive players always face an uphill battle when it comes to the Heisman voting, but Stingley is still one to watch as he enters his sophomore season as one of the most hyped players in college football.

RB Master Teague III, Ohio State

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    2019 Stats: 135 carries, 789 yards, 4 TD

    J.K. Dobbins piled up 2,003 rushing yards, 247 receiving yards and 23 total touchdowns as the headliner of the Ohio State rushing attack en route to a sixth-place finish in last year's Heisman voting.

    Now he's on to the NFL, and the backfield belongs to Master Teague III.

    The No. 11 running back in the 2018 recruiting class, Teague redshirted as a freshman before stepping into a prominent role in the Buckeyes' run-heavy attack. Even playing behind Dobbins, he still finished seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards (789) and fifth in yards per carry (5.8). He had a pair of 100-yard rushing games and recorded double-digit carries nine different times.

    Quarterback Justin Fields will be back to lead the Ohio State offense once again in 2020, and he looks like the early co-favorite for 2020 Heisman honors alongside Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. That said, it's not out of the question to think that Teague could emerge as the offensive workhorse and the team's top Heisman candidate before the season comes to a close.

RB Zamir White, Georgia

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    2019 Stats: 78 carries, 408 yards, 3 TD

    After back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons from D'Andre Swift, the Georgia backfield now belongs to rising redshirt sophomore Zamir White.

    He was a 5-star recruit and the top running back in the 2018 recruiting class, and 247Sports offered up a glowing review during his days as a prep standout:

    "There's not much White doesn't do at a very high level. He has a great combination of speed, size and power. White is instinctive and has very good vision. He can make defenders miss or run over them. White can also run inside or outside and is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. He is a very special player and has a chance to be a superstar in college."

    With quarterback Jake Fromm, left tackle Andrew Thomas, left guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Isaiah Wilson all joining Swift by moving on to the NFL, the Georgia offense will have a decidedly different look in 2020. 

    That could mean the team relies even more heavily on the running game, which could thrust White into the Heisman Trophy conversation if he lives up to the hype and his own raw tools.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.