10 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2021 Heisman Trophy

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2021

10 Underclassmen with Best Shot at 2021 Heisman Trophy

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    Josh Morgan/Associated Press

    The 2020 college football season began with everyone chasing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the Heisman Trophy race.

    Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith ended up separating himself from the pack and becoming the first non-quarterback or running back to win the award since Charles Woodson in 1997.

    Looking ahead to the 2021 season, the field is wide open, due in large part to a number of blue bloods turning to inexperienced options at quarterback.

    Among upperclassmen, North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, Miami quarterback D'Eriq King, Iowa State running back Breece Hall, Georgia quarterback JT Daniels and USC quarterback Kedon Slovis are among the notable candidates.

    However, our focus is on the 10 underclassmen with the best chance to win the award.

RB Tank Bigsby, Auburn

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Tank Bigsby arrived at Auburn last year as a 4-star recruit and the No. 4 running back in the 2020 recruiting class, and he made the most of a clear path to playing time in the Tigers backfield.

    He racked up 834 rushing yards on 138 carries for a healthy 6.0 yard-per-carry average while also contributing in the passing game (11 receptions, 84 yards) and return game (13 kick returns, 23.5-yard average).

    With quarterback Bo Nix failing to take the step forward many were expecting, new head coach Bryan Harsin would be wise to lean heavily on Bigsby and the running game in 2021.

QB Max Johnson, LSU

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    First things first, Max Johnson will need to win the starting quarterback job for LSU.

    Myles Brennan began 2020 as the starter before an abdominal injury sidelined him after three games. He returns along with TJ Finley, while 4-star recruit Garrett Nussmeier joins the fray.

    However, Johnson made a strong case to be QB1 down the stretch as a true freshman starter with back-to-back wins over Florida and Ole Miss to close the year.

    • vs. Florida: 21/36, 239 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
    • vs. Ole Miss: 27/51, 435 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT

    With a potentially elite go-to receiver in Kayshon Boutte and an experienced stable of running backs, whoever starts under center for LSU will be in a great position.

QB Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Even with almost an entire roster of returning starters, Coastal Carolina still faces a steep uphill battle to get into the national title conversation as the Group of Five continues to be shut out of the playoff picture.

    Quarterback Grayson McCall faces a similar situation in the Heisman race, but he's deserving of a mention after a stellar redshirt freshman season.

    McCall completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,488 yards with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions, while adding another 569 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry and seven scores en route to an undefeated regular season and an 11-1 finish.

    Not bad for a 2-star recruit whose only other FBS offer came from Army.

QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Despite a disappointing two-loss season for Oklahoma, redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler showed he has the tools to follow in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to bring another Heisman to Norman.

    The No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, Rattler completed 67.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Three of those interceptions came in an early-season loss to Kansas State, and he clearly became more comfortable as the campaign wore on.

    With sophomore standout Marvin Mims providing a go-to target and an experienced offensive line to protect him, Rattler is a legitimate candidate to take home the hardware in 2021.

RB Bijan Robinson, Texas

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    If Tom Herman had better utilized Bijan Robinson last season, he might still be the head coach at the University of Texas.

    The 5-star recruit set a school record with 8.2 yards per carry, yet he carried the ball more than 15 times just once all season, finishing with 703 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

    His vast skill set was on full display in the Alamo Bowl when he rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown, scored two more times on receptions and returned a kick 16 yards.

    Now that Steve Sarkisian is in the coach's seat and quarterback Sam Ehlinger is off to the NFL, expect Robinson to be the focal point of the offense in 2021 and one of the nation's most productive players.

RB Will Shipley, Clemson

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    Michael Clark/247Sports

    The only true freshman on this list, Will Shipley is poised to make a major impact in 2021 as Clemson tries to replace Travis Etienne in the backfield.

    Here's a snippet from the scouting report that Charles Power of 247Sports provided a year ago:

    "One of the most productive running backs in the 2021 cycle, leading his team to an undefeated season and state title as a junior. Breaks off long runs at a high rate, using his speed to get to the edge and pull away from defenses. Has good vision and effectively reads his blocks and finds daylight. Runs with physicality and shows the ability to break arm tackles at the second level. Embraces all aspects of the position and is a complete back. One of the more skilled pass catchers among backs in the 2021 cycle and is a threat as a receiver out of the backfield."

    Lyn-J Dixon (42 carries, 190 yards), Chez Mellusi (27 carries, 151 yards) and Darien Rencher (24 carries, 137 yards) all return as complementary pieces for the Tigers, but Shipley, a 5-star recruit, will get every opportunity to seize the featured back role.

QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Similar to Johnson at LSU, C.J. Stroud will first need to win the starting quarterback job for Ohio State before he can officially be declared a Heisman contender.

    A 4-star recruit and the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class, Stroud served as the backup to Fields last season and broke off a 48-yard touchdown run in mop-up duty.

    The fact that he was QB2 last season should give him an edge over Jack Miller III among returning options, but both will need to hold off 5-star freshman Kyle McCord for the gig.

    With the nation's best returning wide receiver duo in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and a strong running back led by Master Teague III, whoever takes the reins of the Buckeyes offense should put up big numbers for a title contender.

QB D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei saw more playing time than expected as a true freshman when he was forced into action following a positive COVID-19 test for Lawrence.

    The Tigers lost to Notre Dame in overtime in one of his two starts, but Uiagalelei looked the part of a future star:

    • vs. Boston College: 30/41, 342 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 rush TD
    • vs. Notre Dame: 29/44, 439 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 1 rush TD

    The Tigers are losing multiple skill players to the NFL, but the recruiting pipeline is still flowing with top-tier talent, and a healthy Justyn Ross would give the young quarterback a big-play weapon in the passing game.

    Lawrence has left some big shoes to fill, but Uiagalelei is more than capable of making a sophomore Heisman run.

RB Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    After a 4-1 start that included a win over Oklahoma and a peak at No. 16 in the AP poll, Kansas State lost five games in a row to close out the 2020 season.

    As a result, the stellar performance of true freshman running back Deuce Vaughn went largely unnoticed on a national level, but he won't fly under the radar for long.

    The 2020 3-star recruit led the team in rushing (123 carries, 642 yards, 7 TD) and receiving (25 receptions, 434 yards, 2 TD), and he averaged 20.7 yards on seven kickoff returns.

    He had a season-high 125 yards on 10 carries against Texas in the regular-season finale, and there is little doubt he's the most dynamic weapon on the Wildcats roster.

    The 5'6" Darren Sproles finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 2003 while he was playing at Kansas State, and the 5'5" Vaughn provides a similar profile with that type of production upside.

QB Bryce Young, Alabama

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Even with Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle all moving on to the NFL, Alabama still has the offensive weapons for Bryce Young to be a star.

    The No. 2 player and the top overall quarterback recruit in the 2020 class, Young drew comparisons to Russell Wilson during his time at California powerhouse Mater Dei High School.

    Wide receiver John Metchie lll and running back Brian Robinson Jr. return as proven weapons, and plenty of other former top-tier recruits are ready to take more prominent roles.

    He's thrown just collegiate 22 passes, but Young is poised to become one of the faces of college football in the coming years, and he'll be among the leading Heisman Trophy contenders from the jump in 2021.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, while recruiting information comes via 247Sports.


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