Way-Too-Early Heisman Sleepers for 2021 College Football Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 10, 2021

Way-Too-Early Heisman Sleepers for 2021 College Football Season

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    Iowa State QB Brock Purdy
    Iowa State QB Brock PurdyRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    College football fans (and the sportsbooks that take their money) have come to the conclusion that the 2021 Heisman is most likely to be one of Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei or Alabama's Bryce Young.

    But betting on the favorite(s) isn't much funnor has it been lucrative in recent years—so we've assembled a list of sleepers for college football's stiff-armed trophy.

    To be considered a sleeper for the Heisman, a player must have betting odds on DraftKings of 50-1 or longer. That cut line eliminates these 15 players from the conversation: Rattler, Uiagalelei, Young, JT Daniels, C.J. Stroud, Sam Howell, Matt Corral, D'Eriq King, Bijan Robinson, Kedon Slovis, Jayden Daniels, Emory Jones, Desmond Ridder, Breece Hall and Casey Thompson.

    Outside that group, everyone is eligible for this list.

    However, making the cut requires a healthy dose of anticipated success by player and team alike. With the exception of independent BYU's Zach Wilson, everyone who finished top 10 in last year's Heisman vote played for a team that reached its conference championship. In each of the past three seasons, both the winner and the first runner-up played in the College Football Playoff.

    Simply put, there's a reason the five guys with lines of 12-1 or better are the projected starting quarterbacks for the projected five best teams in the country.

    The Heisman doesn't often come from that club, though.

    As a wide receiver, DeVonta Smith didn't meet that description last season. Joe Burrow's LSU Tigers opened the 2019 campaign at No. 6 in the AP poll, behind both Alabama and Georgia in the projected SEC standings. Oklahoma debuted at No. 7 the year Baker Mayfield won, and again when Kyler Murray won. And the year that Lamar Jackson was named the Heisman, Louisville opened the season at No. 19 in the AP poll.

    With that in mind, let's go searching for potential diamonds in the rough.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order by school.

Honorable Mentions

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    UCF QB Dillon Gabriel
    UCF QB Dillon GabrielJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Michael Penix Jr., Indiana QB (50-1)

    If you're betting on any Heisman candidate coming back from a late-season torn ACL, it's probably Miami's D'Eriq King. Let's not forget about Indiana's lethal lefty, though. One week prior to suffering his injury, Penix lit up Ohio State's secondary for 491 yards and five touchdowns. The only other quarterbacks to eclipse 300 yards against the Buckeyes last year were the first runner-up (Trevor Lawrence) and second runner-up (Mac Jones) for the Heisman.


    Malik Willis, Liberty QB (Not Listed)

    In nearly leading Liberty to an undefeated season in 2020, Willis averaged 225.0 passing yards, 94.4 rushing yards and 3.4 total touchdowns per game. It took about a month for most people to even realize what he was accomplishing so far below the radar, but now he's a consensus late-first-round pick in 2022, per NFL Mock Draft Database. People will be paying attention to Willis earlier in the year this time, and he'll get some significant opportunities late in the year against Ole Miss and Louisiana. If the Flames flirt with perfection again, Willis might flirt with a Heisman.


    Kyren Williams, Notre Dame RB (100-1)

    Notre Dame QB Ian Book placed ninth in last year's Heisman vote, but Kyren Williams was the heart and soul of that offense, averaging nearly 120 yards from scrimmage per game. He'll need to kick that up another notch to have realistic hope of winning the Heisman as a running back. But if the Fighting Irish manage to get back to the College Football Playoff for a third time in four years, Williams will likely be the brightest star of that show (now that Book is gone).


    Dillon Gabriel, UCF QB (50-1)

    After a surprising breakout as a freshman in 2019, Gabriel stepped into the spotlight as a sophomore. He led the nation in passing yards per game (357.0) and racked up 32 touchdowns against just four interceptions (in 10 games). Were it not for the four losses suffered because of atrocious defense, he would've been a legitimate Heisman candidate. If the Knights can bounce back to national relevance—and if Gabriel can make a loud Week 1 statement in a Thursday night win over Boise State—he'll be in business.

John Metchie III, Alabama WR

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    John Metchie III
    John Metchie IIIJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 80-1

    In 2020, Alabama's DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard did it in 1991.

    What are the odds a different Alabama wide receiver can make it back-to-back years of such a rare feat?

    Well, those odds are 80-1.

    But if you're searching for a non-quarterback to bet on, recent history suggests Tuscaloosa is the place to look.

    Twelve of the last 15 Heisman winners were quarterbacks. The exceptions to that rule? Alabama's Smith, Alabama's Derrick Henry and Alabama's Mark Ingram.

    John Metchie III did more than enough last season to suggest he could turn that trio into a quartet.

    When Jaylen Waddle suffered a dislocated ankle on the first play of Alabama's fifth game of the season, the offense didn't even skip a beat. Metchie stepped effortlessly into the No. 2 WR job with seven catches for 151 yards that day. He ended the year with 55 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns.

    As was the case with Smith heading into the 2020 campaign, the big question is: Will he become the best receiver in the nation now that he's the offense's primary threat, or was he merely the "can't double team everyone" beneficiary of an offense that produced five of the top 24 overall picks in the 2021 NFL draft?

    My assumption is that he'll land somewhere in between those two extremes, but there has to be a better than 80-1 chance of the former. It's a question of whether you think a wide receiver can win the Heisman again. If so, Metchie's your man.

Brock Purdy, Iowa State QB

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    Brock Purdy
    Brock PurdyOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 50-1

    Given the axiom that the best Heisman odds go to the projected starting quarterbacks of the projected best teams, Brock Purdy at 50-1 makes absolutely no sense.

    At worst, he should be listed at 15-1.

    Iowa State brings back just about every starter from last year's team that went 8-1 in Big 12 play. The Cyclones will presumably open the season somewhere in the Nos. 6-8 range of the AP Top 25. There's a chance they start 10-0 before the massive road game against Oklahoma on Nov. 20. Even if they lose that game, they could get their revenge on the Sooners in the Big 12 championship.

    The College Football Playoff potential is definitely there.

    And unlike Bryce Young, DJ Uiagalelei and whomever Ohio State chooses to be its quarterback, Purdy has a long track record of collegiate success.

    In each of his three seasons as Iowa State's starting quarterback, Purdy completed at least 65.7 percent of his pass attempts and had a better than 2.0 TD-INT ratio. He has also rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in his college career.

    Perhaps the numbers aren't gaudy enough. He could be considered more of a game manager than a stat-sheet-stuffing Heisman contender.

    But judge a man by the company he keeps.

    Here's the full list of players in the past decade to amass at least 8,800 passing yards and 800 rushing yards with a completion percentage of 66 or better: 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, 2016 Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson, 2017 Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, 2019 Heisman winner Joe Burrow, 2020 Heisman runner-up Trevor Lawrence, Brett Hundley and Purdy.

    I have to assume the real reason Purdy's line is only at 50-1 is because of Breece Hall. Iowa State's running back led the nation in total rushing yards in 2020 and placed sixth in the Heisman vote. He is viewed by many as Iowa State's best chance at winning the Heisman. But because he's a running back, even he isn't getting great odds (40-1).

    Might as well play it safe and bet on both of Iowa State's underappreciated stars.

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU CB or Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon EDGE

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    Derek Stingley Jr.
    Derek Stingley Jr.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: Kayvon Thibodeaux 150-1; Derek Stingley Jr. Not Listed

    One important step in the Heisman sleeper vetting process is assessing NFL mock drafts, as preseason hype can play a big part in this postseason vote. At any rate, if two players—one a projected top-five pick; one not expected to go in the first roundhave similarly impressive stat lines by the end of September, the former will generate way more Heisman buzz than the latter.

    So let's talk about Thibodeaux and Stingley, each of whom is a projected top-seven pick in every at-least-half-baked mock draft under the sun. Because even though Charles Woodson (1997) was the only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman, both of these warrant consideration for the stiff-armed trophy.

    They were both rated in the top three the 2019 recruiting class by 247Sports, and they have both done a fine job of living up to that hype. Stingley picked off six passes and was a first-team AP All-American as a true freshman. Thibodeaux has been a force of nature with 20 tackles for loss in his last 13 games played. Getting and keeping the attention of the national media won't be a problem for either one.

    It doesn't hurt that neither one plays on a team with a clear-cut better candidate for Heisman.

    When Chase Young finished fourth in the 2019 Heisman vote, it was hard to say whether he, Justin Fields or JK Dobbins was Ohio State's MVP. Quinnen Williams faced a similar fate the year before that, placing eighth in the Heisman vote, well behind his teammate Tua Tagovailoa.

    But neither LSU nor Oregon has a player with Heisman odds of 50-1 or better, nor does either team have a definite front-runner to start at quarterback. If either team makes a legitimate push for the College Football Playoff, there's a good chance the soon-to-be top-five pick from the defense will be the face of the program and the one receiving the most Heisman love.

    If forced to choose one of the two for a long-shot bet, I would go with Stingley. The SEC gets way more national attention than the Pac-12, he gets bonus opportunities for highlights as LSU's primary punt returner and we'll be fawning over him obsessively if LSU's defense bounces back in a big way from last year's dumpster fire.

Adrian Martinez, Nebraska QB

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    Adrian Martinez
    Adrian MartinezMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 150-1

    "You know what they say. Fool me once, strike one. But fool me twice...strike three." - Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office.

    That's the view most Heisman bettors seem to have on Adrian Martinez.

    After an impressive true-freshman campaign in 2018, he was a trendy pick for the Heisman heading into the 2019 season. He was so hyped up that Nebraskawhich went just 4-8 the previous season—appeared in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time in five years.

    It didn't go well. He threw for 10 touchdowns against nine interceptions as the Cornhuskers sputtered to a third consecutive 3-6 record in Big Ten play. And if you thought it was a sophomore slump, 2020 was even worse. Martinez led Nebraska in rushing, but he and Luke McCaffrey basically shared the QB job, combining for only five passing touchdowns in eight games.

    However, with McCaffrey out of the equation (transferred to Louisville) and a much more normal offseason this year, maybe the fourth-year quarterback can tap back into that potential he showed three years ago.

    That's a big maybe, and it won't even matter in the Heisman conversation unless Nebraska turns the proverbial corner, too.

    But it's worth mentioning he'll have plenty of moments in the spotlight.

    With all due respect to the other four games taking place on August 28, Nebraska at Illinois is the most intriguing "Week Zero" contest by far. Martinez could come out on fire in that game and subsequently pad his stats in a big way against Fordham and Buffalo over the next two weeks prior to the big showdown with Oklahoma. Even assuming the 'Huskers are unable to win that one, Martinez could impress in defeat. Same goes for the game against Ohio State in early November.

    He's a long shot for a reason, but there are much worse spots your dart could land than a dual-threat, former Heisman candidate destined for at least a handful of nationally televised opportunities.

Ohio State's Other Potential Starting Quarterbacks

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    Jack Miller III
    Jack Miller IIIPaul Vernon/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: Jack Miller III 50-1; Kyle McCord Not Listed

    If this is a way-too-early Heisman article, I wrote a way-way-way-too-early Heisman article in mid-January. At the time, Miller was listed at 40-1 while neither McCord nor C.J. Stroud appeared among the more than 100 candidates. In the "Deep Sleepers" portion of that piece, I explicitly called out Stroud's absence as a mistake. Now he's tied with JT Daniels for the fifth-best odds.

    But, as far as we know, the only thing that has changed with Ohio State's QB pecking order since the offseason began is the public's perception of the race.

    It was the most-discussed position battle in the country throughout March and April, but the Buckeyes closed out spring camp with a "check back in the fall" cliffhanger.

    Third-year Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has given no indication as to which direction he is leaning, saying on April 23 (per Phil Harrison of Buckeyes Wire), "If we feel like someone's taken that much of a step ahead, and they're ready to play against Minnesota in that first week, then we'll name the starter at that point. If it's not until the week before, it's not gonna be until the week before."

    Even if he does have an early idea, it's hard to blame Day for keeping this one so close to the chest. The last time Ohio State had a clear favorite in a QB battle, basically everyone aside from Justin Fields transferred out of the program. The Buckeyes also lost Joe Burrow as a transfer the May before that when it became clear Dwayne Haskins was going to be the starter. Even though the winner of this battle will have four years of eligibility remaining, the OSU coaching staff would prefer to keep all three guys on the roster if possible. Prolonging the decision could help in that regard.

    But I digress. The moral of the story is we don't know who will start at quarterback for the favorite to win the Big Ten. And with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jeremy Ruckert and a ton of young talent at his disposal in the receiving game, that quarterback is an obvious threat to win the Heisman. Thus, Miller at 50-1 and McCord at whatever odds you can get him are worthy sleeper candidates.

Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma RB

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    Kennedy Brooks
    Kennedy BrooksSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: Not Listed

    With Spencer Rattler as the betting favorite to win the 2021 Heisman, promoting any other member of Oklahoma's offense as a candidate seems silly.

    But here's one thing to keep in mind in the case for Kennedy Brooks: Everyone loves a comeback story.

    There were well over 100 players who opted out of the 2020 college football season because of COVID-19 concerns. Of the ones who were starters at Power Five programs in 2019, most subsequently declared for the 2021 NFL draft.

    Brooks is an exception to that rule.

    The Sooners running back rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the 2018 and 2019 campaigns before sitting out last year. Among players who averaged at least five carries per game, he led the Big 12 in yards per carry in each of those years and has a career average of 7.5 YPC. And with all three of Oklahoma's 2020 leading rushers (Rhamondre Stevenson, TJ Pledger and Seth McGowan) out of the picture, the Sooners might lean on Brooks even more than they did for his first two seasons.

    The nation's leading rusher often flies a bit further below the national radar than he should, but if Brooks is that guy this year, he should get more than enough attention to have a Heisman pulse.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA QB

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    Dorian Thompson-Robinson
    Dorian Thompson-RobinsonRingo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 150-1

    The first two years of Chip Kelly's return to college football were anything but triumphant.

    Granted, he inherited a team replacing its star quarterback and top two receivers from the previous year, but compared to the high-octane offense Kelly was known for at Oregon, UCLA was plain bad in both 2018 and 2019. The team's scoring average in his first year with the Bruins (24.6) was less than half what it was in his final season with the Ducks (49.6).

    But UCLA had quite a spark during the seven-game 2020 campaign, ranking second to Arizona State in the Pac-12 in both points and total yards per game.

    Much of that can be attributed to the long-awaited arrival of Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

    DTR got a lot of playing time as a true freshman in 2018 and was the primary quarterback in 2019, but it wasn't until last season that he started to look like the fourth-best QB in a recruiting class that also featured Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. In five games played, he eclipsed 300 passing yards and four touchdowns twice and had at least 45 rushing yards in each contest.

    That's because, for the first time, he was afforded the opportunity to make reads in the pocket and/or run for yardage instead of constantly running for his life behind a porous O-line. All five starters from that blocking unit return in 2021, as do DTR's two favorite targets, Greg Dulcich and Kyle Philips. That rapport among the returnees along with the addition of former Michigan RB Zach Charbonnet could set the stage for this offense to take another big step forward.

    As with Adrian Martinez at Nebraska, though, we have to wonder whether it'll be enough to matter for Heisman purposes. UCLA has had five consecutive losing seasons, faces LSU early in the year, plays at USC and Utah and draws both Washington and Oregon in cross-divisional games. Getting to nine or 10 winsan unofficial prerequisite for Heisman consideration—is just about the furthest thing from a given.

    On the flip side of that coin, if UCLA does happen to beat LSU at the beginning of a breakthrough year of vying for a Pac-12 title, strap yourselves in for an endless barrage of DTR and Kelly love.

Graham Mertz, Wisconsin QB

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    Graham Mertz
    Graham MertzCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    DraftKings Odds: 80-1

    Graham Mertz might be the biggest wild card of the entire 2021 college football season.

    Coming out of high school, Mertz was one of the highest rated recruits that Wisconsin has signed in 247 Sports history (which dates back to 2000). He was the most coveted quarterback the Badgers have ever landed. Thus, the hype had been building for a while.

    He wasn't given much of a chance to showcase his talents as a true freshman in 2019, but he lit up Illinois for five touchdowns on 20-of-21 passing in his 2020 season debut. After that lone Friday night performance, it felt like Mertz and the Badgers could be a late addition to the College Football Playoff conversation.

    However, he tested positive for COVID-19 the following day and was nowhere near as impactful when the Badgers returned to action three weeks later. Over his final six games, he managed just four passing touchdowns and five interceptions.

    Was it because of the virus that he (and Wisconsin's entire offense) struggled so much after that initial explosion, or was it the general awfulness of the Illini defense that allowed Mertz to look so crisp in his first start?

    Probably a healthy dose of both A and B, right?

    Well, we'll find out early and often if Mertz is the real deal. Wisconsin opens the season at home against Penn State before drawing Notre Dame and Michigan in its third and fourth games, respectively. Lighting up any of those three defenses would be an impressive feat. And as long as Wisconsin wins at least one of those two Big Ten games, it will remain the projected Big Ten West Division champion.

    As is the case for Brock Purdy at Iowa State, it's fair to wonder whether this QB will be able to generate more Heisman hype than his primary RB. Wisconsin has had more than its fair share of dynamic running backs over the past quarter century, and Jalen Berger has the talent to join that fraternity.

    Nevertheless, Mertz should easily be the best thing to happen to Wisconsin's passing game since that lone season of Russell Wilson a decade ago.


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