Heisman Watch: A way-too-early look at the 2016 Heisman race
When Alabama running back Derrick Henry claimed the 81st Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, his victory marked the first for a running back since 2009. Henry was also the latest in a long line of non-seniors to win the Heisman. In fact, a senior hasn’t won the award since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith hoisted the trophy in 2006. Moreover, Henry isn’t the most telling example of youth in the Heisman race; sophomores made up four of the top seven vote-getters in 2015.
Why is this trend important? Because it means many of those faces will return to vie for the Heisman next season. While it’s too early to know which players will declare for the NFL draft, SI.com rounded up a list of 10 names to watch for the 2016 Heisman race, presented in alphabetical order.
*SI.com’s projections assume Henry will not return to Alabama in 2016.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
2015 stats: 74-116 passing (63.8 percent), 781 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs; 92 carries, 586 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 11 TDs (10 games)
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett set a school record with 3,772 yards of offense after he stepped in as Ohio State’s starter in place of an injured Braxton Miller. Had he not broken his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, Barrett would have likely reached New York. His breakout season pointed to bigger things in 2015, but a quarterback battle with Cardale Jones limited Barrett’s impact. Jones will be gone in 2016, meaning Barrett should enter the season as Ohio State’s starter. That positions the dual-threat playmaker in the thick of Heisman chatter.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
92 carries, 747 yards, 8.1 yards per carry, 7 TDs (six games)
Georgia’s stud sophomore saw his season cut short on Oct. 10 against Tennessee, when he suffered a knee injury on the first play of the game. But he averaged 8.1 yards per carry and had seven touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ first five games of the season. Georgia knows how effective Chubb can be when healthy; he showed his potential when he ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2014. Next fall Chubb could be one of the most dangerous weapons in the SEC for first-year coach Kirby Smart—if the running back returns to form.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
2015 stats: 211 carries, 1,658 yards, 7.9 yards per carry, 18 TDs; 22 catches, 218 yards, 1 TD (11 games)
Perhaps no player was more underappreciated this season than Dalvin Cook. The electric sophomore was the motor behind Florida State’s offense, running for 1,658 yards in essentially 10 full games on 7.86 yards per carry. Cook also amassed 18 rushing touchdowns. But he missed almost two full games with injury and barely showed up (82 yards on 4.8 per carry) in a 22-16 loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 24. He is set to return as a junior in 2016, and if he stays healthy, he’ll be in the Heisman conversation.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
2015 stats: 271 carries, 1,741 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 18 TDs (11 games)
At the midway point of the season, Fournette had all but sewn up the Heisman. But a lackluster performance against Alabama (19 carries for 31 yards) on Nov. 7 sparked the sophomore’s downward tumble. Still, Fournette managed to finish with the third-most rushing yards (1,741) of any FBS player despite playing just 11 games in 2015. He’s now rushed for 2,775 yards in his first two college seasons. There’s no reason to expect a drop-off next year from Fournette, the only rusher to average more yards-per-game (158.27) than Henry in 2015.
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
257 carries, 1,706 yards, 6.6 per carry, 14 TDs; 24 catches, 325 yards, 2 TDs (12 games)
Freeman’s strong season went unnoticed thanks to Oregon’s underwhelming 3-3 start and Christian McCaffrey’s meteoric rise at Stanford. But Freeman set an Oregon record when he finished the season rushing for 100 yards in eight straight games. During the Ducks’ current six-game win streak, Freeman averaged 141.2 rushing yards per game. If he runs for at least 100 yards against TCU in the Alamo Bowl, he’ll surpass LaMichael James’ single-season record of 1,805 yards in 2011. Next year Oregon won’t have quarterback Vernon Adams, which means Freeman should emerge as the Ducks’ primary playmaker.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
2015 stats: 243-354 passing (68.6 percent), 3,389 yards, 35 TDs, 5 INTs; 131 carries, 420 yards, 3.2 yards per carry, 7 TDs (12 games)
Mayfield felt like the biggest snub for a spot in New York this season. As a first-year starter in Norman, he served as the catalyst for the College Football Playoff-bound Sooners’ offensive turnaround, finishing the year second nationally in passing efficiency (178.86 rating) and yards per attempt (9.6). Mayfield also threw 35 touchdowns against just five interceptions. If the junior decides to stick around for another college season, he won’t stay under the radar for long.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
2015 stats: 319 carries, 1,847 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 8 TDs; 41 catches, 540 yards, 4 TDs; 36 kick returns, 1,042 yards, 1 TD; 2-3 passing, 2 TDs (13 games)
McCaffrey earned a runner-up finish in this year’s Heisman race after emerging as the most versatile player in college football. The Stanford sophomore became the only FBS player since 1996 to compile 1,500 rushing, 500 receiving and 1,000 kickoff return yards in a single season. In the end, McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders' single-season all-purpose record (3,250 yards) set in 1988, a mark once considered unbreakable. McCaffrey’s penchant for stuffing the stat sheet is reason enough to tune into Cardinal games in 2016.
Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
119-200 passing (59.5 percent), 2,104 yards, 29 TDs, 6 INTs; 49 carries, 402 yards, 6 TDs
Bryce Petty who? Seth Russell’s performance as a replacement for the departed Petty caused many Baylor fans to ask that question earlier this season. Through seven games the redshirt junior led the country in yards per pass (10.5) and pass efficiency (189.7) and was tied for most touchdown passes (29) among FBS quarterbacks. But Russell injured his neck in a 45-27 win over Iowa State on Oct. 24 and was forced to miss the rest of the season. Coach Art Briles could have one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country next year.
Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston
207-304 passing (68.1 percent), 2,590 yards, 16 TDs, 5 INTs; 178 carries, 1041 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 19 TDs
Ward’s do-it-all offensive talent helped lead Houston to the American Athletic Conference title in coach Tom Herman’s first season. The quarterback reeled off 3,631 yards of offense, becoming the first Cougar signal-caller to rush for 1,000 yards. In two seasons Ward has compiled an 18-2 record as Houston’s starting quarterback, and he finished as a finalist for both the Earl Campbell and Manning Awards in 2015. Next season Ward could build on that campaign.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2015 stats: 287-413 passing (69.5 percent), 3,512 yards, 30 TDs, 11 INTs; 163 carries, 887 yards, 11 TDs (13 games)
Watson finished his second college season by setting an ACC title-game record with 420 yards of offense in a win over North Carolina. That performance pushed Watson’s season production to 4,399 total yards, fourth-most among FBS players. The leader of No. 1 Clemson, who finished third in Heisman voting, did it all as a true sophomore coming off a torn ACL. Now Watson can add a national title to his résumé before he returns as a junior in 2016, when he could be even better.