One year can make a major difference in the career of a Heisman Trophy contender. Two seasons ago, Alabama’s Derrick Henry entered his sophomore campaign as a backup running back to T.J. Yeldon. A year later Henry ascended to the starting role and went on to become the Crimson Tide’s second Heisman winner.
Of course it was more than just the passing of the calendar that turned Henry into a Heisman victor. To make that leap, players must find ways to get better. Some also need to stay healthy. Others need their teams to contend for titles.
Last season sophomores made up four of the top seven vote-getters in the Heisman race, which means plenty of familiar faces return to the field this fall. But what do the biggest contenders need to do to legitimately vie for the Heisman in 2016? SI.com breaks down the top priorities for eight Heisman hopefuls, listed alphabetically, entering spring practice.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB: Take control of the starting job
Barrett blew the Big Ten away as a redshirt freshman in 2014, when he stepped in as Ohio State’s starter in place of an injured Braxton Miller and set a school record with 3,772 yards of offense. But last season Barrett played musical chairs with Cardale Jones and struggled to replicate that success. With Jones now gone, Barrett enters the year as the Buckeyes’ clear starter. A lack of internal competition could work wonders for Barrett, who now has two seasons of experience under his belt since his breakout year.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB: Keep the Seminoles in the playoff hunt
Florida State’s sophomore running back might have been the most underappreciated player in the country in 2015. He rushed for 1,658 yards (7.86 per carry) and 18 touchdowns in essentially 10 full games. But the Seminoles dropped out of the College Football Playoff conversation after a 22–16 loss at Georgia Tech on Oct. 24. Cook struggled in that game—82 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per carry—and saw his Heisman hopes tumble, as well, as Florida State fell from the national spotlight. His best shot at reaching New York this year relies on the ’Noles contending for a playoff spot.
Leonard Fournette, LSU RB: Shine on the big stage
Fournette lit the world on fire through the first half of the 2015 season, rushing for more than 150 yards in each of LSU’s first seven games. But the stud sophomore saw his Heisman hopes effectively vanish on Nov. 7 against Alabama, when he stumbled for just 31 yards on 19 carries. The Crimson Tide boasted one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, one that eventually led them to the national title. But Heisman winners perform as their best in the biggest moments. Fournette should have his chance to rectify that result in 2016, when the defending national champs venture to Baton Rouge on Nov. 5.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB: Beat your rival
Oklahoma’s stunning 24–17 loss to Texas in October had more to do with the Sooners’ defense giving up 313 rushing yards than Mayfield’s performance. But it can’t be overlooked that a normally potent Oklahoma offense managed just 17 points in the Red River Shootout and went a dismal 3-of-12 on third downs. At least some of that falls on the shoulders of the Sooners’ quarterback. Big moments can define a Heisman campaign, and few are consistently bigger than a matchup with your rival. Mayfield likely has this rematch circled on his 2016 calendar.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford RB: Go viral
Last season the freakishly productive McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’s NCAA record for all-purpose yards (3,864) and helped Stanford win the Pac-12 title before netting a second-place finish in Heisman voting. What more does McCaffrey need to do? In short, get noticed. Playing in the Pac-12 means late kickoffs, by which time many East Coast voters are busy writing their game columns or have already switched off for the day. That’s why McCaffrey must make enough head-turning plays to take advantage of social media and highlight shows. A key kick return posted on Twitter could help up the Stanford star’s profile across the country.
Seth Russell, Baylor QB: Stay healthy
Russell shot out of the gate in 2015, leading the FBS in yards per attempt (10.5) and passing efficiency (189.7) while throwing 29 touchdown passes through Baylor’s first seven games. But a neck injury suffered against Iowa State on Oct. 24 sidelined Russell for the rest of the season and ended any hope of a Heisman run. Last month Russell returned to the Bears’ spring practice four months after successful neck surgery. Now his priority is staying healthy as Baylor tries to jump back into playoff contention after a 10–3 season. If that happens, watch out for Russell in the Heisman race.
Greg Ward Jr., Houston QB: Keep winning
Houston’s dynamic quarterback is a darkhorse Heisman pick after passing for 2,828 yards, rushing for 1,108 yards and scoring 39 total touchdowns. But players from mid-major schools only garner Heisman attention when their teams win. Last season, Houston started 10–0 before a 20–17 loss at UConn on Nov. 21. In that game a banged-up Ward played in only two series and threw a game-sealing interception on Houston’s final offensive play. For Ward to grab the Heisman spotlight, he must stay healthy and play a big role in the Cougars’ quest to shake up the playoff race. A Week 1 opener against Oklahoma could set the tone for new highs for both Ward and Houston.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB: Take care of the ball
Clemson’s sophomore quarterback was a lightning rod during his team’s run to the national title game, as he averaged 347.3 yards of offense per game. But Watson’s résumé included one glaring flaw: the 13 interceptions he threw during the season. At Heisman voting time, Watson had tossed 11 picks, which would have been the most by a Heisman-winning quarterback since Florida State’s Chris Weinke in 2000 (11). Watson still finished as the ACC’s most efficient passer last season, but limiting that high number of turnovers in ’16 will remove the only blemish on his Heisman profile.