Five players who emerged as dark-horse Heisman candidates this spring
- After their performances this spring, don't count out Auburn's Jarrett Stidham, Florida State's Derwin James and more from Heisman consideration this season.
Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy run did not come out of nowhere. Last year he provided some obvious clues about what lay in store with a spring game performance that, even through the critical lens required to assess any April box score, hinted at a huge sophomore leap: 24 of 29 passing, 519 yards, eight touchdowns. That stat line served as proof that the vast potential Jackson flashed in a Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M in 2015 (four touchdowns, 453 total yards) was not anomalous.
No one this spring may have bolstered his Heisman CV to the extent Jackson did last spring, but several players made compelling cases that they shouldn’t be discounted in the race this fall. Here are five guys who established themselves as dark-horse candidates over the previous three months.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
When Jarrett Stidham announced last December that he would transfer to Auburn instead of finalists Florida and Texas A&M, it seemed a perfect union of scheme and skill set. In Stidham, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn would have an A-list talent to elevate his high-octane attack closer to the level it reached during its Cam Newton heyday. No, Stidham isn’t Superman, but his performance this spring augurs an offensive surge on The Plains in 2017.
The Baylor import completed 16 of his 20 passing attempts for 267 yards and powered five scoring drives in the first half of Auburn’s A-Day game in April. His effort included two throws of at least 45 yards, including a 50-yard dime to sophomore wideout Nate Craig-Myers, who finished with five catches for 154 yards and could serve as a go-to target for Stidham this season. There’s a very real possibility that Stidham, a former five-star prospect, makes good on his recruiting hype with a breakout campaign and propels Auburn into College Football Playoff contention. But Stidham ultimately may lack the statistical résumé to hang with other top candidates in the Heisman race. The Tigers are not going to abandon their running game, which will be fronted by arguably the nation’s best rushing tandem (juniors Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson).
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Will Grier hasn’t played in a regulation game since October 2015. At that time, he’d led Florida to a 6–0 record and seemed on track to develop into the headlining quarterback the Gators have lacked since Tim Tebow left. Then Grier was hit with a suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, and he sat out the rest of the season plus the 2016 season while he transferred to West Virginia.
Despite the lengthy layoff, Grier didn’t look rusty with his new team this spring, connecting on 12 of his 18 passing attempts for 202 yards in the Mountaineers’ spring game. He also seems to have found a No. 1 target in former quarterback David Sills, who finished with six receptions for 98 yards.
Like with Stidham, there’s a major drawback with projecting Grier as a prime Heisman contender: West Virginia’s running game will probably eat into his statistical production. The Mountaineers bring back two of the Big 12’s four leaders in rushing yards per attempt last season (senior Justin Crawford and sophomore Kennedy McKoy), and sophomore Martell Pettaway busted out for 181 yards in his debut against Iowa State last November. Even if Grier continues to shine in fall camp, new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital should tap into that well of backfield firepower as often as he can.
Derwin James, S, Florida State
The drive for more consideration of defensive players in the Heisman Trophy conversation probably won’t result in a major payoff this December. It would take an atypically undistinguished crop of quarterbacks, as well as an unusually mediocre group of running backs, for someone on the opposite side of the ball to break through. Don’t bet on it.
Yet if you had to pick one defensive player with the best chance of claiming the award in 2017, it would be hard to find fault with Derwin James. He reacquainted college football fans this spring with his sublime combination of athleticism and versatility. James reportedly lined up everywhere from cornerback to kick returner to defensive end and he registered seven tackles and a pair of sacks in the Seminoles’ Garnet and Gold game. Yet the biggest takeaway in Tallahassee concerned James’s health: He seems to have fully recovered from the meniscus tear that forced him to miss all but two games last season and, presumably, prevented him from doing things like skying for one-handed catches and pulling off through-the-legs dunks.
James is a protean terror capable of locking down wide receivers, crunching ball carriers and treating offensive linemen like Steven Seagal does bad guys. If he’s at his do-everything best this fall, voters may not be able to justify leaving him off their ballots.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Around this time last year, Oregon fans were eagerly anticipating the possibility of another graduate transfer quarterback from the Big Sky Conference driving the Ducks in the Pac-12 title race following Vernon Adams’s brilliant one-year stint in yellow and green. By October, it was clear the excitement was misplaced. Ducks supporters should have been smiling about Justin Herbert. The sophomore left no doubt heading into the off-season that he was Oregon’s QB of the future, and he kept the good vibes flowing in April by throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns on 16 of 26 passing in the Ducks’ spring game. All three of those scores went to Darren Carrington II, the top dog of a strong receiving corps that also includes explosive, 5’8’’ jitterbug Charles Nelson.
Stud tailback Royce Freeman could undercut Herbert’s Heisman push, but the Eugene, Ore., native is worth monitoring early in the season at the very least. Although new head coach Willie Taggart has talked about a quarterback battle, that’s probably part of a broader effort to gin up competition across the two-deep. Herbert is the Ducks’ best option at the most important position on the field, and it would be a huge shock if he’s not under center in their opener against Southern Utah.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Whether Mason Rudolph even counts as a Heisman dark horse is debatable. He threw for over 4,000 yards and ranked behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield among Big 12 quarterbacks in passing efficiency in 2016, and Mayfield smashed the single-season record in that statistic. SI.com identified Rudolph in early February as one of the best “value bets” for the 2017 Heisman, and the latest odds, according to Sportsbook.ag, put him at 16/1, better than established names like Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough (18/1), LSU’s Derrius Guice (18/1) and UCLA’s Josh Rosen (22/1).
More to the point, Rudolph did nothing this spring to hamper his Heisman case. Submitting a tidy 13-of-17 line in the spring game would be an encouraging sign for most signal-callers. For Rudolph, it was more like business as usual, an affirmation that the Cowboys star is a gifted passer with a receiving corps at his disposal that any other college quarterback should envy.
Maybe the most notable thing that happened in Stillwater with regard to Rudolph’s push for the bronze trophy was Oklahoma State perking up readers of The Da Vinci Code nationwide with its unveil of Rudolph’s official Heisman campaign. He probably won’t need a big PR push to get to New York, though. Rudolph’s play should be convincing enough.