By Zac Ellis
May 05, 2014

Jameis Winston; Nick Marshall; Braxton MillerJameis Winston, Nick Marshall and Braxton Miller are all on the early 2014 Heisman radar. (Getty Images :: Icon SMI)

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the time lapsed since actual games, but fans annually read too much into spring practice. Remember that third-string tailback who scored a touchdown in the spring game? Naturally, he’ll become a star in the fall. Yet those types of projections rarely come to fruition.

So, seven months before the 80th Heisman Trophy is doled out in New York, the end of spring practice is the perfect time to assess the Heisman landscape. Well, maybe not, but the unpredictability of the race is what makes it so exciting. The last two winners, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, emerged out of relative anonymity to claim college football’s most prestigious prize. Both were redshirt freshmen, a class that had never previously won the award.

That’s why the notion of a preseason Heisman favorite has partially disappeared, as have some historical limitations that once held candidates back. But certain players are in better position to make a run at the trophy than others. With spring practice in the rearview, here is a way-too-early breakdown of the 2014 Heisman field, broken down by tiers.

(Note: Players are listed alphabetically.)

The Frontrunners

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, Georgia RB Todd Gurley, UCLA QB Brett Hundley, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Baylor QB Bryce Petty, Florida State QB Jameis Winston, Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon

Only a handful of players possess all the key components of a preseason Heisman favorite. They play for big-name programs. They return as proven commodities. They line up at offensive skill positions, something that gives them an overwhelming advantage in the Heisman race.

Keep in mind, 27 of the last 30 winners have been quarterbacks or running backs. The trend towards passers is even more pronounced in recent years, as 12 of the last 13 winners (and four straight) have been quarterbacks. That’s why this list is stocked with players from the two power positions. These candidates have all shown they can produce, and they have the name recognition to enter the season on Heisman short lists.

The most intriguing case here is Winston. The Florida State quarterback returns fresh off a Heisman win and a BCS title victory, but much like Manziel in 2013, that means expectations will be sky-high for the redshirt sophomore come fall. Anything short of an undefeated regular season and a berth in the College Football Playoff could make it difficult for Winston to repeat. Indeed, only former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin has hoisted the Heisman twice (in 1974 and ’75).

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The Next Level

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah, Alabama QB Jacob Coker, South Carolina RB Mike Davis, Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly, Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight, Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford, Auburn QB Nick Marshall

This group is full of players who aren’t yet stars, but have the potential to command the national spotlight. For some, the end to last season could provide a momentum boost entering 2014. Knight and Langford led their teams to BCS bowl victories, while Marshall came mere seconds away from capping Auburn’s renaissance with a national championship. Others, like Davis, burst out of the gate last year, but cooled off by November.

Questions linger over each player in this tier, and the answers to each could shape their Heisman candidacies. Can Marshall develop into a more polished passer? Can Knight maintain the form he showed in the Sugar Bowl? The biggest question may surround Coker, a Florida State transfer who has yet to arrive in Tuscaloosa. Is he ready to seamlessly step in for the departed AJ McCarron?

These players have several of the ingredients necessary for a 2014 Heisman push. Whether they capitalize, however, remains to be seen.

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The Dark Horses

Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, LSU RB Leonard Fournette, Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg, Alabama RB Derrick Henry, Notre Dame QB Everett Golson, UCLA RB/LB Myles Jack, Missouri QB Maty Mauk

Beyond Manziel and Winston, a number of sleeper candidates have worked into the Heisman mix in recent years. Auburn running back Tre Mason (2013), Boston College back Andre Williams (’13) and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (’12) all reached New York as Heisman finalists despite starting the season as unlikely contenders. But dark horses need three things to happen for a Heisman run: Their teams must exceed expectations; they must record eye-popping individual statistics; and a bevy of Heisman frontrunners must fall by the wayside.

With new coach James Franklin in State College, maybe the already productive Hackenberg can lead the depth-depleted Nittany Lions to success. Perhaps Henry will emerge as the go-to tailback for the Crimson Tide, or Fournette will shine as a true freshman back in Baton Rouge. Cato is an intriguing guy to watch entering the fall: He has passed for more than 10,000 career yards with 91 touchdowns heading into his senior campaign.

Jack might be the only defensive player included on preseason watch lists. He split time between linebacker and running back for UCLA in 2013, which is good news, since no exclusively defensive player has ever won the Heisman. In fact, the only winner who played defense was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson (1997), and Woodson also served as a receiver and return man.

It’s only May. Plenty of unpredictable developments are sure to unfold over the course of the coming months. But if fans have learned anything from the past few seasons, it’s this: As the culture of college football evolves, so, too, does the state of the Heisman race.

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