Last month the NFL draft quenched the thirst of Heisman Trophy fans everywhere by offering a number of intriguing storylines. For the first time in draft history, two Heisman winners—Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota—were selected with the top two overall picks. Meanwhile, two 2014 Heisman finalists—Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Alabama’s Amari Cooper—also went in the first round.
With the last two winners of the trophy and all three finalists from 2014's campaign set to begin their pro careers, the Heisman race begins anew in 2015. No player wins or loses the Heisman during spring workouts, but that doesn’t mean a contender can’t help or hurt his case during those 15 practices. What does the Heisman field look like as we enter the offseason? We rank the top 10 candidates as spring practice comes to a close.
1. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
TCU’s quarterback underwent minor surgery on his non-throwing wrist at the end of spring practice. The procedure caused Boykin to miss the Horned Frogs’ final few workouts, but it wasn’t enough to knock him from atop the list of Heisman contenders in 2015. Gary Patterson said Boykin should be healthy by fall camp, which is great news for the Horned Frogs. Their offense brings back 10 starters from a group that finished second nationally in scoring (46.4 points per game) and shared the Big 12 title with Baylor. Boykin is the motor behind that attack and he’ll reach New York if he takes care of business.
2. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
It doesn’t seem to bother Urban Meyer that the entire country is following his quarterback competition. The Ohio State coach declined to name a starter this spring, instead opting to give Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett more time to nurse injuries. But it’s Jones, the healthiest passer, who likely ended spring with a leg-up in the race. After Ohio State’s spring game, in which Jones uncorked a 74-yard pass during a halftime passing competition, Meyer told reporters that Jones had a “very good spring.” The redshirt junior is the Buckeyes’ top Heisman contender until someone unseats him.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
With Ohio State’s quarterbacks stealing the spotlight last season, it’s easy to see why Elliott flew under the radar. That won’t be the case this year. The running back was arguably the Buckeyes' most impressive player down the stretch last year, rushing for 696 yards and eight touchdowns during the final three games. Elliott missed most of spring practice due to off-season wrist surgery, but he should be healthy for fall. The bigger question is whether he can grab the Heisman spotlight from Jones, or whoever wins the quarterback battle.
4. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb showed the SEC a sample of his potential last year when he shined during Todd Gurley’s suspension and injury. With Gurley gone, Chubb was the de-facto leader of Georgia’s offense this spring. The sophomore's veteran-like work ethic didn’t go unnoticed by coaches, who rewarded him with one of the program’s “Coffee County Hustle Awards,” which recognizes players who show the most “desire” during spring practice. Chubb used his spring break to return to his hometown of Cedartown, Ga., and work out with his high school coaches. Simply put, he has the tools to become one of the best running backs in the country.
5. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson wasn’t able to go through spring practice as he rehabbed a torn ACL, but Clemson fans shouldn’t worry about the quarterback’s status. “I never doubted myself, and I want to come back even better than I was before,” Watson told SI.com in April. Now the former five-star signee enters 2015 as perhaps the ACC’s best quarterback. He’s the most dynamic of Clemson’s seven returning starters on offense, a unit that should keep the program in contention for the ACC title. The Tigers will go as far as a healthy Watson takes them.
6. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Henry is a beastly runner who looks the part of a Heisman-caliber back. Unfortunately for the burly junior, he’s one of the few proven commodities on Alabama’s offense. That group ended spring practice without filling several holes on offense, including starting quarterback. As head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin search for three new starters on the offensive line and a viable replacement for receiver Amari Cooper, Henry is the one clear threat the Crimson Tide's offense retains. After he rushed for 990 yards on 172 carries last fall, no one doubts Henry’s ability as a running back; but the junior can’t carry the load by himself. Give Henry a serviceable passer and a competent offensive line, however, and he could run all the way to New York.
7. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
Predicting Heisman contention for first-time starters is always a roll of the dice, but Johnson is no stranger to the SEC. He backed up Nick Marshall for the past two seasons and completed 14 of 22 passes for 252 yards with two touchdowns in Auburn’s spring game. Johnson has a better arm than the dual-threat Marshall and prefers a drop-back style in the pocket. Without departed running back Cameron Artis-Payne in the backfield, Auburn is likely to throw more in 2015. That means Johnson should have plenty of opportunities to impress this season.
8. Cody Kessler, QB, USC
Expect Kessler and the Trojans to garner a lot of preseason hype as Pac-12 contenders. After throwing for 39 touchdowns against five interceptions in 2014, Kessler opted to return to campus and boosted the Trojans' expectations this fall. USC returns 14 total starters in Steve Sarkisian’s second season at the helm, and Kessler said the vibe on offense is totally different than this time last year. “We're going a million times faster this spring. It's been exciting," he told ESPN.com last month. Receivers like Juju Smith and Steven Mitchell stood out in spring practice, which could be a great sign for their quarterback. But Kessler’s numbers alone won’t make him a Heisman candidate; turning USC into a playoff contender will.
9. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette rushed for more than 100 yards five times as a true freshman last fall, yet he thinks he might be better this year. “Getting faster and more lean,” he told reporters this spring, per Ross Dellinger of The Advocate. “I feel like I’m faster.” Fournette led all rushers in LSU’s spring game with eight carries for 42 yards. The sophomore should be a focal point again this fall as his offense sorts out the battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris at quarterback. It’s possible Fournette’s first year in Baton Rouge—1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns—was a prelude for bigger things to come.
10. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
Prescott’s decision to spurn the NFL and return for his senior year was a nice break in an otherwise distressing offseason for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ nine returning starters are the fewest in the SEC, which means this is Prescott’s team even more than before. The good news is the senior looked sharp this spring; he completed 20 of 29 passes for 231 yards with three touchdowns and no picks in one half of play in the spring game. Other than under center, Mississippi State might not boast the same firepower on either side of the ball as last year. Prescott will have to carry the team if he hopes to make another Heisman run.
Keep an eye on: Oregon RB Royce Freeman, Baylor QB Seth Russell, Michigan State QB Connor Cook, Arizona LB Scooby Wright III, Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, Wisconsin RB Corey Clement, Arizona QB Anu Solomon