We hear it all the time: The Heisman Trophy is a quarterback award. Based on recent history, that claim is hard to refute. Including Oregon’s Marcus Mariota win in 2014, quarterbacks have claimed 13 of the last 14 trophies. That trend also leans heavily towards dual-threat signal-callers, such as recent victors Cam Newton (2010), Robert Griffin III (2011), Johnny Manziel (2012) and Mariota.
History has spoken, but non-quarterbacks aren’t without any recent Heisman success. Alabama running back Mark Ingram emerged from a quarterback-heavy era to win the Heisman in 2009. USC’s Reggie Bush won in 2005, but the Heisman Trust no longer recognizes his victory due to NCAA trouble. A number of other names, such as Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon last season, have reached New York as finalists.
That’s why it’s far too early to dismiss every contender who isn’t a quarterback. While a number of talented signal-callers, like TCU’s Trevone Boykin and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, remain high on Heisman lists, others shouldn’t be far behind. In particular, there’s a noteworthy crop of running back candidates including Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and LSU’s Leonard Fournette.
A few other notes about the 2015 Heisman race:
• While quarterbacks have dominated the last 15 years of the Heisman—and lay claim to 32 trophies overall—running backs have won more Heismans (41) than any other position group.
• Wide receivers face an uphill battle in the Heisman race. Only three primary wide receivers have won the award: Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers (1972), Notre Dame’s Tim Brown (1987) and Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991). Yale’s Larry Kelley (1936) and Notre Dame’s Leon Hart (1949) also won as pass-catching ends.
• No exclusively defensive player has won a Heisman. The only primary defender to win, Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997, also returned punts and took snaps at receiver. Still, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o made arguably the best case ever by a pure defender just three seasons ago, when he finished second and earned the second-most first-place votes of any other runner-up.
With that, SI.com breaks down the 2015 Heisman field into three sections of candidates: Favorites, second-tier and long shots.
Trevone Boykin, QB TCU
Boykin fits the mold of several recent Heisman winners. Dual-threat quarterbacks have won five of the last seven trophies, and Boykin tossed for 3,901 yards and compiled 42 total touchdowns in 2014. Now he’s one of 10 returning starters on offense along with receivers Kolby Listenbee and Josh Doctson. With a Horned Frogs squad expected to contend for a playoff spot, Boykin is your Heisman favorite.
Nick Chubb, RB Georgia
Georgia’s sophomore running back has already figured out how to deal with fatigue as a college player. “If you’re tired, just go in and score and get off the field,” Chubb told ESPN last week. This fall Chubb could find the end zone a lot after reeling off 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as Todd Gurley’s backup in 2014. That’s because Chubb should be the focal point of a Dawgs’ offense that has its sights set on Atlanta.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB Ohio State
Last season many in Columbus wondered if Elliott could adequately replace Carlos Hyde in Ohio State’s backfield. The Buckeyes’ newest back responded with a 1,878-yard season, including 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the final three games to lead them to the national championship. The quarterbacks will garner headlines, but behind a stout offensive line, Elliott should be the best rusher in the Big Ten.
J.T. Barrett/Cardale Jones, QB Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ quarterback situation seemingly narrowed to two when Braxton Miller revealed his move to H-back in an interview with SI.com’s Pete Thamel. But who starts between Barrett and Jones against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7? Barrett ran for nearly 1,000 yards a year ago and brings a dual-threat dynamic. Meanwhile, Jones’s cannon arm helped Ohio State win a title. Whoever lands the starting job is an automatic Heisman contender.
Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson
Watson spent the entirety of Clemson’s spring practice rehabbing his torn ACL. He also watched workouts alongside head coach Dabo Swinney, “seeing things from a coach’s point of view,” he told SI.com in April. Perhaps that helps Watson this season, when he’ll return to Clemson’s offense without departed coordinator Chad Morris. When healthy, Watson looks like the best quarterback in the ACC. That could turn into a Heisman campaign.
Connor Cook, QB Michigan State
Cook was a 3,000-yard passer last season who tossed 24 touchdowns against just eight picks. In an era of running quarterbacks, Michigan State’s drop-back signal-caller should be the best Big Ten passer not located in Columbus. Cook will play behind a seasoned offensive line and face the spotlight against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. Sparty’s Week 2 home meeting with Oregon could be Cook’s coming-out party.
Leonard Fournette, RB LSU
LSU’s stud rusher didn’t look like a true freshman in 2014. He recorded 1,034 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, including a 143-yard, two-score outing against Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl. The Tigers still don’t have stability at quarterback, so expect Fournette to become a workhorse for Les Miles’ squad. If LSU blossoms into a contender, watch out for Fournette in the Heisman race.
Derrick Henry, RB Alabama
Alabama only returns two official starters on offense—both are offensive linemen—but Henry is hardly a new face. He rushed for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns as T.J. Yeldon’s backup last season. With Yeldon gone, the Crimson Tide could call Henry’s number more this season, especially if an uncertain quarterback situation doesn’t clear up. Plus, the junior won’t hurt for attention as the lead back in Tuscaloosa.
Jeremy Johnson, QB Auburn
Let the Cam Newton comparisons begin. Johnson has the look of the former Heisman winner at 6-5, 240 pounds, but he must deliver on immense hype. Johnson looked sharp this spring and should bring a more pass-happy feel to Gus Malzahn’s offense. Couple that with Will Muschamp’s expected impact on defense, and the Tigers’ quarterback should headline a playoff-bound roster.
Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
Prescott entered last fall as a dark horse Heisman candidate and grew into a frontrunner for much of the year. But two losses in the final three games of the regular season sunk his campaign. This year he returns as the best quarterback in the SEC with an unproven Bulldogs’ roster in tow. Prescott’s Heisman shot likely rests on Mississippi State’s ability to shock doubters in the SEC West.
Taysom Hill, QB BYU
BYU’s leader was in the midst of a strong year when he broke his leg against Utah State. When healthy, Hill is one of the more dynamic players in the country. He could reach New York as the Cougars contend for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
Samaje Perine, RB Oklahoma
Perine led the Big 12 with 1,713 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2014. He also set an FBS single-game record (427 yards) against Kansas. Perine could turn into a more dangerous contender alongside competent quarterback play from Baker Mayfield.
Scooby Wright, LB Arizona
A former two-star recruit—his Twitter account is @TwoStarScoob—Wright is the best returning defender in the Pac-12. Last season he notched an eye-popping 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.
Justin Thomas, QB Georgia Tech
Say what you will about coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense, but Thomas ran it to near-perfection last season. That resulted in an 11-win season and an Orange Bowl title. Back in Atlanta, can Thomas help the Ramblin’ Wreck take the next step?
Laquon Treadwell, WR Ole Miss
Treadwell’s season was cut short last fall when he suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle against Auburn. But in 2013 a healthy Treadwell set Ole Miss freshman records in catches (72), receiving yards (608) and touchdown catches (5).