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Heisman Watch: Breaking down the race after spring practice

Which Heisman Trophy contenders improved their cases this spring?

A long time ago—or, way back in December— compiled a “way-too-early” Heisman Watch following Alabama running back Derrick Henry’s ascension to the trophy. That list featured several familiar faces after sophomores made up four of the top seven vote-getters in 2015. The message was clear: expect some Heisman déjà vu in 2016.

Five months and dozens of spring practices later, little has changed in the presumed Heisman field. Many top-tier candidates—Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey—were limited or did not play this spring. But a few other under-the-radar contenders made early cases for the national spotlight during off-season workouts.

That’s why decided to hit reset on the Heisman field and compile a post-spring Heisman Watch. This time, however, we have separated the list into two categories: familiar contenders and prospects trending upward. Each of the categories includes five names listed alphabetically, but they don’t contain every contender for college football’s premier award. Instead, we have hit on a few players who used spring practice to bolster their Heisman campaigns.

Familiar contenders

J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

Barrett’s relatively bland performance in Ohio State’s spring game (13-for-22 for 102 yards, no touchdowns and two sacks) won’t turn many heads outside of Columbus. But the redshirt junior remains in the upper echelon of Heisman candidates heading into 2016. Two seasons ago the redshirt freshman set a school record with 3,772 yards of offense and finished fifth in the Heisman voting. But now Barrett enters an off-season as the presumptive starter for Urban Meyer—as opposed to last year, when he initially faced the prospect of competing with both Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller. And even though the Buckeyes lose a lot of NFL talent, receivers like Terry McLaurin, Torrance Gibson and Parris Campbell showed out in the spring game.

Leonard Fournette, RB,  LSU

To no one’s surprise, Les Miles kept Fournette under wraps during LSU’s spring game. The rising junior rushed just eight times for 49 yards, with his longest carry going for just 16 yards. But Fournette didn’t need to prove why he remains a serious threat for the Heisman in 2016. Last season the sophomore streaked to an LSU single-season record in total yards (1,953) and rushing touchdowns (22). This fall the Tigers return three starting offensive linemen and quarterback Brandon Harris, as well as a host of talented players on defense. But Fournette will be the bellcow of LSU’s offense and perhaps the biggest Heisman contender in the SEC.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kyler Murray, who isn’t eligible until 2017, stole a few headlines in Oklahoma’s spring game when he threw touchdown passes of 33 and 53 yards. But Mayfield, the Sooners’ unquestioned starter, completed 13-of-18 passes for 142 yards, a nice encore after a 2015 season in which he finished No. 3 in the FBS in passing efficiency and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. The gun-slinging Mayfield was one of the primary catalysts behind Oklahoma’s College Football Playoff run last season and will reprise that role in 2016. His candidacy might hinge on a receiving corps that loses All-American Sterling Shepard, but a number of pass-catchers—tight end Mark Andrews and receivers A.D. Miller and Dede Westbrook—looked sharp in the scrimmage. Plus, Mayfield will line up alongside skilled backfield mates Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

• ELLIS: 10 things we learned from spring practice

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Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston

Houston’s senior quarterback was sharp in the school’s spring game, completing 18-of-28 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. That performance followed a season in which Ward reeled off 3,631 yards of offense and became the first Cougar signal-caller to rush for 1,000 yards. Of course, Ward plays for a Group of Five school, which puts him at an historical disadvantage in the Heisman race. But after winning 13 games and a Peach Bowl title in 2015, Houston is poised to enter next season as the highest-ranked Group of Five program. That means Ward should earn more of the spotlight.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Watson finished third in the Heisman voting last year as a true sophomore coming off a torn ACL.  He became the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards. In Clemson’s spring game on April 9, Watson played just four possessions—two for each team—and completed 7-of-11 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Why should that scare ACC defenses this fall? “Deshaun got better this spring,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters. “He has gotten stronger physically. He looks great.”


Jake Browning, QB, Washington

The sophomore didn’t stuff the stat sheet during Washington’s spring game, completing 5-of-7 for 65 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass. But given the hype surrounding the Huskies as we approach the 2016 season, Browning could easily creep into the Heisman conversation. Last season he became the first true freshman ever to start at quarterback for coach Chris Petersen; Browning started 12 of Washington’s 13 games and passed for 2,955 yards, fifth-most in program history. Now the Huskies return almost every piece of their offense in 2016, meaning Browning has a chance to make noise on a national level.

Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

The Tennessee hype train has gained plenty of steam this off-season, as coach Butch Jones returns the bulk of a team that won nine games for the first time since 2007. This fall Dobbs will be that train’s conductor as a veteran returning quarterback in the SEC. In the Volunteers’ spring game on April 16 the senior completed 5-of-9 passes for 116 yards. The question is whether the dual-threat Dobbs can develop into a more consistent passer after he finished eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency in 2015. If Dobbs evolves into a legitimate downfield threat, he could emerge as the top quarterback in the SEC.

Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State

Francois compiled 283 total yards (246 passing, 37 rushing) and two touchdowns along with two interceptions in Florida State’s spring game, and the redshirt freshman did so in front of a hometown crowd in Orlando. Francois’s performance hardly ends the ‘Noles’ quarterback competition, of course. True freshman Malik Henry went 15-for-22 with two touchdowns while senior Sean Maguire missed all of spring following ankle surgery. But Francois might present the biggest upside of any quarterback on Florida State’s roster. If the young signal-caller helps the ‘Noles field a dangerous passing game—and compete for an ACC title—keep an eye on Francois in the Heisman race.

• BECHT: Which disappointments can bounce back in 2015?

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Baylor

For a player coming off his true freshman season, Stidham is hardly an unknown commodity in Waco. He played in 10 games in 2015, throwing for 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Russell missed this spring with a sprained pectoral muscle, which gave Stidham a chance to prove he might be the most capable backup quarterback in the country. He completed 21-of-27 passes for 176 yards in Baylor’s spring game, adding a six-yard touchdown run. None of this means Russell isn’t the Bears’ presumed starter in 2016, but Russell is also coming off neck surgery. If his health becomes a concern again, watch out for Stidham in Art Briles’s offense.

Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

It’s easy to see why Larry Fedora isn’t worried about his North Carolina offense following the departure of starting quarterback Marqise Williams. In short, the Tar Heels have Mitch Trubisky. The redshirt junior quarterback completed 13-of-22 passes, including 10 of his first 11 attempts, for 148 yards and one touchdown in the Tar Heels spring game on April 16. One week later, Fedora wasted no time in naming Trubisky the team’s new starter. A fourth-year junior, Trubisky has bided his time in Chapel Hill behind former quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Williams. Now it’s Trubisky’s turn to inherit North Carolina’s offense, which returns playmakers like running back Elijah Hood and receiver Ryan Switzer.