A Way-Too-Early Look at 2021's Top Heisman Contenders

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Alabama star DeVonta Smith shocked the world—and preseason oddsmakers—when he became the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard did so in 1991. It was something of a refreshing deviation from the recent norm of the country’s best passers holding a monopoly on the award. But with several young quarterbacks primed to take a leap in 2021, don’t expect that trend to continue for long.

Here’s a look at several candidates poised to make a run at the 2021 Heisman Trophy.

Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Place your bets soon, folks. The Spencer Rattler hype train is just leaving the station, and his odds to win college football’s most coveted individual award are likely to only improve. Rattler looked the part of a freshman at the start of his first season at the helm of the Oklahoma offense (five interceptions in his first four games) but he turned a corner later on—and so did the Sooners. Rattler posted a 67% completion percentage and threw for nine touchdowns on just one interception in his final four games, including a dominant performance in a Cotton Bowl blowout win over Florida.

Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler

Going into his second season as the starter in Norman, Rattler will have the help of his top two receivers from 2020 in Marvin Mims and Theo Wease. There’s been a litany of Oklahoma signal-callers to enter Norman as a promising young player and leave it as the Heisman Trophy winner. Don’t be shocked if Rattler is just the next in the lineage.

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

Howell officially put the college football world on notice in 2020. After a freshman season in which he threw 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, Howell upped his efficiency and his willingness to run. He even broke Trevor Lawrence’s ACC record with 67 career touchdown passes in his first two years.

The former four-star recruit from Monroe, N.C., has been a model of consistency in his freshman and sophomore seasons. But just because he was risk-averse doesn’t mean he was a game manager. Only Memphis quarterback Brady White racked up more passing yards than Howell over the last two seasons.

Howell and North Carolina will have a chance for vengeance against Notre Dame, which dealt UNC one of its three ACC losses in 2020, in late October. If the junior can lead the Tar Heels to an early statement win over the Fighting Irish, his case as a Heisman favorite may only take off from there.

FORDE: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2021

D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

It’s “next man up” for Clemson after the departure of Lawrence for the NFL draft, but don’t expect the Tigers to take a huge step back at the quarterback position. Uiagalelei, a former five-star recruit out of Bellflower, Calif., comes as advertised. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, the freshman stepped in for Lawrence during his COVID-19 absence in 2020 and did more than just manage the game. He threw for 342 yards and two scores in a win over Boston College (his first start). Then a week later against Notre Dame, Uigalelei lit up the Fighting Irish for 439 yards and two more touchdowns.

It was a tough choice between Uiagalelei and his Alabama counterpart Bryce Young for this list, but the Clemson passer has seen more significant game time in his young career. Uiagalelei clearly has all the physical tools and resources around him to succeed, even in his second year. But he’ll have some massive shoes to fill in Lawrence’s wake.

D’Eriq King, QB, Miami

King turned some heads when he decided to return for yet another college football season with Miami. After spending four seasons at Houston, the senior transferred to play with the Hurricanes and led them to a AP top-10 rank (later squandered by back-to-back losses to end the year). His 2020 season ended in the second quarter of Miami’s Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, where he suffered an ACL injury that required surgery.

King hasn’t quite recaptured the magic of his 2018 season that launched him into the Heisman Trophy conversation when he totaled 50 touchdowns and more than 3,600 total yards. That’s not to say he hasn’t been productive—he was nearly as efficient last season as he was in that electric third season at Houston. If King wants to show he’s still a member of college football’s elite, he’ll have the perfect chance to do it during a Week 1 date with Alabama.

Iowa State RB Breece Hall

Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

Breece Hall is ready for the moment. A solid freshman season in 2019 put Hall on the shortlist of best returning rushers in the Big 12. But the sophomore outdid all expectations by piling up 1,572 yards rushing in 2020, the best mark in the country.

Yes, the Heisman has typically been a quarterback’s award, and while Smith broke that barrier this season, Hall finished just sixth in voting despite his breakout year. That said, he has the best potential of anyone to become the first running back to win since Derrick Henry did so in 2015.

The Cyclones came oh-so-close to winning the Big 12 for the first time in school history last season. With quarterback Brock Purdy (among other starters) returning for one last go, there’s reason to believe that the Iowa State offense—and Hall—can only improve off last year’s historic season.

Defensive player to watch

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

Stingley might just be the most recognizable defensive player in college football at the moment, and that’s part of why he’d have the best shot to pull off the improbable. But beyond the hype, Stingley has been one of the best young defensive players in the country over the last two years.

LSU’s down year defensively didn’t help Stingley in 2020. He missed some significant time due to various injuries, and whether he was on the field or not, the depleted Tiger defense couldn’t stop much of anyone. Stingley finished with just five passes defended and no interceptions in his second year as a starter.

Defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s departure at the end of the season means that Stingley will have his third coordinator in as many years. But his electric first year in Baton Rouge gives hope that he can return to become not just a leader on the LSU defense, but one of the best ballhawking defensive backs in the country.

Other players to watch

Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
JT Daniels, QB, Georgia
Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas
Kedon Slovis, QB, USC
Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State