News & Analysis

7 dark-horse candidates for the Heisman Trophy

My colleague Steve Palazzolo did a great job Monday of breaking down the 2016 Heisman Trophy picture, listing his top seven candidates to win the award for college football’s top player, based on how they performed in PFF grades last season.

But what about some guys a little bit further off the radar? I limited my search to players not currently appearing on Heisman odds lists in Las Vegas to come up with this ranking of seven long-shot candidates to win the Heisman in 2016:

1. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are deservedly getting a love of love in offseason Heisman polls, but it was Mayfield who earned the best passing grade among returning Power-5 QBs last year. A whopping 21 percent of his pass attempts traveled 20 or more yards downfield, but he still led the nation in adjusted completion percentage among returning QBs on those throws. (Translation: Expect some huge passing totals from Rudolph in 2016.) His biggest barrier to entry in the Heisman race will have to do with the Cowboys’ success this season, but their schedule is manageable, and he’ll have an opportunity to go head-to-head with Mayfield and the Sooners the last week of the season in a Heisman showcase game.

2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington Huskies

The true sophomore was No. 1 on my ranking of potential breakout quarterbacks last week, making him a perfect candidate for this list as well. He quietly had a better true freshman season than fellow Pac-12 QB Josh Rosen of UCLA, earning the 15th-highest passing grade among returning QBs while also producing as a runner. What stands out most about Browning is that he demonstrated an ability to make difficult throws, finishing the year sixth in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls (passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield) among returning passers, and second on throws under pressure. The Huskies will have to be in the Pac-12 title mix for Browning’s candidacy to gain steam, no matter how well he plays, but the Pac-12 appears winnable for UW this year — Oregon, Stanford and USC are all breaking in new QBs, and the Huskies get two of those teams (Stanford and USC) at home.

3. Derwin James, DB, Florida State Seminoles

Any defensive player qualifies as a long shot to win the Heisman, and at least to this point in his career, James doesn’t have any additional return-man ability or offensive skills to supplement his defensive prowess. But he is incredibly versatile on that side of the ball, giving him a chance to enter the Heisman discussion with an outstanding season. James is the top-graded returning safety in college football after his fantastic true freshman season, and he proved capable of excelling in a variety of roles: As a run defender, as an outside corner, as a slot/safety hybrid, and even as an edge rusher.

4. Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

You could argue that Zaire is the longest shot on this list, based on the fact that he might not even start for the Fighting Irish this year. Especially given some buzz that DeShone Kizer, who was very effective after replacing the injured Zaire in Week 2 last season, might have an advantage over him. But what Zaire has done in his limited playing time indicates he could be the more effective player. He absolutely dismantled Texas in Notre Dame’s Week 1 win last year, earning the second-highest grade by any QB in the country that week, and he did well when he saw the field in 2014, as well, both as a thrower and a runner. If he wins the starting job on a competitive Notre Dame team, Zaire will be in the mix.

5. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee Volunteers

The biggest knock against Kamara’s chances is that he shares a backfield with QB Josh Dobbs, who is appearing on some preseason Heisman boards, and RB Jalen Hurd, who was the Vols’ top backfield option last season. But we couldn’t help but include him here, for a few reasons: 1.) He was one of the nation’s most efficient backs last season, ranking third in elusive rating (PFF’s measure of a back’s ability to generate yards on his own) after breaking 28 tackle as a runner and 13 more as a receiver, and earning the seventh-highest PFF grade among returning RBs despite having a much smaller workload than the other players ranked near him on the list; 2.) PFF’s numbers are not all that bullish on Dobbs, who earned a negative passing grade last season, and they prefer Kamara to Hurd in terms of per-snap production; 3.) This is a Vols offense without a clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver, and without a quarterback who has proven he can be an effective downfield thrower, making Kamara arguably the team’s most dangerous receiving threat in addition to his dynamic ability as a runner (only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey averaged a higher yards per route run among running backs than Kamara). Combine that with the fact that Tennessee, fueled by a talented defense, figures to be in the thick of the SEC title race, and it makes Kamara worth a look.

6. Kenny Hill, QB, TCU Horned Frogs

Hill sat out last year after transferring from Texas A&M, but there are reasons to be bullish on his 2016 season with the Horned Frogs. For starters, he earned the No. 21 passing grade in the country two seasons ago in just eight games, even out-ranking eventual No. 1 pick Jameis Winston, who played nearly twice as many snaps for Florida State. Hill was one of the most accurate QBs in the country that year, and he’ll be replacing a former Heisman contender in Trevone Boykin who excelled in TCU’s offense in 2015, ranking seventh in overall quarterback grades and fourth in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls.

7. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina Tar Heels

There are a ton of talented returning running backs in college football this season, but Hood might be the most underrated one in the country. Against Power-5 competition last year, three returning running backs earned higher overall PFF grades than Hood: Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Oregon’s Royce Freeman, all three of whom made Palazzolo’s Heisman watch list. Hood average 4.1 yards per rush after contact, the second-highest total among returning RBs, another sign of his effectiveness as a runner. Moreover, the Tar Heels are returning one of the more productive rosters in the country this season, with Hood the headliner on offense but supported by an effective left tackle in Jon Heck and a promising young QB in Mitch Trubisky, and several standouts on both the line and in the secondary on defense.

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