The Heisman Trophy may be the most coveted trophy in all of sports.
Ten of the last 11 winners of this priceless award have been quarterbacks. And since 1950, only one time has a non-offensive skill player — e.g., quarterback, running back or wide receiver — claimed the historic award (Charles Woodson, 1997). Yes, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, few players touch the ball more than a workhorse running back. But just because big uglies, heavy-hitters and pass rushers don't often get the famed trip to Radio City Music Hall in New York City, it doesn't mean they don't deserve it.
So expect to see more than just signal callers, pass-catchers and tailbacks on Athlon Sports' conference-by-conference Heisman Contenders.
The Big 12's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:
1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (SR)
The list of accolades for the Mountaineers' starting quarterback is already long and distinguished, yet he might be ready to add the most important award in college sports. He led the Big East in passer efficiency and total offense a year ago — finishing eighth nationally at 334.8 yards per game. His 4,385 passing yards were a school record and he might possess the strongest throwing arm in the nation. With a deep and talented skill corps, and play calling from offensive wizard Dana Holgorsen, Smith has a great shot at landing in New York come December.
2. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (SR)
There are plenty of question marks surrounding Jones the quarterback — like major statistical regression and a horrible road record. But the Sooner quarterback has as good a shot as any in the league to be Big Apple bound at year’s end. He is surrounded by the most talent of any team in the league and should be the leader of the Big 12 champions. Should Jones correct his road woes and produce another big statistical year, he very easily could land on Heisman ballots, and perhaps, in the national title game.
3. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (SR)
Klein won’t be able to sneak up on any defenses this time around after rolling up a sick 1,141 yards rushing and an NCAA-record 27 rushing touchdowns (by a QB). He added another 13 scoring strikes with 1,918 yards through the air while leading the Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl. What he lacks in pure passing ability he makes up for with grit and toughness. However, he may need to use his arm more in 2012 as coordinators are now prepared for his talented dual-threat skills.
4. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State (JR)
He may not be built like a true three-down workhorse, but he certainly plays like it. Randle brings speed, power and pass-catching skills to one of the most explosive offenses in the country. With a new quarterback and rebuilt offensive line, it will difficult to top his 1,216 yards, 26 touchdowns or 43 receptions from last year. But if he can come close, Randle could earn his way to Manhattan.
5. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia (SR)
Austin is one of the most dynamic and explosive play-makers in all of the nation. He set a school record with 101 receptions last year and led the nation in all-purpose yards (198.0 per game). In addition to his 101 catches (and 1,186 yards), the inside slot man rushed for 182 yards and a score to go with 938 kick return yards and 268 punt return yards. He finished with 11 total touchdowns and could be poised for a C.J. Spiller-type of season in Morgantown.
6. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas (SR)
This local product could be the top defensive end drafted come next April should things fall right for the Horns' defense in 2012. Okafor finished last season with 50 total tackles, 7.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss as a junior. On what should easily be the top defensive unit in the Big 12, Okafor will be a huge part of any sort of Burnt Orange championship push.
7. Casey Pachall, QB, TCU (JR)
In his first season as the starter and only a sophomore, Pachall would have finished second in the league to only Robert Griffin III in passer efficiency (had he been in the Big 12). He had an outstanding 25:7 TD:INT rate and led his team to a conference championship in a “rebuilding” year. Sledding will be much tougher in the Big 12, but Pachall quickly proved he can be a big time quarterback.
8. Trey Millard, AP, Oklahoma (JR)
The physical fullback is one of the most valuable players on the Sooners' roster. He’s known more for lead blocking than getting touches (169 yards rushing, 127 receiving yards and three total touchdowns), so his 61-yard TD run versus Kansas State was a true highlight. Millard also led OU with 14 special-teams tackles and was voted first-team All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches for his all-around play. He may never be appreciated nationally the way he deserves and could be the best all-around football player on the Sooners roster.
9. Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia (JR)
Alongside teammate Austin, Bailey was also a first-team selection in 2011 and he is coming off of a school-record 1,279-yard campaign as a sophomore. He has played alongside his quarterback since his prep days in Miramar, Fla., and should be on the verge of national prominence this fall — if Austin and Ivan McCartney don’t take too many targets from him.
10. Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma (JR)
As the nation’s No. 1 "athlete" recruit two years ago, Jefferson has quietly turned into one of the most promising young defensive backs in the nation. He has played somewhat out of position (down more in the box) but it has allowed him to develop into a big hitter and sound tackler. He has the speed and athleticism to stabilize the backend of the maligned Sooner secondary from a year ago. With Mike Stoops and Tim Kish now coaching him up, Jefferson could be in for stardom this fall.
11. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas (JR)
Okafor may be one year ahead on the development curve, but the upside for this NFL legacy is sky-high. Jeffcoat is the No. 2 returning sack artist in the league with 8.0 sacks and will look to build on his team lead in the category.
12. Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma (JR)
This talented junior to be has all the tools needed to be an NFL receiver and is playing in one of the most quarterback-friendly schemes in the nation. He should only build on his 61-catch, 849-yard, 8-TD 2011 season now as the No. 1 target.
13. Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech (SR)
Has any player ever thrown for a quieter 400 completions, 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns like Doege (and it’s Day-Gee) did last fall? Technically, it was 32 touchdowns and 398 completions, but either way, Tech has a good one under center. Now, it just needs to win games (and any semblance of a defense would help).
14. Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas (SO)
The top running back prospect in the nation did as much to prove his mettle in year one as possible. He carried 172 times for 742 yards and five scores and should only get better — but will have to hold off a talented depth chart that is breathing down his neck.
15. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State (SR)
It took him a few years and multiple zip codes but Brown has realized his All-American potential. The talented tackler should once again be the heart and soul of the KSU defense. A unit that must show improvement across the board if it wants to compete for a league title.
16. Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor (SR)
Williams is a future NFL star but without Griffin III throwing the ball and Kendall Wright distracting safeties, things will be more difficult for Baylor. But make no mistake, Williams has the talent to be an elite No. 1 target for the new Bears signal caller.
17. Kenny Vacarro, S, Texas (SR)
Versatile NFL prospect can cover in man and zone schemes with ease. Posted 67 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and 6.5 tackles for loss. He is the complete package.
18. Dominique Whaley, RB, Oklahoma (SR)
Health is really the only major concern for Whaley, who was off to an incredible start last year before being lost for the season in Week 6. He had nine scores and was averaging 130 yards from scrimmage per game. He could have a huge final year.
19. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas (SO)
This Longhorn legacy proved that in one short year that he will be a special player. All he did as a freshman was lead his team in interceptions (4) and kick return yards. He posted 48 total tackles and 13 pass break-ups.
20. Eric Stephens, RB, Texas Tech (SR)
Much like Whaley, Stephens was off to a red-hot start before a serious knee injury sidelined him in the fifth game of the year. If healthy, Stephens should return to his torrid 2011 pace which featured 565 yards and eight touchdowns in five games.
21. Cyril Richardson, OL, Baylor (JR)
There is a logjam of talented blockers fighting for first-round NFL status and the massive Richardson, at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, is one of them. If Baylor can return to the postseason with a reworked offense, this guy could be the main reason.
22. A.J. Klein, LB, Iowa State (SR)
The Big 12’s No. 2 tackler (116) from a year ago claimed Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors and should be just as stout in 2012. No doubt Klein is eyeing his third straight 100-tackle season for the Cyclones.
23. Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State (SR)
One of the most physical players in the league, Knott should also be working towards his third straight 100-tackle season in Ames. Improved defensive line play would go a long way for both Klein and Knott.
24. Stansly Maponga, DL, TCU (JR)
Defensive end Stansly Maponga is a breakout star waiting to happen. The two-year starter led the Frogs with 13.5 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and forced five fumbles last season.
25. Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas (FR)
Freshman Johnathan Gray helped Aledo (Texas) win three Class 4A state titles while rushing for 10,908 yards and setting the national high school record for rushing touchdowns with 205.
Other Names to Watch
Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma
Waymon James and Matthew Tucker, RB, TCU
Josh Boyce, WR, TCU
Jaxon Shipley, WR, Texas
Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
Eric Ward, WR, Texas Tech
Athlon's 2012 Big 12 Previews
-by Braden Gall