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Heisman Watch 2019: An Early Look at the Top Contenders

Early Look at the Top Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2019

Early Look at the Top Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2019

This time last year, Stanford running back Bryce Love was the early favorite to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, the 2017 runner-up struggled with injuries, missed three games, and posted just one 100-yard rushing performance on his way to 736 yards and six touchdowns on the ground as a senior.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa thrust himself early into the Heisman conversation thanks to a fairytale performance in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game to end the 2017 campaign, and he led the race nearly the entire '18 regular season before finishing second to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray, largely an afterthought in the Heisman conversation in January 2018, is either off to the NFL, destined for the Oakland Athletics' minor league system, or both, leaving the 2019 race for the stiff-armed trophy open to a new set of contenders.

It’s never too early to talk about college football’s most prestigious individual honor, and with early Heisman odds already popping up from sports books, we explore the early Heisman Trophy contenders for 2019.

Top 5 Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2019

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Like Love last year, reigning runner-up Tagovailoa should be considered the No. 1 contender at this point in the preseason. He won the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards (both given to the top player in the nation) during an incredible sophomore season in which he completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns with just six interceptions across 15 starts. The strong-armed lefty inched out Murray for the FBS lead in passer rating (199.44 to 199.2) and finished second to the Oklahoma QB in yards per pass attempt (11.2) — a full yard better than No. 3 Brock Purdy (10.2) of Iowa State.

Making Tagovailoa’s eye-popping stats even more impressive is the fact his Crimson Tide were so far ahead of their opponents throughout the regular season he rarely saw meaningful action in the fourth quarter. It’s possible Alabama will coast through its schedule again in 2019, but Tagovailoa has the benefit of four of his top five receivers from 2018 returning, including Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy. In other words, Tua could be poised for an even better 2019. 

2. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

The current betting favorite according to online sportsbook Bovada, Lawrence boosted his Heisman candidacy in a major way during the national championship game. Though he didn’t make his first start until October, Lawrence finished his true freshman season with 3,280 passing yards and a 30:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio — making him one of just nine FBS quarterbacks to surpass 3,000 passing yards and toss 30 TD passes last season. The former No. 1 overall recruit completed 65.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.3 yards per pass. Lawrence also has the benefit of his top three receivers returning, including title game hero and 1,000-yard receiver Justyn Ross. With a national championship already under his belt, and a full season as the starter to come, Lawrence is a worthy Heisman favorite.

A quick aside: Teammate Travis Etienne, who finished seventh in the 2018 Heisman voting, is one of the most explosive playmakers in college football. The rising junior running back could — perhaps should — also emerge among the favorites after a breakout season in which he ran for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. But as it stands today, Lawrence gets the QB boost and would probably take a lot of votes away from his top tailback.

3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

The 2018 campaign didn’t go according to plan for the Wisconsin Badgers, but it wasn’t Taylor’s fault. After running for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017, Taylor led the nation with 2,194 yards and also was top 10 with 16 rushing scores last year. Taylor surpassed the century mark in 12 of his 13 games as a sophomore, gained more than 200 yards five times and set a career high with 321 yards on the ground against Purdue. Though he caught just eight passes for 60 yards all year, Taylor led the nation with 173.4 yards from scrimmage per game and without posting any return yardage he ranked third nationally in all-purpose yardage. Though the Badgers must rebuild along the offensive line, and would likely need to at least win the Big Ten West for Taylor to earn enough national attention, the star running back is a surefire shortlist 2019 Heisman Trophy candidate.

4. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Herbert surprised a lot of people when he opted to return for his senior season, in large part because he was widely expected to be the first quarterback — if not No. 1 overall pick — in the 2019 NFL Draft. Herbert, who will have the opportunity to play with his brother Patrick, a new signee in the Ducks’ most recent recruiting class, also will benefit from the return of a talented veteran offensive line, a strong rushing attack and five of his top six receivers from last season (with top target Dillon Mitchell the lone exception). With the help of his supporting cast, Herbert has the experience, athleticism and a huge arm capable of putting up huge stats. Also, Oregon is among the early favorites to win the Pac-12 in 2019, and if the Ducks can avoid the missteps that plagued Washington in '18 and USC in '17, Herbert is capable of leading his squad into the playoff race — which would certainly put him in Heisman contention.

5. Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

While “Texas is back” has become a running joke across the college football media universe, at least one figure staunchly believes it to be true. After all, it was Ehlinger who said so very publicly after leading Texas to an upset victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The victory was No. 10 of the season for the Horns, who also played in the Big 12 Championship Game and beat conference champ and playoff participant Oklahoma during the regular season. If the Longhorns take the next step in 2019 and win the league title outright, and at least challenge for a playoff spot, Ehlinger will likely have played a huge role in it. Though rightfully overshadowed by OU’s back-to-back Heisman winners, the rising junior emerged as one of the best QBs in the Big 12 last season while he completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 3,296 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only five interceptions, and also ran for 482 yards and 16 scores on the ground.

Next 5 on the List

1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

Given the success of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray at Oklahoma under head coach Lincoln Riley, we should probably reserve a spot on our early Heisman favorites list for every Sooners starting quarterback (and on a side note, any Washington State QB) until further notice. As luck would have it, Riley landed another veteran, dual-threat signal-caller on Wednesday when former SEC Offensive Player of the Year and all-around good guy Jalen Hurts announced his decision to transfer to OU from Alabama. Though the knock on him was his accuracy as a passer, Hurts completed 72.9 percent of his attempts for 765 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions as a backup in 2018, and also stepped in to save the day when Tua Tagovailoa suffered an injury in the SEC Championship Game.

As a sophomore starter, Hurts threw for 2,081 yards and 18 TDs with just one pick while completing 60.6 percent of his passes before losing his grip on the starting job in the national championship game. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Houston native also is a gifted runner who glided through defenses for 1,976 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns with the Crimson Tide. As a graduate transfer with 42 career games under his belt – 39 of them wins – over three seasons, including 28 starts (and 26 victories), Hurts should be considered the clear front-runner to win the Sooners' starting job this fall. And with Riley calling the plays, Hurts could be the third straight transfer QB to win the Heisman at OU.

2. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia

Fromm has been very successful in two seasons as a starter, but he hasn’t captured the national attention of the signal-callers listed above. Fromm also will be without his top three receivers (and four of his top five) from the 2018 squad, and he will be working with a new offensive coordinator (though still likely within the same system since co-OC/quarterbacks coach James Coley was elevated following Jim Chaney's departure to Tennessee). Still, betting markets are high on the rising junior (he’s tied for third overall at 10-to-1 odds according to Bovada) after he compiled 5,364 passing yards and 54 touchdowns across his first two seasons. If the Bulldogs win the SEC East and contend for a playoff spot in 2019 — as most of us expect at this point in the offseason — Fromm will likely be in the Heisman race.

3. Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame

Similar to Fromm, Book must find a new set of playmakers around him in 2019. But also like Fromm’s Bulldogs, the Fighting Irish have recruited well enough over the years that the team is more of a re-loader than a rebuilder, alleviating some of those concerns. As for Book himself, the rising senior should have a full season as the starting quarterback following the departure of Brandon Wimbush (leaving as a graduate transfer to play for UCF), which will help Book’s stat line. Book posted impressive numbers in 12 games last year as he led the Irish to an undefeated regular season and playoff berth while completing 68.2 percent of his passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns with seven interceptions, as well as 280 rushing yards and four more TDs. And, Book could be asked to throw much more often in 2019 with running back Dexter Williams out of eligibility.

4. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

No full-time receiver has won the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, but Purdue wideout Rondale Moore is more than just a receiver. Moore won the 2018 Paul Hornung Award — given to the nation’s best player who makes an impact at multiple positions — and earned consensus All-American honors as an all-purpose dynamo and he did this as a true freshman. In 13 games, the explosive playmaker led the nation with 114 receptions, which went for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. Moore also ran for 213 yards and two scores, and he added 662 yards on kick returns and another 82 on punts. With head coach and offensive play-caller Jeff Brohm making an unexpected return to Purdue, Moore could have an even greater role (if that’s even possible) in 2019.

5. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan

On the surface, it’s difficult to imagine Patterson making a run at the 2019 Heisman Trophy. After all, he finished seventh in the Big Ten in passing (200.0 ypg) and only added a modest 273 rushing yards with two TDs — far from the statistics we typically see among Heisman front-runners in the modern era. Nevertheless, Patterson’s talent is evident. He also showed Johnny Manziel-like flashes during parts of two seasons at Ole Miss that teased the potential for a breakout statistical performance. There’s also a changing of the guard at Michigan, where former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis was recently hired as offensive coordinator, which could indicate a willingness for head coach Jim Harbaugh to open up things more in 2019. The last piece of the puzzle: winning big. Michigan must replace a lot of NFL-bound talent, but the Wolverines are one of the most talented teams in the nation and appear well positioned to make a move in the Big Ten East following the departure of Urban Meyer from Ohio State. If Patterson helps Harbaugh finally get over the hump, he could be in line for some Heisman love.

Wild Card

Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska

After you set past 10 players you are basically entering the "others" territory, players you aren't really expecting to win the Heisman. (Although it should be pointed out that Kyler Murray was in that group last year.) Nevertheless, we wanted to go out on a little bit of a limb and elevate a dark horse candidate into the conversation. This player has a legitimate path to victory, but everything has to go right. For us, that player is Martinez.

If you weren’t paying attention to the Cornhuskers in the second half of the season, few would blame you, but you would have also missed key moments in the development of one of the next great stars of college football. Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman, and also gained 629 yards with eight more scores on the ground. Though prone to freshman mistakes (he was credited with seven interceptions and nine fumbles), Martinez’s accuracy and decision making improved over the course of the season — a trend that should continue into 2019. An athletic playmaker, Martinez is also capable of making us say “Wow” on a regular basis, which is always good for a few extra votes. With a full season of starting experience behind him, and with Scott Frost calling plays, we can expect Martinez to put up big numbers in the future — perhaps even big enough (think: Marcus Mariota-like numbers) to make a Heisman run as early as 2019.

3 Defensive Players Worth Consideration

Headlined by Ed Oliver and Nick Bosa, a select few defensive standouts started the 2018 season in the Heisman conversation. Sadly, injuries sidelined Ohio State's Bosa for the majority of the season and interrupted Oliver’s dominance at Houston. With 2018’s top defensive stars like Quinnen Williams (who finished eighth in Heisman voting in 2018), Josh Allen and the starters along the dominant Clemson defensive line off to the NFL, the 2019 crop of Heisman candidates doesn’t have a clear defensive front-runner. Nevertheless, we offer three defensive standouts who could surprise.

1. Grant Delpit, DB, LSU

LSU cornerback Greedy Williams joined Oliver and Bosa on this list last year, and because LSU is DBU, there is seemingly always another playmaking defensive back ready to step into the national spotlight. Williams is off to the NFL following two great seasons, but Delpit was the best player in the LSU secondary in 2018. In 13 games, Delpit recorded 74 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, an SEC-leading five interceptions, and nine pass breakups — an all-around performance that made him a consensus All-American as a sophomore. He also came up big when it mattered most, as evidenced by posting 10 tackles three times — against Auburn, Florida and Mississippi State — recording all five interceptions against SEC competition, and notching four of his five sacks against Power 5 foes. For a defensive player to break through and capture Heisman-worthy attention, he has to make big plays on a big stage — and Delpit has proven himself capable of that.

2. A.J. Epenesa, DL, Iowa

The Big Ten West should be wide open in 2019, and despite some key personnel losses to the NFL draft, the Iowa Hawkeyes should be in the mix to make it to the conference title game. If Iowa succeeds in making a run for the championship, its defense will likely lead the way. And the best player on the Iowa defense — and one of the best in all of college football in 2019 — is Epenesa. A rare former top recruit for the Hawkeyes, Epenesa has already lived up to huge expectations with 15 sacks across his first two seasons — including 10.5 last year, which is tied for the most among all returning players. The 6-foot-5, 277-pound Illinois native also recorded 37 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, four pass breakups, blocked a kick, and returned a fumble for a touchdown last season. He also was credited with nine QB hurries.

3. Chase Young, DL, Ohio State

Most of the preseason attention directed at Ohio State in 2019 (in the non-Ryan Day category) is likely to center on the quarterback transition from Dwayne Haskins to either Justin Fields or Matthew Baldwin with Tate Martell announcing on Twitter Wednesday that he is transferring to Miami. But we should be talking more about the Buckeyes' defense, which is projected to return 10 starters and is likely to rank among the most talented and experienced nationally. And of the Ohio State defenders able to make the biggest impact is Young, who posted 9.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2018. Young finished strong with three sacks against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and another against Washington in the Rose Bowl. He also accumulated 14.5 tackles for a loss, broke up five passes, forced one fumble and totaled 33 tackles.

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3 True Freshmen to Watch

Like a primary defensive player, who hasn’t won the Heisman since 1997, it’s difficult for freshmen to win. No true freshman has ever taken home the hardware, and only two redshirt freshmen have done it. However, times change, and as we’ve seen in recent years, true freshmen are having more of an impact in college football than ever. Eventually, one will win the Heisman. If that were to happen in 2019, these three players are worth considering:

1. Bo Nix, QB, Auburn

Nix has a path to the starting lineup as a true freshman and he has the talent to not only win the job, but to perform at a very high level immediately. Nix will compete with 2018 backups Malik Willis and Joey Gatewood, and possibly a graduate transfer to be named later, to replace Jarrett Stidham as the Tigers' starter. Willis, who has the edge in experience, and Gatewood, who played just once as a true freshman last season, are both exciting playmakers in the running game, but Nix has more potential as a passer. Nix also is mobile, and he showed an ability to throw on the run in the Under Armour All-American Game, which should come in handy if the Tigers don’t make marked improvements along the offensive line.

2. John Emery Jr., RB, LSU

There’s never a shortage of options when it comes to capable running backs at LSU, though because 2018 leading rusher Nick Brossette is out of eligibility, it creates a slightly better opportunity for Emery to stake his claim for carries immediately. The 5-star recruit may be listed at 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds, but he plays bigger, has terrific speed and burst, and also can deliver a blow to tacklers. He’s been compared to Derrius Guice, and could have a Leonard Fournette-like impact as a true freshman. And, should LSU make a run in the SEC West with Emery as offensive MVP, the youngster could break into the Heisman conversation.

3. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

The news of Jalen Hurts' transfer to Oklahoma makes earning the starting nod far more difficult for Rattler. The incoming true freshman was expected to compete with 2018 backup Austin Kendall for the starting quarterback job next season, and his path appeared crystal clear after Kendall opted to transfer. Until Hurts chose to come to Norman, that is. Nevertheless, despite currently being an underdog to start for the Sooners next season, the 5-star recruit has all the tools to put up huge numbers should the opportunity arise. He is easily among the most advanced and impressive signal-callers in the 2019 recruiting class. Also, Hurts’ tendency to take off and run creates the potential for injury, and Rattler should be the next man up should Hurts go down. Plus, despite all his success at Alabama, Hurts has lost his grip on a starting job before. If Rattler proves to be the best option — as Tua Tagovailoa did in Tuscaloosa — Lincoln Riley won’t hesitate to make a switch. Remember what a QB change from an upperclassman to true freshman meant for Clemson this past season?

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order)

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State

Kelly Bryant, QB, Missouri

Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College

Jacob Eason, QB, Washington

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State (if he's ruled eligible to play)

Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama

D’Eriq King, QB, Houston

Mackenzie Milton, QB, UCF (if healthy enough to play)

Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M

Zack Moss, RB, Utah

Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State

D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia

Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen is also the managing editor of CFB Winning Edge. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.