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Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2021

Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2021

Heisman Watch: Early Look at Top Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2021

DeVonta Smith ended a three-decade drought for wide receivers when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2020. Smith was also just the third non-quarterback to win the honor since 2000. He caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns — all of which led the nation — in a dominant, record-setting and national championship-winning campaign.

The Alabama senior beat out a tough group of challengers, including two of his teammates, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris, who finished in the top five of the voting, as well as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Florida signal-caller Kyle Trask, whose resumes might have earned them the honor most years. Smith also may have opened the door for college football's highest individual honor to truly be awarded to the best player in the country, regardless of position.

As we look ahead to the 2021 college football season, early odds suggest a quarterback is most likely to hoist the Heisman again in December. Our early list of the top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates is made up primarily of signal-callers, but we also want to highlight a few players who could capitalize on Smith's breakthrough campaign.

Top 10 Heisman Trophy Contenders for 2021

10. Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Steve Sarkisian, the former Alabama offensive coordinator responsible for drawing up new and different ways to get DeVonta Smith the football in 2020, is now the head coach at Texas. Though Sarkisian won't have quarterback Sam Ehlinger at his disposal, he will have Robinson. The true freshman led the Longhorns with 703 rushing yards on only 86 carries last year, placing him seventh on the FBS leaderboard with an average of 8.17 yards per carry. He scored six total touchdowns — four on the ground and two among his 15 receptions for 196 yards. He also saved his best for last, breaking out in a big way in the Longhorns' bowl win. Expect a heavier workload with Sark calling the shots.

9. Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss

Auburn has a new head coach, Texas A&M must replace a lot of production at quarterback and on defense, and LSU is rebuilding following a disappointing 2020 season. Might Ole Miss have the opening it needs to become Alabama's top competition in the SEC West in 2021? If so, Corral will have plenty to do with it. Corral completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns with 14 interceptions against an SEC-only schedule under a new head coach and play-caller, and he averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the process. The sophomore also ran for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns.

8. JT Daniels, QB, Georgia

Quarterback was a trouble spot for the majority of Georgia's 2020 season, with incoming transfer Jamie Newman opting out and giving way to D'Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett IV, before Daniels finally ascended to the top of the depth chart. Once Daniels was fully cleared to play following knee surgery, he excelled and his decision to return to the Bulldogs in 2021 makes Kirby Smart's squad an early College Football Playoff contender. In four starts, the USC transfer completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt — which would have tied for sixth nationally had he played enough to qualify for the leaderboard — and 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions.

7. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC

Slovis, the quarterback who replaced JT Daniels when he suffered a torn ACL in 2019, threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman that season and followed with a short and successful six-game sophomore campaign. Slovis ranked sixth in the country with an average of 320.2 passing yards per game. He completed 67.0 percent of his passes for 1,921 yards and 17 touchdowns with seven interceptions. With a full schedule in 2021 and another season of experience under the tutelage of coordinator Graham Harrell, Slovis should put up the best numbers of his career.

6. D'Eriq King, QB, Miami

Speaking of torn ACLs, King suffered the unfortunate injury against Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl just days after he announced he planned to return to the Hurricanes for his extra season of eligibility. King has a difficult recovery period ahead of him but is expected to be healthy enough to return to the field for Miami's season opener against Alabama. After that game with the defending national champions, the Hurricanes should be one of the top challengers to Clemson in the ACC. King threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first season at Miami and added 538 yards and four scores on the ground.

5. Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Mac Jones are gone. Explosive wideout Jaylen Waddle joined the trio by entering the 2021 NFL Draft. Starting offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickerson and Deonte Brown, along with tight ends Miller Forristall and Carl Tucker, are also on their way out of Tuscaloosa. Steve Sarkisian won't be drawing up plays anymore, either. Nevertheless, Bama is Bama, and Young is expected to take over as starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Young, the former 5-star recruit who emerged as the No. 1 overall player in the 2020 class by 247Sports, was 13-for-22 passing for 156 yards and one touchdown in limited action across nine games as a true freshman. He also will have former Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien as his offensive coordinator. Even though he got fired earlier this season, O'Brien had a hand in Deshaun Watson becoming one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks.

4. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

The fact that Howell is so far up on this list even though his top four weapons from this season have moved on speaks volumes about his talent and his potential leading the Tar Heels' offense. Wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome as well as running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who combined for 4,189 yards from scrimmage and 48 total touchdowns this past season, are all off to the NFL, yet Howell is still expected to put up gaudy numbers. As a sophomore, Howell finished fourth nationally with 3,586 passing yards, which also is the most among players returning in 2021. He threw 30 touchdown passes with seven interceptions, completing 68.1 percent of his attempts while averaging 10.3 yards per pass. He also ran for 146 yards and five touchdowns.

3. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State

The leading returning Heisman vote-getter, Hall is back after finishing sixth following his breakout sophomore season. Hall led the nation with 1,572 rushing yards and finished second with 21 rushing touchdowns while averaging 5.84 yards per carry. He posted nine 100-yard rushing games and scored at least once in all 12 contests. Hall also recorded 23 catches for 180 yards and two more scores. With quarterback Brock Purdy back, the continuity on Iowa State's offense is one of the reasons why the Cyclones are being viewed as a potential threat to Oklahoma's supremacy in the Big 12. If that comes to fruition this fall and Iowa State also emerges as a College Football Playoff contender, Hall and/or Purdy could find themselves in the thick of the Heisman discussion. For now, Hall's 2020 performance gives him a solid head start over his teammate.

2. D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

We caught an early glimpse of the Clemson offense with Uiagalelei behind center when Trevor Lawrence was sidelined by COVID-19 for regular-season games against Boston College and Notre Dame. Uiagalelei showed the athleticism and natural ability that made him a highly sought-after 5-star recruit, putting up 781 passing yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions along with a pair of rushing scores in his two starts as a true freshman. He won't have Travis Etienne in the backfield or Amari Rodgers or Cornell Powell at receiver, but the hopeful return of Justyn Ross could provide him with a big-play weapon as Uiagalelei looks to do his part to keep the Tigers atop not just the ACC, but also among the ranks of legitimate national title contenders.

1. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Oklahoma has legitimate national championship hopes, and head coach Lincoln Riley produced a pair of Heisman-winning quarterbacks, plus a runner-up, over the last four years. Rattler didn't break into the lofty fraternity of Heisman finalists, but he is set up perfectly to make a run in 2021. Rattler started 11 games as a redshirt freshman and completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions, while averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. Rattler isn't the elite runner Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts was, but he added 160 yards and scored six times on the ground. He gained a wealth of experience, and with Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask off to the NFL, as well as fellow top-10 vote-getters Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Ian Book, Rattler has an opportunity to capitalize next season. He is a deserving preseason favorite, and at this early stage, is the best bet to win the Heisman Trophy.

Others to Watch (in alphabetical order)

Will Anderson, LB, Alabama

Jalen Berger, RB, Wisconsin

Tank Bigsby, RB, Auburn

Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma

Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State

Lyn-J Dixon, RB, Clemson

Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss

Dillon Gabriel, QB, UCF

Tyler Goodson, RB, Iowa

TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State

Emory Jones, QB, Florida

Frank Ladson, Jr., WR, Clemson

Drake London, WR, USC

Jase McClellan, RB, Alabama

John Metchie III, WR, Alabama

Marvin Mims, WR, Oklahoma

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Michael Penix Jr., QB, Indiana

George Pickens, WR, Georgia

Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State

Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

Brian Robinson, Jr., RB, Alabama

Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson

Ainias Smith, RB/WR, Texas A&M

Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State

Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Master Teague III, RB, Ohio State

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB, UCLA

Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon

E.J. Williams, WR, Clemson

Zamir White, RB, Georgia

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