Returning players and transfers make up an intriguing crop of Heisman hopefuls
In the past decade, the Pac-12 has produced a remarkable five Heisman Trophy runners-up. "The Conference of Bridesmaids" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
Despite repeated second-place finishes, the Pac-12's propensity for sending representatives to New York City for the annual end-of-season award ceremony is noteworthy. And amid the string of runners-up, a quarterback from Oregon brought the Heisman home. Might history repeat five years later?
While Oregon's Justin Herbert is a logical nominee to follow Marcus Mariota's example, the conference enters 2019 with an abundance of intriguing prospects for college football's top honor. None are defensive players or linemen — not because the Pac-12 lacks studs up front or great defenders, like Cal's Evan Weaver. Rather, Heisman voters have proven not exactly keen on nominating players from those positions.
Top 11 Pac-12 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2019
11. J.J. Taylor, RB, Arizona
Although just 5-foot-6 and 185 pounds, Taylor resoundingly defied any questions about his ability to carry the load as an every-down back. Taylor finished the 2018 season second in the Pac-12 with 1,434 rushing yards, and a per-carry average of 5.62 — better than returning counterparts Eno Benjamin (5.47), Joshua Kelley (5.52) and C.J. Verdell (5.04).
Taylor's production continued the impressive runs with standout backs that both Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone had previously. So long as he's healthy, Taylor will continue putting up big numbers in 2019, though he would need considerably more than the six rushing touchdowns he scored in 2018 to legitimately contend for the Heisman. That might be tough with short-yardage and goal-line back Gary Brightwell also in Arizona's rotation.
10. Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado
Shenault surged into the Heisman Trophy conversation midway through the 2018 campaign, but a bout of turf toe slowed both his output and Colorado's hot start. The Buffs welcome a new coaching staff in 2019, but don't expect head coach Mel Tucker to shy away from using the multi-skilled Shenault all over the field.
Shenault will have no shortage of opportunities to shine, whether he lines up wide, tight, or in the backfield. However, Colorado must greatly outperform its preseason designation in the Pac-12 South cellar if the native Texan is to get a crack at CU's first Heisman since the late Rashaan Salaam in 1994.
9. Joshua Kelley, RB, UCLA
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2018 college football season came from UCLA's perpetually upbeat and unlikely star. The FCS transfer and former walk-on erupted for 1,243 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns — much of it coming in the latter three-quarters of the season.
Kelley's role in the offense should only become more pronounced with another year of experience, and as a cornerstone on which rising sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson can lean. Breaking out as a Heisman candidate may be difficult, even if the Bruins are improved. They would have to take monumental steps from a 3-9 finish in 2018. With high-profile games against Cincinnati and Oklahoma early in the slate, Kelley will have ample opportunity to capture the nation's attention, however.
8. Gage Gubrud, QB, Washington State
Last year at this time, pretty much no one outside of Pullman had Gardner Minshew pegged for possible Heisman contention. The 2018 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year burst onto the scene after his transfer to Washington State, however, leading the Cougars to a historic campaign. Don't get caught sleeping on another transfer quarterback on the Palouse this year.
Gubrud didn't have to go far to land at Washington State. He played the Cougars at his previous program, Eastern Washington, and made an impression. Offensive lineman Liam Ryan recounted Gubrud breaking off a long run — perhaps foreshadowing some dual-threat numbers to go with what should be some eye-popping passing stats for the EWU transfer in Washington State's air-raid offense.
7. Tyler Huntley, QB, Utah
Before going down to injury in the regular season's final month, Huntley had Utah's offense balling out in a way not seen since Urban Meyer's final season with the Utes. Huntley completed better than 64 percent of his pass attempts, and threw for seven of his 12 touchdowns in his final eight appearances.
The dual-threat playmaker also rushed for 40 or more yards in nearly half (four) of the games he played in (nine). His weekly improvement in 2018, should it translate to 2019, could make Huntley one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the nation.
6. Jacob Eason, QB, Washington
Huskies faithful waited anxiously for Eason, a local product and Georgia transfer, to lose his redshirt. Now eligible, the one-time 5-star prospect takes over as Washington's first new starting quarterback in four years.
Eason's arm strength should provide an immediate boost to a Washington offense that suffered from bouts of stagnation after predecessor Jake Browning's late 2016 shoulder injury. If Eason matches his lofty potential, he could be the best quarterback Washington coach Chris Petersen has had since 2010 Heisman finalist Kellen Moore at Boise State in 2010. Playing behind one of college football's most impressive offensive lines should help Eason's learning curve.
5. Zack Moss, RB, Utah
At the time of his injury in early November, Moss set the pace among all Pac-12 rushers with 1,096 yards on just 179 carries (6.12 ypc) and 11 touchdowns. The numbers emphasize reality: When healthy, there may not be a better ball-carrier in college football.
A healthy Moss could run in the neighborhood of 300 times in 2019. If Utah's passing attack develops like offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig hopes, Moss will have room to operate, and that translates to a possible 2,000-yard season.
4. K.J. Costello, QB, Stanford
The most prolific passer in the Pac-12 last season, behind Washington State air-raid operator Gardner Minshew? It wasn't Justin Herbert, Jake Browning, Manny Wilkins, Khalil Tate, Steven Montez...it was Costello.
One must go back to 2010 for the last time a Stanford quarterback finished second in the conference in passing yards, to an era predating the Pac-12. Andrew Luck did it in the 10-team conference, en route to a runner-up in the Heisman ceremony. Costello will need a more effective running game around him in 2019, which might dip into his numbers. But if he finds an adequate replacement for JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and the rushing attack keeps defenses honest, Costello could be in for a monster season comparable to Luck's two Heisman-contending campaigns.
3. Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State
The above is the entirety of players returning to college football in 2019 who rushed for more than the 1,642 yards Benjamin gained. The Arizona State rising junior broke out as a bonafide star a season ago, gobbling up 200 yards more than the next-most productive ball carrier in the Pac-12. Benjamin's 16 rushing touchdowns also matched the output of Wisconsin's Taylor.
With a new quarterback and the departure of N'Keal Harry, Benjamin could see a heavier workload to start the season. If he gets cooking early, Benjamin could be in for a record-setting 2019.
2. Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
The quarterback who took the nation by storm in 2017 with his explosive rushing spent almost all of '18 unable to utilize that aspect of his game. Tate battled through an ankle injury to put up some solid passing numbers, however, throwing for 26 touchdowns and 2,530 yards.
A healthy Tate has the potential to wow with both his arm and legs. He'll also benefit from better familiarity with the offense after Sumlin's staff came in late in the offseason process a year ago.
1. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Widely considered a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, Herbert said at Pac-12 media day he returned to Oregon for his senior season anticipating a special conclusion. Oregon's veteran-heavy lineup certainly could deliver on a year to remember. And if Herbert's as good as his top-pick billing, he could follow in the footsteps of Marcus Mariota as a Heisman Trophy winner.
Herbert's statistics in 2018 weren't exactly shabby — 29 touchdowns against eight interceptions, 3,151 yards — but he'll need to take another step to contend for the Heisman. An improvement in his completion percentage should yield gaudier numbers. Operating behind the most veteran offensive line in the nation will help. So, too, will the continued growth of running backs Travis Dye and C.J. Verdell. Should Herbert find a reliable No. 1 target to replace Dillon Mitchell, the lifelong Ducks fan will have an opportunity to write his name in the program's history in an unparalleled way.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.