Heisman Watch: The Pac-12's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2016

2015 runner-up Christian McCaffrey leads the pursuit of the award this season out west

Consider 2016 the "Year of the Running Back" around the Pac-12. The conference is loaded at a position recently dismissed as expendable at various levels of football, but this current crop of ball carriers around the West refute that notion emphatically.

 

The Pac-12 features a number of backs capable of bringing the league its second Heisman Trophy in three seasons. Among them is Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, who very nearly completed a Heisman repeat for the conference.

 

Star running backs shine around the league, many of whom could give McCaffrey a run for top billing. But don't sleep on the quarterbacks. In a conference that long staked its reputation on quarterback play, the Pac-12 has a few candidates behind center that could emerge as Heisman candidates this season.

 

Some signal-callers didn't make this list, like USC's Max Browne and Oregon's Dakota Prukop, but could develop into top-tier players throughout the season.

 

2016 Heisman Trophy Candidates by Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC I Group of Five

 

As for the 10 who did make the cut, read on. These are the Pac-12's top options to represent in New York come December.

 

Top 10 Pac-12 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2016

 

10. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State

Lost in a disappointing 2015 at Arizona State was Richard’s breakout performance. Head coach Todd Graham and former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell were impressed enough with Richard's ability to move D.J. Foster to wide receiver, and get Richard more opportunities as the feature back.

 

He delivered, rushing for 1,098 yards and eclipsing the century mark seven times in 2015. He also demonstrated a knack for as a receiver out of the backfield.

 

Arizona State's offense is an unknown heading into the season. None of the quarterbacks vying to replace Mike Bercovici have thrown a college pass. Uncertainty at other positions translates to uncertainty for Richard's ceiling, but if he lives up to the lofty potential Graham and his staff obviously saw, he could be the Pac-12's top dark-horse Heisman candidate.

 

9. Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA

Much of the focus regarding UCLA's retooled offense rests on quarterback Josh Rosen, but fellow sophomore Jamabo stands to benefit equally from a new perspective.

 

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jamabo functioned as a complement to the smaller Paul Perkins last season, showing off flashes of brilliance in just 66 carries. He maximized those touches, getting to the end zone four times and averaging more than six yards per carry.

 

As the Bruins' top option out of the backfield, Jamabo will see plenty more carries, but also function as a more consistent part of the passing attack. UCLA head coach Jim Mora said in April he anticipates Jamabo playing a key role as a pass catcher. That additional opportunity to fill the stat sheet should only help the running back's Heisman case, should the Bruin offense flourish. 

 

8. Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona

Solomon generated a fair bit of Heisman buzz as a freshman in 2014. He led Arizona to its best season since 1998, including a Pac-12 South divisional title and appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. Solomon would probably be ranked higher were his sophomore follow-up not so injury plagued.

 

Solomon missed all of two games, and significant portions of others, which left the offense in the hands of running quarterback Jerrard Randall. With the offense rendered one-dimensional, along with significant deficiencies on defense, Arizona floundered at 7-6.

 

The Wildcats must compete for another divisional crown if Solomon's to again garner some Heisman talk. That's largely predicated on him staying healthy, as he continued to show off some impressive stuff when available last season. He closed 2015 with 20 passing touchdowns against just five interceptions, and improved both his completion percentage and yards per attempt from the previous season.

 

7. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Head coach Chris Petersen rolled with a pair of true freshmen in his starting backfield a season ago. Either one of quarterback Jake Browning or Gaskin could become the first Husky to represent in New York since defensive tackle Steve Emtman in 1991 – especially if Washington lives up to lofty expectations and do what Emtman's team did, winning a national title.

 

Browning showed potential, but Gaskin actually delivered in Year 1. One of the nation's breakout surprises in 2015, Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's capable of more in his sophomore campaign, contingent largely on Browning making strides of his own.

 

6. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

Falk emerged from relative obscurity to open the 2015 season, and finished it as the nation's leading passer with an average of 380.1 yards per game. Over the course of 12 games, Falk produced 4,561 yards, 38 touchdowns against just eight interceptions, and completed more than 69 percent of his attempts. The result was Washington State's best season since 2003.

 

Unfortunately for Falk, while his numbers warrant Heisman consideration if the Cougars contend in the Pac-12, the quarterback products of head coach Mike Leach seem to be at a disadvantage with voters. Leach's only Heisman finalist was a wide receiver: Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree in 2008.

 

If any player can reverse that trend, though, it's Falk. He's a special talent who could lead Washington State to a special season.

 

5. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC

USC boasts an impressive wide receiver lineage, which has really taken off in the last 15 years or so. From Mike Williams to Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Woods to Marqise Lee, Trojan wideouts have been some of the best in college football. In 2016, Smith-Schuster can establish himself as the nation's premier pass catcher.

 

Smith-Schuster's 1,454 yards receiving in 2015 ranked fourth among all players in college football. He also hauled in 10 touchdowns.

 

Smith-Schuster's 2016 production largely hinges on the play of a new starting quarterback. Front-runner Max Browne's long ball looked sharper in practices than that of former starter Cody Kessler. If that translates to games, Smith-Schuster will benefit handsomely.

 

4. Adoree' Jackson, CB/KR, USC

Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian blew the whistle on the Jackson hype train in earnest at the 2014 season's conclusion. Jackson capped that, his freshman campaign, with a pair of touchdowns in a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

 

Two trips to the end zone on special teams and offense isn't a bad night for a guy whose best work is done on defense.

 

Jackson returns in 2016 as one of the top cornerbacks in college football, but also one of the most explosive return men. He can throw on the same jets on special teams that made him a championship sprinter in Pac-12 track & field. And, while head coach Clay Helton suggested at Pac-12 media days that Jackson would be used more sparingly on offense, look for him to still be a big-play wild card in the Trojans' shuffle.

 

3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Few true freshmen quarterbacks ever face the hype coming in Rosen saw last year – in part because most true freshmen are redshirting. But Rosen stepped in for one of the most successful quarterbacks in UCLA history, Brett Hundley, and immediately upheld his predecessor's standard.

 

His three-touchdown debut against Virginia vaulted Rosen into the Heisman conversation from the outset last season. While that chatter died down, commensurate with UCLA faltering somewhat in the Pac-12 title race, Rosen set a school record for pass attempts without an interception, and finished his freshman campaign with an impressive 23 touchdowns and 3,670 yards.

 

Taking over an offense built to showcase his abilities, Rosen should see improvements in both his completion percentage and interception total – two figures that were among his least impressive in 2015 (60 and 11).

 

2. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Alabama and Oregon both jockeyed hard for Freeman's commitment coming out of high school. The Crimson Tide looked like the more appropriate fit on paper, given Nick Saban's penchant for building around bruising ball carriers. Oregon flourished with more of a finesse back.

 

Freeman's arrival in Eugene defied convention, and all he's done in two seasons is set the program's single-season rushing record, and in Year 3, he’s a threat to break the Ducks' all-time career mark.

 

He'll be the offensive cornerstone for an Oregon team in the unusual position of flying under the radar. Defending Pac-12 champion Stanford and trendy pick Washington surpassed the Ducks in offseason hype. Should Freeman lead them in exceeding expectations and returning to the Pac-12 Championship Game, expect him to bulldoze his way to New York.

 

1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

On his way to New York and the Heisman ceremony in 2015, Christian McCaffrey did things not seen since Reggie Bush ran away with the award in ‘05. His punt return touchdown in Stanford's Rose Bowl romp over Iowa completed just the third five-way touchdown season in college football history, with scores made via the run, reception, pass, kickoff return and punt return.

 

McCaffrey's Heisman bid only fell short because competitor Derrick Henry also made history, surpassing legendary Herschel Walker in the SEC record books. An encore approaching his 2015 should land McCaffrey the honor come December.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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