It’s the heart of the offseason, so naturally, it’s time to start predicting the Heisman Trophy winner for 2018!
Let’s start with the criteria needed to clinch the most prestigious award in collegiate athletics based on the voting habits of recent years:
- Play quarterback, or be a running back on a playoff team.
- Play in a Power-5 conference.
- Run around and make plays (sorry, rhythm-based quarterbacks. Your pretty footwork isn’t needed here).
- Play on a championship-caliber team, or put up big performances in meaningful, prime-time games.
- Play on the East Coast. Joke! (kind of)
Because of that, I’ve split the list into two categories: The guys who will be in contention, and the players who should-be, but find themselves doing things voters don’t seem to care for, like playing defense.
To the Film Room.
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
Hiding out on the West Coast, Tate may not be able to accrue the necessary votes. But he enters the year with one big thing on his side: He’s the best one-man show in college football.
Khalil Tate assumes the “video-game-numbers” crown from Lamar Jackson. Yet, I’m not sure that does him justice. Try as you might, I’m not sure you could put up Tate’s figures in NCAA 14. The game probably short circuits.
The figures are mind-boggling: He averaged more than 8.9 yards per pass attempt and 9.2 yards per rush attempt; he threw for 1,500 yards and rushed for 1,400 yards. He totaled 26 touchdowns; he rushed for more than 200 yards twice, and more than 300 yards once; and he finished the season with a passer rating of 152.4.
Sounds good, right? Here’s the really stupid stuff: He forced 33 missed tackles, per ProFootballFocus, and gained 637 yards after contact. He’s a human first down.
Tate is excellent once a play breaks down. His improvisational skills are off-the-charts good. He’s a natural off-platform thrower; he figures out a way to get the ball where it needs to be. If that means a jump pass, then so be it:
The question is how much can he grow as a passer from within the pocket. There were some ugly spots in 2017, but plenty of glimpses of greatness:
You couldn’t walk down and hand that ball to the receiver any better.
Still: There’s some ways to go. Tate routinely passes up throws to take off and do his own thing:
Not a terrible idea, he’s pretty good at it. But it can lead the offense to bog down and become predictable.
Teams are happy to sacrifice 6-7 yards, so long as Tate doesn’t flick his wrist and hit a guy 30-yards downfield. Teams will drop their linebackers into “sink” zones, just in front of the first-down marker:
(Purdue effectively had three “spies” on Tate)
If Tate can routinely hit those downfield shots, there’s no telling what his ceiling can be. The most exciting player in college football would become its most effective. A compelling Heisman combination.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Will Grier is as naturally gifted a thrower as anyone in the country. No matter the game situation, platform, arm angle or whatever else. He’s going to continue to hoist that thing in the air— often with great accuracy.
Some throws are so absurd you can do little more than sit back and cackle:
Literally. I’ve replayed that throw 30 times. It still makes me laugh. I mean, he’s moving backwards, his body weight is shifted towards his own goal line, his feet are in the air, his receiver is spliced between a corner and safety, he rolls his shoulder, nothing more, nothing less. Dime.
Grier’s supporting cast and coaching staff will help him put up eye-popping numbers. Unfortunately, the team’s success will likely dictate how close he gets to a New York invite.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
We’re used to Alabama’s running backs winning or competing for the Heisman, often a pseudo team award – you guys were dominant, here’s an award for the offensive figurehead of that dominance.
Not this time. Finally, Nick Saban has a quarterback with genuine Heisman aspirations (feel free to groan).
Tua Tagovailoa enters the year as a heavy favorite to make it to New York. His performance in the national title game propelled him to household status.
He has a rare combination of smarts, field vision, a rapid release, accuracy and the ability to move and create offense by himself. In talking with people around him, those rare on-field traits also translate into rare off-the-field intangibles. What we witnessed in Atlanta was the early moments of an all-time great career.
Brian Daboll shifted the Alabama offense back to the vertical style of old — with option elements that use the quarterback as the downhill threat rather than the running back. Mike Locksley figures to keep the same system.
Tagovailoa is perfect for that vision of a modern Saban attack. And, as shown in the title game, he can stretch the field vertically in a way Jalen Hurts has failed to in his two years as a starter. Oh, and in case you were wondering, he’s a better improviser and runner, too.
Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
If Tagovailoa gets a national title bump, so does Jake Fromm.
Fromm was considered in some quarters as a limited freshman who simply handed the ball off to the Bulldog’s two-headed rushing attack, and threw easy passes. Even opposing players bought in on a media-contrived banality.
It was nonsense. Fromm marshaled a fairly progressive system for a freshman. Sure, it wasn’t a full-field read, multi-progression system that put everything in his hands. But what player does a couple of months removed from high school?
Fromm plays with maturity and intellect well beyond his years. The nuances of the position seem natural to him. The playoff run put his skills in the national spotlight, catapulting him from a quality quarterback into the Heisman discussion.
Fromm should have another stellar year, provided top-rated freshman Justin Fields doesn’t come in and take his job.
Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
Trace McSorely hits all of the top criteria. Plus: He’s the top returning quarterback in the country.
McSorley is the closest thing we’ve had to Johnny Football since Manziel left the college game. Thgis is his chance to break out from the Saquon Barkley-James Franklin-Joe Moorhead shadow.
It’s a double-edged sword. He’s lost his scale-tipping tactician and the best offensive weapon in the nation. Nothing was easier for McSorley than when he could flip the ball to Barkley and watch the wizard go to work. Add to that: He will be without his top slot receiver, DaeSean Hamilton; and Mike Gesicki, a springy, mismatch tight end who was allergic to blocking.
It could go poorly. Or, he could succeed despite the losses, elevating his own growing reputation.
I’m betting on the latter.
McSorley is a playmaker. He may play the most structured position on the field, but he’s a jazz artist at heart, he wants to play off-beat.
His speed in the open field is well-known (legit fast, as they say), but those quick feet help in the pocket too. He’s gotten better at negotiating traffic and working up through the pocket rather than bailing out at the first sign of trouble:
Old-school McSorley would have run around like a headless chicken, 10-yards back, then 15-yards forward. Now, he’s calm. Poised. It’s not quite the classic stick, slide, climb throw. It’s a McSorley remix.
He’s a far more complete passer than he’s given credit for, as well. People get intoxicated by his mobility, chucking him in a “dual-threat” category that’s often used to demerit passers.
McSorley is no chucker; he’s a true quarterback. He will mix up his trajectories and velocities to different levels of the field. Let him know what throw is required, and he will deliver it. NFL teams have already taken notice.
He took great strides with his decisions toward the end of 2017. There’s still the sloppy, turnover-worthy throws. They’re just a part of his game. But he’s gotten better at passing up the first thing he sees, working his eyes, manipulating the defense and flinging the ball with anticipation:
McSorley had some specific quirks in Joe Moorhead’s system (they even switched up the depth of his shotgun snaps week-to-week). It will be interesting to see if they carry over with new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. Despite the losses around him, I’d pencil him in as the preseason favorite.
Dru Brown, QB, Oklahoma State
You may not have heard of Dru Brown, but that might work in his favor! We all love the quarterback who comes from nowhere – typically a freshman – who runs around and plays with some razzle dazzle.
Brown hasn’t quite come from nowhere. A graduate transfer from Hawaii, he was heavily recruited by schools looking for a stop-gap starter, or new coaches looking to kick-start their programs. Everyone from Mike Leach to Ed Orgeron to Jeremy Pruitt wanted in.
Mike Gundy beat them all, landing his successor to Mason Rudolph.
There’s a chance Brown will be more effective than Rudolph. He’s a true dual-threat; Rudolph was a statue.
Brown’s legs will help open up the passing game, not only on designed runs, but shifting in the pocket to create whatever throwing angle is necessary:
That’s an impossibly good throw. Shifting to his left, Brown kept his feet light, then slammed them down with authority when he had to deliver the ball against the grain. He hit his guy in stride.
His whippy release makes those kind of out of structure plays possible. But he’s not just playing backyard football. Ask Brown to run through a classic three-tiered concept and he’ll gobble it up:
Brown has the velocity to squeeze the ball through tight spaces or complete out routes from the far hash. He’s going to put up a billion points in the Fun-N-Gundy offense (the widened splits of the linemen will help conceal his height — 5-foot-10). Voters will take notice.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
Is it cliché at this point to compare J.K. Dobbins to Ezekiel Elliot? Probably. But it remains true.
When I asked an Ohio State coach about Dobbins in the middle of last season, he first let out an exhale, then paused, before delivering a long, drawn-out expletive: “F———–“. It was the sincerest of coaching compliments.
Dobbins is rare. His staff knows it. He’s small, but packs a mean punch. He’s happy to grind away inside, churning out the much-needed yardage to keep the offense on course. But flash any daylight, and he’ll take the ball 50-yards in the blink of an eye:
Everything is done at one speed: Fast. His eyes, his cuts, his decisions. That forms a deadly stretch-zone runner.
He has that special ability to accelerate while he’s cutting. It’s devastating to linebackers and safeties. They think they have the right angle, and, if not, they can effort over and at least stop a big play:
Nope. They have to be perfect.
Some young backs have a tendency to outrun their blocks — call it giddiness or whatever. They don’t allow the play concept to set up, charging to 100 mph before the offensive line is ready.
Not Dobbins. Though he’s moving fast, he carefully tracks all in front of him. He moves when he needs to, not getting caught up in the excitement of a potential big play. He rarely, if ever, misses the right cutback lane.
Of course, Dobbins is aided and abated by a group of moving trees up front who seem to mow anyone and everyone off the ball. He routinely gets to the second level unblocked. That’s a great life for a running back. At that point, he’d have to work hard to not put up huge figures.
De’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Unfortunately for De’Andre Swift, Fromm figures to monopolize the Georgia vote, particularly as the Bulldogs shift to a more passing-oriented attack on early downs.
But he still deserves a preseason nod.
Equal parts Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel, Swift is a throw-him-out-there-and-get-him-the-ball explosive weapon. Where he lines up doesn’t really matter.
Speed kills, and Swift has a ton of it. Give him a hint of space between the tackles and he will do serious damage:
Defenders are forced to be perfect. Above, watch how the backside safety took a couple of steps too deep, then misread the pursuit angle – he didn’t think Swift was that fast.
He is! Whiff mentally, and Swift can take the ball 70 yards untouched. He doesn’t give you a second chance.
At times, that speed can be an issue. He’s all gas, no brake. Sometimes you have to modulate your speed.
Right now, Swift is best used out on the perimeter. Georgia worked hard in 2017 to get him touches outside, using jet sweeps, quick screens and other creative wrinkles. He has to become more patient between the tackles to be an all-around back.
But that might not be what Georgia wants. Kirby Smart and company might be happy with Swift as a movable piece who takes the odd inside handoff. The next 5-star guy can do much of the grunt work between the tackles.
Swift’s prowess as a receiver helps. He’s not precise yet (he doesn’t always hit the right marks and he can be sloppy on out-breaking stuff from the backfield), but there’s a crispness to his movements; he glides:
Catching the ball on the turn isn’t natural to some backs. Swift eats it up.
Regardless, it will be tough for Swift to force his way into the Heisman discussion. But he has a chance. He will be playing in big games. Put up huge performances and voters’ attention will quickly shift from Fromm to his running back.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Wisconsin fans were upset when I left Jonathan Taylor off my breakout list. Why would he be there? He’s already broken out.
Taylor’s freshman campaign was remarkable. He finished with more than 2,000 scrimmage yards, with a unique style that’s easy to fall in love with. This isn’t the plug-and-play Wisconsin runner you’re used to.
Taylor moves differently; there’s no other way to say it.
He’s a deft runner, who skips across the turf. His feet seem to move at a 1,000,000 mph, while the rest of his body remains still. Taylor weighs his options, deciding where and when he wants to do whatever he pleases. When he feels it’s time, he explodes, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake:
It’s as if he’s able to make four or five quick steps in the time it takes a defender to make one.
Taylor pairs those pretty feet with supreme vision and body control. He tilts and leans, rather than committing himself to a move, like some plant-and-fire rushers.
Defenders start biting on little twitches, following his eyes instead of his hips. Taylor’s left them for dust before they realize their mistake:
Plus, he has one natural ability all the great backs seem to have: Always falling forwards.
Special doesn’t do him justice. He should book his plane ticket to New York now.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Bovada lists the 2017 runner-up as the early favorite for this year’s award (7/1).
Bryce Love averaged a ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry in 2017, rushing for less than 100 yards in just one game. It’s going to be tough to replicate that in back-to-back years.
He could! Love is blessed with rare stop-and-start quickness and an ability to shrink that truncated body through tiny crevices along the defensive front. He’s able to conjure space, like magic, when it feels like there isn’t any:
Still: Love is more of a product of how his offensive line plays than other backs around the country — he will need help. It may not always show up in the stats, but he relies on his line to distort the levels of the front – not necessarily to knock them back off the ball.
Love doesn’t need much room to go to work — he’s just lacking in size, unable to barrel in-behind a single lineman and churn out yards. Give him any kind of gap, though, and he’ll unleash his blurry speed:
The further he gets downfield, the quicker he seems to become; he’s always gaining speed. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible.
Oh, and not that anyone cares about his skills in pass protection, but Bryce certainly does.
He works as hard there as he does carrying the ball between the tackles:
That’s a great play. The safety rotated toward the box late and flew in off the edge. Love picked him up. It doesn’t always require a knockout blow, just a stable base and the body position to edge someone around the corner. Love’s block gave his quarterback just enough time to get the ball out and hit his guy downfield.
Side note: Stanford needs to shelve that weird toss play it has become enamoured with.
It’s a fake-toss counter play, Stanford’s iteration of the fake-toss play Clemson made famous. Yet instead of the quarterback carrying the ball, it’s all on the running back.
The QB tosses the ball to his back, who initially sets up to carry out a traditional toss play. Instead, the back waits for a pair of backside pullers to set up a wall. It’s a lot of moving parts. It looks pretty when it works. But too often it’s slow to develop, and defenders key on it. A traditional counter action is fine, just roll with it.
The Could-be, should-be
Since 1970, Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to take home the Heisman (and he had to take some snaps on offense). A wide receiver hasn’t won since Desmond Howard in 1991 (and he had to return some punts). Neither drought is going to end in 2018.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t use the depths of the offseason to indulge ourselves with some fanciful fantasies.
For a modicum of realism, I’ve left some guys off my list – An offensive lineman or non-kick-returning defensive back isn’t getting the call anytime soon, no matter how hard I campaign. The likes of Trey Adams, Jonah Williams, Dre’Mont Jones, Taylor Rapp and Chase Lucas will have to be content with All-American honors.
Ahmmon Richards, WR, Miami
I had to squeeze a receiver on this list somewhere for my own sanity.
Others may put up bigger numbers, but Ahmmon Richards is as physically gifted as any pass catcher in the country. Had he played with a competent quarterback a year ago (and been fully healthy) he would have mauled everyone.
Richards is springy receiver. He’s explosive off the line, with tree branches for arms, and a leap usually reserved for a dunk contest.
Top-level college receivers usually skate by on raw athleticism. Not Richards. He embraces the subtleties of the position. His hand usage helps fight off press coverage (he also does a nice job of shrinking his body as he accelerates up field), and he has the strength to shake off corners and create late separation, the hallmark of the real greats.
His route running needs work. He can elongate patterns, particularly on intermediate in-breaking routes (top of the screen):
That needs to be crisper. Routes shouldn’t be so laborious.
The development is there on quick-breaking stuff: He shuffles his feet, sells fakes, cuts hard and presents a big target to his quarterback:
Nobody’s stopping that. Give him decent quarterback play, and watch Richards do things that Michael Irvin would be proud of.
Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State
Part human, part amazing. Nick Bosa is, perhaps, the only defender in the country with a genuine Heisman shot.
Bosa isn’t a boom-or-bust guy. He produces in every game. That’s a big factor. Those are the type of things that keep a defender in the public’s mind week-to-week. He had only three games in 2017 where he didn’t register a sack or tackle for loss. He isn’t just racking up crazy production against cheap competition.
Comparisons to his brother, Joey, are obvious. They’re valid. They look eerily similar: the stance; the hand usage; the get-off; the relentlessness; and the quirky dip-and-rip Joey idiosyncrasies. All of it seems to have snuck into Nick’s body, as if by osmosis.
Bosa has the athleticism to run around or through opposing blockers. He’s explosive out of his stance (often a four-point, pass-rushing stance), with the hops to beat opposing blockers to their pass sets:
He does an excellent job of sinking his hips and bending around the edge, closing flat to the quarterback. When he lines someone up head-on, he can run over tackles or guards as a power rusher or force defender:
(Quick tip: It’s not a good idea to give him a head start)
Bosa finished last season with 25 hurries, 15 hits, 9 sacks and 3 batted passes. It was a non-stop highlight package.
It’s important to remember: He rotated! Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, had the luxury of many of these athletes with long arms and great get-offs. He kept them fresh. They played in certain packages in certain situations.
Bosa should see more action 2018. He may well slot into Sam Hubbard’s role as a base-down defender, now that Hubbard has moved on to the NFL. Or, he could keep his second- and-third-down role, where his sole job is to penetrate into the backfield, be disruptive, and, wherever possible, decapitate the quarterback.
Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Has anyone explained to you yet why Ed Oliver didn’t make it to New York last year? Nope, me either.
Oliver was so good in 2017, without getting the Heisman consideration his play warranted, it convinced me it was time to split the award into two: Offense and defense.
(I’m still smarting from the great Ndamukong Suh-Mark Ingram debacle. Two guys named Toby and Colt finished ahead of Suh, the single most dominant defensive performer of the modern era. Toby!)
How do you go about blocking a 300-pound man with a super-charged get-off? You don’t.
Oliver’s first step is ridiculous. He gets to the backfield at will. His reflexes, paired with his uncommon burst, are like a glitch in the matrix. He moves so fast, you’re convinced the tape was sped up or he must be offside:
He’s not! That’s just how fast he moves. He even scored a touchdown as a running back in the Cougars bowl game against Fresno State:
Look at him scoot.
Oliver was so dominant in Houston’s game against Memphis, I actually began to feel sorry for Memphis’ center. It was mean.
Everything about his game was on display: explosiveness, run-game nuances, inside hands, leverage and that unnatural ability to sink his hips at his size, until he’s almost parallel to the floor.
What are you supposed to do against this?
Hold on for dear life and hope for the best. It’s all you can do.
His pass-rushing arsenal is coming along, too. That’s where he’ll make the kind of impact that could warrant Heisman discussion. He no longer solely relies on his initial movement to unnerve blockers. There’s counter moves, and even a savvy spin move:
When Oliver is at his best, there isn’t an offensive lineman in the country who can do anything to stop him. He’s going to be great for a long, long time. Here’s hoping the voters show him the respect he deserves.
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