Top 10 dark horse 2017 Heisman Trophy candidates

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk (4) plays during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game against Minnesota Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Jesse Reed, Sportsnaut | Source, MSN

We all know who the top dogs are in the race to win the 2017 Heisman Trophy. Guys like Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett are known quantities. Nobody will be all that surprised if they end up winning.

But what about the lesser-known players who have a shot at coming out ahead? Those are the guys we’re taking a look at here.

Could a defensive player steal the spotlight this year? It has only happened once, when Michigan’s Charles Woodson (who also returned punts and dabbled at receiver) won the coveted award back in 1997. What about a receiver? Do any of them have a shot? In the history of the award, only four have ever accomplished this feat, the last coming in 1991 when Michigan’s Desmond Howard won.

Likely, it’s going to be another running back or quarterback hoisting the 2017 Heisman Trophy. And there are many who could do it. Removing the most likely from the equation, these are the top dark horse 2017 Heisman Trophy candidates.

Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn

After a promising freshman year at Baylor was cut short by injury, Stidham left the scandal-ridden program in the summer of 2016. He spent last season at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, taking a year off from football before transferring to Auburn ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Now he’s expected by most to beat out Sean White for the starting job in Gus Malzahn’s offense, one that should fit his skills perfectly.

During his freshman year at Baylor, Stidham completed 68.8 percent of his passes, averaged 11.6 yards per attempt throwing 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. A former Baylor coach called him “a taller Drew Brees” recently, indicating just how highly he’s thought of.

“We used to sit in our defensive meeting room at Baylor and be like ‘OK, we’ve got one right here. We’ve got something special at quarterback,’” Chris Dishman said, via Matt Zenitz of “You knew he was going to a special-type player, so him being successful at Auburn doesn’t surprise me at all.”

The Tigers are going to try to run the ball plenty. But Malzahn has been waiting for a passer of Stidham’s caliber for a few years. He won’t have him on a leash. Instead, he’ll be eager to unleash the aerial assault he’s been unable to feature in recent years because of a lack of talent.

This bodes well for Stidham to have a huge season at Auburn in 2017.

Da’Shawn Hand, defensive end, Alabama

Before you scream “SEC bias!” know we’re aware Hand hasn’t played a ton in his three years at Alabama. During this stretch of time, he managed to tally just 43 tackles and six sacks. Hardly numbers that scream Heisman.

But we’re also aware he didn’t play much because he was playing behind All-American Jonathan Allen, now a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins. Now that Allen is gone, look for Hand to step up as the dominant force on Alabama’s defensive line.

“Da’Shawn’s come a long way,” said Allen, via ESPN’s Edward Aschoff. “That’s my dog right there, and I’m excited to see what he does, and I’m excited for his future.”

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound lineman is explosive and quick enough to make big plays both inside and outside on the line. He’ll be unleashed in a big way as a full-time starter this upcoming season, one that should see him earning All-American honors, if not some Heisman votes.

Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State

A player NFL people are already very excited about, Barkley is a three-down running back who gets stronger as games get longer.

Last year at Penn State, Barkley totaled 1,898 yards and 22 touchdowns, putting himself on the map as a legitimate national superstar. He and the Nittany Lions closed out the season on a nine-game winning streak that was ultimately cut short in the Rose Bowl by an equally hot USC team.

Expectations will be high again this year, and we expect Penn State to be pegged somewhere in the top 10 when the preseason AP rankings come out.

Between Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, who also has some weapons in the passing game, this offense is primed to explode with a huge season. And it all starts with Barkley, the 5-foot-11, 223-pound player who is lightning in a bottle.

Luke Falk, quarterback, Washington State

Falk surprised many when he decided to return to Washington State for his senior season. One of the top quarterbacks in the nation the past two years, he’s put up jaw-dropping statistics throughout his tenure with the Cougars.

A former walk-on, Falk became the full-time starter during his freshman campaign. He’s started 30 games, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 10,888 yards with 89 touchdowns and just 26 interceptions.

What’s truly stunning is that, when you go back and watch the tape, Falk still has so much room to improve. He needs to get better at making plays down the field, needs to be more decisive and needs to improve his ball placement to really take his game to the next level.

It won’t be shocking to see Falk eclipse 5,000 yards and 40 passing touchdowns this upcoming season. If he does that, then he’ll be in the mix for the Heisman.

Derrius Guice, running back, LSU

With Leonard Fournette gone, it’s time for Guice to prove he’s a worthy successor. For many who study the game, this is already a given. Guice is an explosive, dual-threat back who is much quicker and dynamic than the powerful Fournette.

Last year, when Fournette went down Guice stepped up in a big way. He finished the season with 1,493 total yards and 16 touchdowns, even though he only started eight games. We expect Guice to rack up quite the stat sheet in 2017. He’s clearly the top dog in Baton Rouge, and to be quite honest there isn’t another sure-fire option behind him.

This year, he’s being pegged as one of college football’s most irreplaceable players by Ben Kercheval of CBS Sports.

“Leonard Fournette earned irreplaceable status last year, but as we saw, Guice was more than capable of picking up the slack with Fournette tending to injuries,” wrote Kercheval. So … second time’s the charm? LSU was blessed with Fournette and Guice as the top two rushing options. In that sense, maybe Fournette was more replaceable than previously thought. The difference here is there might not be another Guice-caliber option behind Guice. Either way, Guice is a large bulk of LSU’s offense with question marks at quarterback.”

The Tigers will be relying heavily on No. 5 to carry the load. Which, in turn, means he could end up being one of the few invited to New York next December for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

Derwin James, safety, Florida State

The only other defender on this list, James has perhaps a much better chance than Hand to become only the second defensive player ever to win the Heisman.

Of course, it’s also possible he’s being hyped a bit too much after missing last season with a knee injury. But after his outstanding freshman campaign, who can blame us for being excited? He racked up 91 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2015. He also tallied an interception last year before getting injured in Week 2.

This redshirt sophomore is the best defensive back in the nation and has future NFL star written all over him. We’re talking about a guy who has the type of impact Tyrann Mathieu has had but has a good six inches on the Honey Badger.

A hard hitter who possesses elite instincts, a real nose for the ball and outstanding athleticism, this 6-foot-3, 211-pound nightmare of a defender makes plays all over the field. Whether he’s ripping around the corner on a blitz, running at breakneck speed to crush a ball carrier or chasing down a pass deep downfield, James has the skills to pay the bills.

Shane Buechele, quarterback, Texas

Last year as a true freshman for the Longhorns, Buechele showed he’s a superstar in the making. Always up for the challenge of playing tough opponents, he gave fans of the program a lot of hope for a better future in what was ultimately another failed season under Charlie Strong.

Starting all 12 games, Buechele completed 60.4 percent of his passes, threw for 2,958 yards (7.6 yards per attempt) with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

We can’t wait to see how the influence of Tom Herman affects Buechele’s play. A former wide receiver, Herman is an offensive-minded coach who should help the Longhorns become much more of a threat on this side of the ball in the coming years.

Of course, it will also help if Buechele can start to generate more of a reliable connection with his receivers. The Longhorns’ top receiver last year, Armanti Foreman, only caught 34 passes for 420 yards and three scores. Look for Devin Duvernay to become more of a factor as both he and Buechele grow together in their sophomore campaigns.

We’ll be a bit shocked if Buechele does end up representing the Longhorns in New York this December. There are so many other talented quarterbacks in better situations. That said, this young man clearly has the talent to put together a magnificent season as a sophomore.

Mike Weber, running back, Ohio State

Curtis Samuel’s departure opened the door wide for Weber to step through as the main running back for the Buckeyes in 2017.

Heck, even last year as a redshirt freshman Weber flashed brilliance. He rushed for more yards than Samuel did, gaining 1,096 yards on just 182 carries (6 yards per carry) with nine touchdowns. It’s going to be interesting to see if he becomes more of a factor in the passing game (just 23 catches for 91 yards last year) now that Samuel is no longer on the team.

Head coach Urban Meyer has seen huge growth from Weber this past spring and obviously has high hopes for his lead back this season.

“Mike Weber is separating himself,” Meyer said, per ESPN’s Austin Ward. “He’s having an exceptional spring, and it’s about where he should be. Ironically, I was just talking to him about this. He’s 100 percent [better than] the player he was last year. I mean, in everything, he’s doing a very good job.”

With the likes of Samuel and Ezekiel Elliott having dominated in recent years, Weber has some work ahead of him to create his own legacy at Ohio State, which is something he wants to do.

Of course, winning the Heisman Trophy would do wonders for him in that pursuit. If he has a Heisman-winning season, then the Buckeyes will also likely be challenging for a national championship this January, furthering his cause all the more.

Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Alabama

Much like we saw with Buechele, Hurts was a fantastic player as a true freshman for Alabama last year. He didn’t often get rattled under pressure and had a lot to do with the team’s success offensively.

Hurts is one of the nation’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last year and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. His ability to evade pressure and make huge plays with his legs means opposing defenses often are gashed for massive plays, even when they do everything else right (watch here).

A very talented pure passer as well, Hurts gained 2,780 yards through the air while throwing 23 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.

Those are exceptional numbers for a true freshman, and he’ll only get better with experience. Throw in the fact Hurts plays for a team that will certainly compete for a chance at a title and you have a recipe for potential Heisman glory. Perhaps the biggest thing standing in his way is that Hurts plays with Bo Scarbrough, who is also a Heisman contender.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA

If Rosen hasn’t missed the second half of last season with nerve damage to his throwing shoulder, perhaps he wouldn’t be considered a dark horse to win the Heisman. Then again, the UCLA signal-caller pretty much had a rough 2016 campaign overall, so it’s hard to know for sure.

One thing we don’t have any doubts about is Rosen’s talent. He’s been compared to Eli Manning of the New York Giants, and that comparison makes a lot of sense. Blessed with an NFL arm, Rosen sometimes gets careless with the ball but then tends to make up for it with brilliant plays that win games.

In 19 games, Rosen has passed for 5,584 yards with 33 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He’s struggled with accuracy at times and has a 59.7 percent completion rate. That, combined with the picks, is reason to be a bit worried about his prospects at the next level. But Rosen has a chance to prove his naysayers wrong with a big season in 2017.

If he does, then not only should UCLA improve upon what was a disappointing 2016 season but Rosen could become the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

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