The 2018 Heisman Trophy race could be wide open.
There will be no returning winner, with Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield becoming the first senior to win the award since 2006. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 winner and a finalist this year, is a junior likely to jump to the NFL.
The most likely finalist to return is Stanford running back Bryce Love, though he also is a junior who could declare for the NFL draft.
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley finished fourth in the voting, but don’t expect the junior to be back. Barkley is a possible top-five pick. The fifth-place finisher, Rashaad Penny of San Diego State, also is a senior.
Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold entered this season as the Heisman favorite, but too many interceptions took him out of the running. Whether Darnold jumps to the NFL is not quite so clear. If he returns, he will again receive Heisman hype.
It could be a good year for a dark horse to emerge, but here are some players who will enter 2018 with Heisman buzz:
Quarterbacks who bypass the draft
Fifteen of the last 18 Heisman winners have been QBs, so there is good chance another will win it next season. Darnold is one of several underclassmen quarterbacks who might decide to enter the NFL draft. But if they do return to school, they would be a good bet to enter the Heisman race. The most prominent are Jarrett Stidham of Auburn, Will Grier of West Virginia and Drew Lock of Missouri.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Returning starting quarterback Kelly Bryant will get a lot of attention. Etienne, though, has a chance to be a special running back. He is averaging 7.2 yards per carry as a freshman. The talent is there for a huge sophomore season; it’s just a matter of touches on what always figures to be a team with lots of good options in the backfield.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
New coach Joe Moorhead’s offense helped Trace McSorley put up some gaudy numbers at Penn State the last two seasons (6,842 yards passing, 55 TD passes and 18 rushing touchdowns). Fitzgerald, if he fully recovers from a foot injury, is a lot like McSorley – just a whole lot bigger at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. He needs to become a more accurate passer, but Fitzgerald has run for 2,359 yards and 30 touchdowns the last two seasons. The potential is there for big stats.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Herbert was on his way to a big sophomore year when he broke his collarbone midway through this season. Without him, the Ducks went 1-4. In the seven games he played, Herbert passed for 1,750 yards and 13 touchdowns and added five rushing touchdowns. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder could also be working his way toward becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
Milton has a lot of Mayfield in his game, with an ability to turn a broke play into a huge gain. He will have a new coach next year in Josh Heupel, but theoretically that should not slow down the Knights’ offense. Heupel was offensive coordinator at Missouri this season and helped Lock lead the nation in touchdown passes with 43. Milton finished eighth in this year’s voting.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
The freshman tailback is third in the nation in rushing at 1,847 yards and 142.08 per game. No team is more committed to the run than Wisconsin. Taylor will be the favorite to lead the nation in rushing next year and likely the focal point of the Badgers’ offense. Taylor finished sixth in the voting and depending on what the juniors do ahead of him, he could be the highest-placing returnee.
Others to watch: Cam Akers, RB, Florida State; J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State; Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State; Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; JD Spielman, WR, Nebraska; Khalil Tate, Arizona.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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