Somewhere out there, the 2004 Heisman winner is lurking. And it's likely he's managed to elude this list.
Jason White, the reigning champ, was known more for crutches and clipboards before he had a breakout season in 2003. At the trophy ceremony in New York last December, he said, "Last year about this time, I was sitting at home watching the Heisman and thought how neat it would be to be there, to be one of the finalists. I never thought, after two surgeries, that I'd be here."
But I must take a stab at it in the preseason, based off of what we observed in the last go-around. For those of you who say it's far too early to even speculate, I agree in part, but what would you rather read from spring practice -- an update on the battle for some team's No. 3 QB spot, or this? Like spring football itself, spring Heisman Watches are a geeky, guilty pleasure. Feel free to indulge.
1. Matt Leinart, QB, USC, Jr.
The chances are slim that White will become the first repeat Heisman winner since Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1974-75. And last season's No. 2, Larry Fitzgerald, is now collecting fat checks in the desert. This makes Leinart, the sophomore surprise who finished No. 3 in my final 2003 ratings, the de facto No. 1 in the 2004 race. But Leinart's job did not get any easier in the offseason -- in fact, it may have gotten harder -- and there's a good chance that he, like White, won't improve with age. Leinart's No. 1 and 2 targets, Mike Williams and Keary Colbert, are gone (barring an NCAA ruling allowing Williams to return), and perhaps more important, the powerhouse offensive line that protected him in 2003, yielding just 15 sacks in 13 games, has been decimated by graduation and the suspension of All-American Winston Justice. Fewer targets and less protection could very well mean less production.
IN THE SPRING: Nursing a sore left elbow, Leinart saw limited action in USC's spring game on April 10. He went 8-of-15 passing for 88 yards, and of the elbow, told the Los Angeles Times, "It's not a big deal. I'm sure it will be fine in the summer."
2. Darren Sproles, RB, Kansas State, Sr.
It's crazy, Brian Fellowscrazy, what a guy's gotta do to get Wildcats coach Bill Snyder to sign off on a Heisman promotion. Even trivial promotions like e-mails and postcards. The notoriously P.R.-unfriendly Snyder, after saying no to anything for Sproles and departed QB Eli Roberson in 2003, finally acquiesced to (mildly) touting Sproles' horn in '04. All it took to convince coach was 1,986 rushing yards (No. 1 in the nation), including 273 against Mizzou and 235 against Oklahoma in Sproles' final two Big 12 games. Sproles didn't need to inherit the label of best running back in the nation after Chris Perry, Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones entered the draft -- K-State's tiny speedster was already No. 1.
IN THE SPRING: Sproles was protected from the bulk of K-State's contact drills. Good move, coach. "There are some youngsters who need a lot of [repetition] for the development process, but Darren doesn't need those extra carries," Snyder told TheAssociated Press.
3. David Greene, QB, Georgia, Sr.
No longer the premier lefty on the college football landscape (that's Leinart), Greene returned for his senior year, partly because he's a good guy, mostly because he didn't have a junior season that warranted early entry in the NFL Draft. After completing more than 70 percent of his passes in his first two games of 2003, and not throwing an interception in the first three, Greene went all of October, November and December without posting a multi-touchdown game. His inexperienced offensive line yielded 47 sacks in 2003 -- 32 more than Leinart's did at USC -- a factor that no doubt was the main reason for much of Greene's struggles.
IN THE SPRING: Greene tore up G-Day on April 17, completing 11 of 13 passes for 131 yards and two TDs. But he did it without having to endure the pass rush of All-America defensive end David Pollack, who was held out of the spring game not due to injury, or feared risk of injury -- but simply because coach Mark Richt said Pollack was too disruptive to the offense. If only Pollack weren't drawing triple-teams during the season, he might be the Dawgs' real Heisman candidate.
4. Jason White, QB, Oklahoma, Sr.
Jason White's Sooners lost their final two games of last season after starting 11-0.
As I indicated earlier, although I was a White-backer in 2003, I'm not getting on the repeat bandwagon after OU's signal caller was awarded a sixth year of eligibility. The Sooners were exposed in end-of-season losses to Kansas State and LSU, and while White admitted later he was playing with nagging injuries, more than a few Heisman voters felt that, in retrospect, Leinart may have been 2003's best QB. Still, White should put up big numbers as the pilot of the Big 12's best all-around offense, especially with all of his receiving corps -- WRs Mark Clayton, Brandon Jones and Will Peoples -- still intact.
IN THE SPRING: They put White in a protective, climate-controlled bubble (actually, they just kept him on the sideline). With an injury résumé such as White's -- two season-ending knee blowouts -- it's understandable. Nevertheless, the defending (Heisman, not national) champ would have preferred to be on the field. "You want to be playing," White told The Oklahoman. "You feel like you're losing ground when you're not in there. ... You get bored." At right, a bored White in the spring game.
5. Cedric Benson, RB, Texas, Sr.
With 3,706 yards to his name with the Longhorns, Benson is the NCAA's No. 1 returning rusher. However, playing on an uber-talented team that hasn't won a Big 12 or national title, Benson is hardly complacent. Following the graduation of the Longhorns' pro-caliber WR triumvirate -- Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas -- Benson knows he'll have to bear a heavier load in 2004 as Texas becomes a more ground-oriented operation. Benson officially ended his flirtation with professional baseball (a minor league outfielder with the Dodgers, he had dropped out of the 2003 camp as well) and bulked up to 220 pounds. He hopes the summer formula -- Drop Baseball, Add Weight -- will help him maintain the momentum he built in Texas' final six games, in which he averaged 167 yards on the ground.
Chris Leak appeared in 13 games as a true freshman.
IN THE SPRING: Texas head coach Mack Brown kept practices closed to the public, and his offensive sets in the April 3 Orange-White scrimmage were less than revealing. "Vanilla" was his description. Benson participated in the first series, carrying the ball three times for 22 yards. "Yawn." Just speculation here, but when fall comes around, look for dazzling QB Vince Young and Benson to form a running duo that rivals K-State's Sproles-Roberson tandem from 2003.
6. Chris Leak, QB, Florida, Soph.
OK, so the kid's not LeBron, but by quarterbacking standards, Leak is beyond his years and had a solid freshman season. Plenty of things bode well for sophomore success: 1) The notion, judging from Florida's spring game, that Ron Zook had an offseason transfusion of the Fun 'n' Gun into his blood. 2) Leak's receiving corps, like himself, is young and talented. Wideouts Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, Jemalle Cornelius and Reggie Lewis were all solid in the spring game, and tight end David Kenner made the loss of Ben Troupe seem less painful with four catches for 72 yards. 3) The common "big jump" for young QBs most often occurs between freshman and sophomore season, and Leak had 13 games of experience as a rookie to accelerate his progress.
IN THE SPRING: Leak lit up the Gators' final scrimmage, passing for 335 yards and two TDs as the two Gator squads combined for 621 yards through the air. Now, will these wild offensive stats actually carry over into the season?
7. Charlie Whitehurst, QB, Clemson, Jr.
Charlie Whitehurst had to battle for the Clemson QB job in spring 2003; this year, he had it locked up.
From an ACC school not named Florida State or Miami, I present my darkhorse candidate. The Tigers ended their 2003 season on a tear, winning their last four games to finish 9-4, including a 27-14 victory over Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. And Whitehurst, in his first year as a starter, quietly threw for 3,561 yards -- finishing 12th in the NCAA passing yardage rankings, ahead of Leinart and just behind White. Expect his confidence to soar in his junior campaign, and a 4,000-yard season isn't out of the question.
IN THE SPRING: Don't draw too many conclusions from the spring game stats. After going 9-of-14 for 108 yards in Clemson's first scrimmage, Whitehurst didn't exactly close the spring session with a bang, completing 19-of-47 passes for 290 yards, two TDs and two INTs. He had expected to play much less than he did in the spring game, but was forced into extended action when backup Will Proctor was poked in the eye.
8. Geoff McArthur, WR, Cal, Sr.
Who's this dude, you Midwesterners and East Coasters ask? Not every stud wideout from the college ranks was gobbled up in the draft. McArthur finished second behind Fitzgerald in the NCAA rankings for receiving yards per game (115.7), and posted one of the top single-game performances for a wideout in 2003 (16 catches, 245 yards and two TDs vs. Stanford on Nov. 22). Talented Bears QB Aaron Rodgers undoubtedly will improve in his second season in Jeff Tedford's pass-happy offense, and McArthur's numbers should only get better as a result.
IN THE SPRING: If you like to evaluate things on a numerical basis, you're out of luck here. The Bears were so banged up in the spring that Tedford was forced to modify the team's Blue-Gold Game into a "situational scrimmage." The biggest development in Berkeley was the return Jonathan Makonnen, Cal's leading receiver in 2002. He was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing nearly all of last season with a fractured left foot and could either 1) take heat off McArthur or 2) take away from G-Mac's numbers.
9. Brad Smith, QB, Missouri, Jr.
After making serious waves as a freshman (and a real force on EA Sports' NCAA 2004), Smith's sophomore campaign was somewhat of a step back. I thought he'd be a lock to run for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 -- he had no trouble with the rushing (1,406 yards, 18 TDs) but a lack of decent targets at wideout kept his passing numbers (1,977 yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs) mediocre at best. Smith and Texas' Young may be neck-and-neck for the title of college football's most athletic, versatile QB, but while Young has a star companion in the backfield in Benson, Smith is the entire focus of his team's offense.
IN THE SPRING: The passing issues appear to be unresolved, which keeps Smith's Heisman stock down. Mizzou ran the ball well in its spring game on April 10, despite the loss of four offensive line starters. But coach Gary Pinkel was disappointed in the air attack, as Smith connected on just 4-of-8 passes for 46 yards and an INT. "My big thing is I want to be a great throwing team," Pinkel told the Kansas City Star. "That's why I was very disappointed [in the spring game], based on everything we had accomplished in our previous 11 practices." Of Smith, Pinkel said: "He's got a great arm. There's not question about it. He's got an NFL arm. The things we're doing right now and that we'll do through two-a-days will get us there."
10. Carnell Williams, RB, Auburn, Sr.
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As running backs go, Sproles will be hard to top, but if anyone's capable of doing it, it's the Cadillac. His 214-yard, two-TD effort in the 2003 Iron Bowl was amazing, but I have him low on the Heisman totem pole here for a few reasons: 1) While the Tiger backfield is slightly less crowded now that Brandon Jacobs transferred to I-AA Southern Illinois, Williams still will share plenty of carries with Ronnie Brown. 2) The Tigers have turned the offensive reins over to new coordinator Al Borges, who is implementing the West Coast offense -- and as we know from Notre Dame, it doesn't often translate into instant success. It's tough to win the trophy on a team that isn't a title contender.
IN THE SPRING: Auburn was experimenting with two-running back sets in an effort to get both Williams and Brown on the field at the same time, and Borges says both backs will be used more often as receivers than they were in 2003 (when Cadillac caught just five passes). Williams ran for 45 yards on 10 carries on A-Day, nothing to write home about, but did bust a 58-yard TD on the third play of the Tigers' penultimate scrimmage.
THE LONG SHOT: Bruce Gradkowski, QB, Toledo, Jr.
Just when you think the MAC may be tapped out of quarterbacks, another one surfaces. Gradkowski takes the torch from Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington and Ben Roethlisberger, ready to earnnational attention on a non-BCS stage. Gradkowski threw for 3,210 yards in 2003, and his completion percentage of 71.2 was bettered by only one QB -- Philip Rivers, the hottest QB commodity after Eli Manning in last week's draft. If you think Gradkowski can't hang with the big boys, review the tape from the Rockets' Sept. 20 upset of Pittsburgh, when he completed 49 of 62 passes for 461 yards and three TDs, orchestrating a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback. The Rockets air it out enough for Gradkowski to put up Heisman numbers, and he has a premier target in senior WR Lance Moore, who led the nation with 8.58 receptions per game.
IN THE SPRING: Gradkowski was mostly a spectator in the spring game on April 17, but if the Rockets' playcalling was any indication of the makeup of their 2004 game plans, it bodes well: They passed on 51 of 74 plays. Gradkowski threw just eight of those, completing four for 42 yards and allowing one interception. The best news was that four of Toledo's regular-season games will be on ESPN or ESPN2, meaning the QB will get a reasonable share of mid-week national TV exposure.
THE WILD CARD: Mike Williams, WR, USC, Jr.
He has to be cursing Maurice Clarett, for paving the way for his newfound mess to occur, and the NFL lawyers and the Supreme Court for keeping him out of the draft. If Williams -- now a household name to college and NFL fans -- is allowed to return to USC, he could make major waves in the Heisman race. Now, it's up to the NCAA, never a sympathetic bunch, to give Williams the chance to head back to school.