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Joe Boozell | | April 25, 2017

6 under-the-radar Heisman candidates for 2017

  Derrius Guice was outstanding when he filled in for Leonard Fournette last season.

With spring football in full swing, we’re getting a look at some possible breakout stars for the 2017 season.

Some of these guys are big names that land just below the highest tier. Others have enormous talent, but simply haven’t had the opportunity to showcase their stuff in the past.

Here are six under-the-radar Heisman candidates to keep an eye on.

RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

2016 stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 5.5 YPC, 18 TDs

With Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey off to the pros, Barkley has a chance to be the most electrifying player in college football this season.

Barkley scored a touchdown in every game except for one last year, and rushed for more than 200 yards twice. He’s a do-it-all beast – Barkley can make hay in between the tackles, take an outside sweep the distance or beat you in the passing game. As a sophomore, the Nittany Lion running back caught 28 passes for 402 yards.

With Barkley and Trace McSorley back, Penn State returns the two-best players on one of the most devastating offenses in the country. And they’ll only get better. Opposing defenses will have to pick their poison – stack the box, and McSorley will shred you. Play conservative, and you invite Barkley to maul you. If we see more of the latter in 2017, Barkley has a shot at the Heisman.

RB Derrius Guice, LSU

2016 stats: 183 carries, 1,387 yards, 7.6 YPC, 15 TDs

*Whispers* In a smaller sample size, Guice was quietly better than Fournette during their time in Baton Rouge. A look:

Fournette (career) vs. Guice (2016)
Player Carries Yards Per Carry Touchdown Rate
Leonard Fournette 616 6.2 0.062
Derrius Guice 183 7.6 0.081

From a highlight reel perspective, nobody is going to match Fournette. Poor secondary defenders don’t stand a chance when he’s chugging full steam into the third level, which results in some jaw-dropping runs.

But based on production, Guice was better last season, and LSU didn’t have much of a passing game to take the pressure off of his shoulders. In his last four games against Arkansas, Florida, Texas A&M and Louisville, the ex-sophomore ran for 758 yards (189.5 per game) and scored nine times.

Guice isn’t as big or strong as Fournette, but he’s shiftier, has great vision and possesses game-breaking speed. In 2017, the Tiger backfield will belong to him. He’s got a chance to rack up serious numbers.

QB Jarrett Stidham, Auburn

2015 stats with Baylor (sat out 2016 due to transfer rules): 1,265 passing yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs, 11.61 yards per attempt

Once a consistent offensive juggernaut, Auburn has struggled to find the right quarterback ever since Nick Marshall left.

They should have their guy now. Stidham is the most talented signal caller Auburn has had since Cam Newton – a guy who can sling it all over the yard and move the sticks with his feet when needed. In 2015, as a true freshman at Baylor, Stidham averaged almost 12 passing yards per attempt. Last season, Baker Mayfield, who led qualified passers in yards per throw, didn’t hit 11. Stidham was a highly-touted recruit that lived up to the hype.

Auburn’s offense isn’t quite as quarterback-friendly as Baylor’s former high-powered attack, but the right guy can post crazy stats. If the Tigers can challenge for an SEC crown and Stidham performs as expected, you’ll be hearing plenty about him.

QB Luke Falk, Washington State

2016 stats: 4,468 passing yards, 38 TDs, 11 INTS, 7.06 yards per attempt

Falk isn’t exactly a metrics darling – his big numbers (4,400-plus passing yards in each of the last two season) are more of a function of volume than efficiency. But the numbers are gaudy nonetheless, and Falk has helped turned a once-helpless Washington State team into a winner. The Cougars were 8-2 at one point last season; Falk was the biggest reason why.

MORE: Full college football coverage

Falk’s checked in at about seven yards per attempt in recent years. If he can get that number to eight as a senior (with the same number of passes, this would get him to over 5,000 yards), and Washington State has a good season, Falk will be on the radar. Mike Leach is going to throw. A lot. To his credit, the fact that Falk only has 19 interceptions in almost 1,300 attempts in the past two seasons is mightily impressive. He’ll be missed in Pullman after this year.

RB Royce Freeman, Oregon

2016 stats: 168 carries, 945 yards, 5.6 YPC, 9 TDs

Freeman is here for two reasons: his 2015 sophomore campaign (when he rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 TDs) and the likelihood that new head coach Willie Taggart will lean on his senior running back while he retools his defense. Ball control will be crucial.

At South Florida, Taggart’s running backs were a focal point of the offense. Last season, Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack combined for 2,717 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. Freeman is just as good – if not better – than those guys, and as a first-year coach looking to make a good impression, expect Taggart to feed his best player.

Last season, Oregon often got down early, which would force the Ducks to abandon the running game. Game flow is important here. Taggart figures to improve the defense, but it’s hard to rebuild an entire unit in a year.

Progress is all you can hope for if you’re an Oregon fan. If the defense can just be average, Freeman might be able to do the rest.

WR James Washington, Oklahoma State

2016 stats: 71 receptions, 1,380 yards, 10 touchdowns

Mason Rudolph to James Washington. We’re used to hearing it already – next fall, it’ll sound like a broken record. This could be the best quarterback-wide receiver duo in college football this season.

Washington is an improving route runner, but burning defenses on fly patters will always be his forte. The senior-to-be is the ultimate deep threat – see his near-300 yard outing against Pittsburgh for proof.

Washington’s ceiling is as high as any receiver in the country, but he needs to be more consistent – the Cowboy speedster was held to 50 yards or less four times in 2016. If Washington can catch about 20 more balls at the same yards per reception clip and the Pokes live up to expectations, he could be a sneaky Heisman candidate.

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