Johnny Manziel’s redshirt freshman season was something of revelation for a conference that had already seen the likes of dual-threat quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tim Tebow dominate the nation and the conference in Heisman-winning years. But as Manziel rose to national prominence and broke the record for all-purpose yards first set by Tebow and then broken by Newton, his ability and Heisman potential was undeniable.
The 19-year-old they call Johnny Football finished with 3,419 passing yards, 1,181 rushing yards and 43 combined touchdowns — a stat line that would knock people out from a senior, but one that came from a redshirt freshman. There is little wonder so many believe Manziel is on track to become the first freshman winner in the trophy’s history.
Manti Te’o became a household name and the most visible defensive player in the country in 2012, and it wasn’t because of his nation-leading seven interceptions for a linebacker. It wasn’t his 1.5 sacks or 103 tackles, the second and third best performances in those categories in his four-year career.
No, instead, Te’o became the vocal leader of a Notre Dame team that surprised everyone by making their way from a fringe preseason top-25 to the nearly undisputed No. 1 team in the country and earning a berth in the national title. That alone — being the best and most visible player on the nation’s No. 1 team — means a lot in the Heisman race, and Te’o took advantage.
Few, if any, pegged Marqise Lee as USC’s leading Heisman hope headed into the 2012 season. But when quarterback Matt Barkley faded toward the middle of the season, Lee’s named slowly but surely crept up into the national radar. Despite his quarterback’s relatively lackluster production, Lee showed an uncanny ability to put up mind bending numbers. Capped by a 469-total-yard, two-touchdown day against Arizona,
Lee accounted for 1,680 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns — both career highs for the sophomore.
Collin Klein’s season was a lot of things, but it certainly was not boring. Up and down, Klein provided the spark behind a Kansas State team that made its way to the top of the BCS rankings, but suffered such a crushing loss on national television in primetime that neither their BCS impact nor Klein’s Heisman hopes could be revived.
Still, Kansas State is on its way to a BCS bowl, and that’s thanks in large part to Klein, who was the trophy’s front-runner until a kid named Johnny Football showed up and stole the dual-threat quarterback attention of the country. Klein finished the year with 37 combined touchdowns on the ground and through the air, a season that will certainly get some Heisman attention, but will likely fall short in the end.
Braxton Miller had an unusual sophomore campaign at the helm of Ohio State. Leading a team ineligible for postseason play in a down year for the Big Ten conference, Miller was spectacular, passing for 2,039 yards and rushing for 1,271 more to go with 28 combined touchdowns. Most importantly, Miller led the Buckeyes, with little to play for but each other and their coaches, on an undefeated run through their regular season.
Sure, many discounted the Buckeyes’ 12-0 finish to the year because of their relatively weak schedule, but Miller’s dominance was undeniable at times. Though the sophomore will likely not get the trophy this year, he will certainly have a lot to say about the 2013 Heisman race.