2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson set the pace for the 2016 Heisman race in September, and never looked back. Jackson’s win a season ago defied certain expectations for winners, so precedent may not necessarily apply to him. To wit, he overcame the stigma that often comes playing for a team not in the hunt for a national (or even conference) championship.
Jackson was also so spectacular in September and October, he endured some struggles in the final month, playing behind a struggling offensive line. The blowout loss to Houston in November would sunk most candidacies.
Nevertheless, precedent dictates the defending Heisman Trophy winner should not lead the Top 10 at the end of spring football. The award’s had just one repeat recipient in its 80-year history. Meanwhile, Jackson would again likely have to overcome team failings. Louisville looks to be a clear No. 3 in the ACC Atlantic division, behind defending national champion Clemson and possible preseason No. 1 Florida State.
1. USC QB Sam Darnold
The enduring memory of USC’s 2016 season is this:
While Sam Darnold’s touchdown strike to Deontay Burnett in January’s Rose Bowl Game catapulted him to the forefront of national attention, his ascension began in a loss — the only loss USC sustained with Darnold at quarterback. The Trojans fell at Utah on Sept. 23, but Darnold completed 69 percent of his pass attempts and rushed for 41 yards with a score on the tough Utes defense. On that Friday night, USC began to embark on a new era.
He’s different from past Trojan quarterbacks — Heisman winners like Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and similarly hyped Matt Barkley — in that Darnold is mobile and will use it. He rushed for at least 20 yards six times, including in January’s Rose Bowl.
Darnold’s wheels don’t take away from his passing ability, which his toss to Burnett best exhibits is on point. Darnold will be the most discussed college football player of the summer, setting up expectations for the Heisman Trophy race to come.