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10 underclassmen Heisman Trophy contenders to watch

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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Freshman running back Leonard Fournette could play a large role in the LSU offense this season.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is trying to become the first two-time Heisman winner since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974 and '75.

One other thing to watch in the Heisman race this season: Will this be the first time since 2006 that a senior wins the award?

The first Heisman winner came in 1935, and each of the first 72 winners was either a junior or a senior. But Florida sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow won it in 2007, and started a relative flood of underclass winners. Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford won in '08, Alabama sophomore tailback Mark Ingram won in '09, Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel won in 2012 and Winston won last season as a redshirt freshman. Auburn junior quarterback Cam Newton won in 2010 and Baylor junior quarterback Robert Griffin III won in 2011. The most recent senior to win it was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006.

Ohio State senior quarterback Braxton Miller would've been strongly in the mix this fall, but he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury last week. The top senior candidate now would seem to be Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, and he is receiving a lot of preseason acclaim. Preseason acclaim used to be a needed prerequisite to winning the Heisman, but five of the past seven winners (all but Bradford and Griffin) were in their first seasons as a full-time starter.

Thus, here's a look at 10 potential Heisman contenders who are underclassmen and will be in their first seasons as starters. And we'll thrown in three true freshmen, as a true freshman winner is the final Heisman frontier (though Georgia's Herschel Walker should've won it in 1980) in the wake of the wins by Manziel and Winston.

And don't worry if you haven't heard of any of these players. Manziel was known by only A&M fans when the 2012 season kicked off. Winston had a little more buzz, but only because he was a mega-recruit (a five-star guy, while Manziel had been a three-star prospect); even then, he didn't "officially" win FSU's starting job until fall camp last year.

Redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett, Ohio State:

It's hard to image Miller's backup being good enough to contend for the Heisman, but who knows -- maybe Barrett is Lou Gehrig to Miller's Wally Pipp. Know this: Even with issues at running back, wide receiver and along the offensive line, the Buckeyes' offense was supposed to be a high-powered one with Miller. If it's high-powered without him, Barrett will get a ton of credit -- and a lot of attention.

True freshman RB Leonard Fournette, LSU:

The hype machine is going full-bore for Fournette, who seems likely to share carries in a deep Tigers backfield. But if this guy really is the second coming of Adrian Peterson -- well, remember that Peterson rushed for 1,925 yards as a true freshman in 2004 and finished second in the Heisman voting. Given LSU's unsettled quarterback situation and its big and physical offensive line -- not to mention coach Les Miles' love of the power rushing attack -- the Tigers should run the ball more than usual this season, meaning Fournette should get a lot of work. That his first game comes against a solid opponent (Wisconsin) on national TV would allow for the myth-making to begin in earnest after one game.

True freshman RB Royce Freeman, Oregon:

The Ducks return two tailbacks, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, who combined to rush for 1,749 yards and 23 TDs last season. Yet Freeman -- who rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 TDs last season at Imperial (Calif.) High, located about 120 miles east of San Diego and about 10 miles north of the Mexican border -- is listed as a co-starter on the depth chart with that duo. Coaches and teammates have raved about him in camp. Oregon has a leading Heisman contender in Marcus Mariota, and there likely will be a committee approach at tailback. But maybe this guy is that good.

Sophomore QB Will Gardner, Louisville:

It's hard to believe Teddy Bridgewater's successor would have a shot at the Heisman, but, hey, he plays in Bobby Petrino's system, which lends itself to big (and sometimes huge) numbers for quarterbacks. Gardner has a stronger arm than Bridgewater, and you can bet Petrino will let him air it out often. The loss of star WR DeVante Parker for up to eight weeks with a foot injury could hamper the passing attack, though.

Sophomore QB Kenny Hill, Texas A&M:

Hill as a Heisman contender likely engenders some "Yeah, right" comments. But this is along the lines of the Gardner situation at Louisville: The offensive system preferred by Kevin Sumlin enables its quarterbacks to put up huge numbers (think about what Case Keenum did at Houston under Sumlin). While Mike Evans is in the NFL, A&M does not lack for playmakers in the backfield or at wide receiver. That Hill's first game as a starter is on national TV could lead to increased exposure, too -- as long as he plays well, of course.

True freshman QB Brad Kaaya, Miami:

TB Duke Johnson unquestionably is Miami's top preseason Heisman contender. But Kaaya is said to be mature beyond his years, and there will be a buzz about him if he plays well Monday night against Louisville in a nationally televised opener. And if he were to continue to play well, the buzz would continue to grow. Miami hasn't had consistent quarterback play since Ken Dorsey was behind center -- and he was a senior in 2002.

Sophomore QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma:

Knight started five games last season, but in only one did he truly flash the talent necessary to win the Heisman. That was the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, and in that one, he looked like a guy who was capable of leading OU to Big 12 titles -- and maybe even more. Knight is a good runner, giving Sooners coaches a different element at the position than they have had recently. Consistency was his issue last season. For a guy who really only has played one high-level game, he already has received a ton of preseason publicity.

Take a look at college football's top underclassmen players to watch in the 2014 season.

Sophomore RB Shock Linwood, Baylor:

Linwood started twice last season and saw a lot of time as a backup, enough to rush for 881 yards and eight TDs. The starting job is all his this season, and while he will play in Petty's shadow, he has the talent to be a 1,500-yard back. But he seems unlikely to get the amount of carries needed for that kind of yardage. But if he does get 200 or so carries, Baylor could end up with two Heisman candidates.

Sophomore QB Maty Mauk, Missouri:

Mauk started four games when James Franklin was injured last season and guided the Tigers to a 3-1 mark; in the loss, Mauk and the offense put up 24 points against a tough South Carolina defense. Mauk wasn't all that accurate, hitting just 51.1 percent of his passes, but he avoided mistakes and threw 11 TD passes; he throws a nice deep ball and is not afraid to take chances. Mauk, who also is a running threat, plays with a swagger and is uber-confident. He doesn't have a lot of proven talent around him, though.

Redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, Arizona:

Solomon won a tight battle to be Arizona's quarterback. On the one hand, that it was a tight battle might lead to coach Rich Rodriguez having a quick hook if Solomon struggles. On the other hand, Solomon was not the favorite to win the job heading into camp and obviously impressed Rodriguez. Solomon's dual-threat abilities could lead to him putting up nice numbers in RichRod's version of the spread. Not to compare Solomon to Pat White, but White was able to run RichRod's offense with aplomb as a freshman in 2005.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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