College football’s most prestigious individual honor is the Heisman Trophy. The award, given out since 1935, has gone to some of the greatest players ever seen ― names synonymous with greatness such as Staubach, Griffin, Dorsett, Sanders and Woodson.
But 2016 presents an interesting race. Already we’ve cycled through an assortment of names ― Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett all come to mind ― and we’re only halfway through the season.
But there is another quintet of exciting players gaining steam, none of whom had especially healthy odds as the year began. With that in mind, let us examine the nation’s five unexpected candidates who have deservedly become a part of the Heisman conversation.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Surprise, surprise? Hardly.
Browning has led the purple and gold back to national prominence by becoming the linchpin of Chris Petersen’s rebuilding project. The 20-year-old Folsom, California, native holds the national high school record with a whopping 229 touchdown passes, and hasn’t missed a beat since coming to Seattle.
Browning, a true sophomore, started all 12 games as a freshman in 2015, and this year has guided the Huskies to a 6-0 start along with a No. 5 national ranking, their best since a 2001 Rose Bowl win. Better yet, he has the always important marquee Heisman moments ― not one, but two. After destroying then-No. 7 Stanford on 15-21 passing and three touchdowns in a 44-6 win, all Browning did next was go on the road to rowdy Autzen Stadium and embarrass Oregon.
Just how did he do it? How about by throwing six touchdowns and running for two more in a 70-21 statement win. Better yet, it was Washington’s first victory over the Ducks in 13 tries and it also tied the Pac-12’s all-time single-game touchdown record. Moreover, Browning took the Football Bowl Subdivision lead with an astounding 23 touchdown passes (he has 26 total touchdowns) this season to go along with a nation-best 204.9 passer rating.
Maybe junior wide receiver John Ross III ― who’s caught nine of those touchdowns ― said it best after UW beat Stanford: “[The Stanford game] was one of his best [performances], but he still has so much to show everyone. And he’s getting better every week.”
Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech
The electric Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson were the ACC quarterbacks we expected to be in this conversation. And both have been magnificent, particularly Jackson. But Evans, the burly 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior college transfer, has somewhat quietly led Virginia Tech to a 4-1 record, including a dominant road win over a ranked North Carolina team last weekend.
Evans’ numbers won’t be as gaudy as his ACC counterparts ― even Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky ― but his 15 touchdown passes to go along with just one interception speaks for itself. Credit first-year Hokies head coach Justin Fuente as well: Fuente did wonders for Paxton Lynch at Memphis, and clearly has the Midas touch with Evans.
Amba Etta-Tawo, WR, Syracuse
Despite playing for lowly Syracuse, Etta-Tawo ― a senior graduate transfer from Maryland ― has become the most dominant receiver in big-time college football, amassing 51 catches and 876 yards. And nobody could have foreseen it either: Over the course of three seasons as a Terp, Etta-Tawo caught 51 passes for 938 yards.
Of course, the Orange are hardly on the national radar, but the 6-foot-2, 202-pound senior wideout has performed best against top competition. Facing Louisville and Notre Dame, he combined for 237 yards and three touchdowns. Etta-Tawo, who was an unheralded three-star recruit out of Georgia, could be the first receiver to make it as a Heisman finalist since future NFL superstar Amari Cooper in 2014 (and eighth ever).
Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Speaking of top-ranked Alabama, don’t sleep on explosive true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The best player on the best team is usually a good Heisman formula, and while Hurts isn’t there yet, how can we ignore what he’s done?
After dispatching a ranked Arkansas team in Fayetteville while accumulating four touchdowns, Hurts has become a legitimate candidate for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. The dual-threat Texas native, who has totaled 14 TDs and just two picks, is most effective out of the spread ― an offense Saban has never previously employed ― showing maturity and elusiveness when plays break down. As his comprehension of defenses progresses, so will his ability to make winning plays.
D.J. Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
All Pumphrey has done this year is lead the nation in rushing (891 yards) and vault into 14th all-time in college football rushing yards. Remember, too, that the next five players behind him this season have all played an additional game. In the Aztecs’ September upset of California, the senior running back went for 300 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.
Pumphrey ― who surpassed Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk’s Aztec rushing record ― isn’t much of a pass-catcher, but his breakaway speed and shiftiness inside the tackles make him special. Should the premier back eclipse the 2,000-yard mark, he too would belong in New York City for the Heisman presentation.
Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpo