Big East Conference Heisman Candidates: Small Ballers Emerge
In a year where there's no clear-cut favorite to win the award, the Big East's long wait -- no Heisman Trophy winners have come from the current eight schools since Dorsett in 1976, and Pitt was an independent at the time -- could have some thinking a player from this conference is long overdue to deliver that speech to a packed house in New York City.
There is little doubt the conference is due. Three of its winners are actually now affiliated with the ACC (Boston College's Doug Flutie and Miami's Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta). Just six Big East players have made it to the top 10 in voting since 2005. The last Big East player to even make it to New York City was Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald in 2003 (West Virginia's Steve Slaton finished fourth in 2006, but only three finalists attended the ceremony that year).
Can the league break through in 2010? Here are 12 guys who might have a shot.
SIX OBVIOUS CANDIDATES
Dion Lewis, tailback, Pittsburgh
All Lewis did as a true freshman was become the Big East Freshman of the Year, Big East Offensive Player of the Year and Meineke Car Care Bowl MVP. He had 1,799 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Lewis was very lightly recruited, in part due to his height (he's listed at 5-8) but his everyman story pales to his athletic talents. Lewis carried the Pittsburgh offense, doggedly fighting for inside yards with his tremendous agility, balance and willingness to power forward for extra yards.
Perhaps no other game demonstrated his competitive streak better than in the snowy shootout against Cincinnati. Lewis dominated from the start, touching the ball on all 12 plays of Pitt's opening touchdown drive. On his final touch of the day, he evaded several tackles for a five-yard go-ahead touchdown and in between carried the ball a ridiculous 47 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
The Pittsburgh SID's office has taken note, willingly comparing him to the Panthers' other Heisman Trophy winner, Dorsett. From his bio: "surpassed the legendary Tony Dorsett's 36-year-old Pitt freshman rushing record of 1,686 yards set in 1973 ... Lewis tied Dorsett's freshman records for 100-yard rushing games (10) and fewest games needed to reach 1,000 yards (eight)." Think about that, at this point in his brief career Lewis is already ahead of the longtime gold standard for freshman production.
Perhaps most important, Pitt's openly mentioning the H-word: Heisman. Coach Dave Wannstedt said last year of Lewis, "It's tough for the head coach to stand up and start screaming for his players to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Dion's numbers speak for themselves. When you look around at other running backs in the country, no one's been as productive as him. He's done it against very good competition."
And he'll very likely do it against quality competition this year. Pitt's schedule includes quality defenses in Utah, Miami, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Strong performances in his encore season could catapult Lewis to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in early December.
Noel Devine, tailback, West Virginia
The Big East's other diminutive rushing star, Devine, was a YouTube legend years before his arrival in Morgantown. After patiently waiting behind Slaton, Devine put things together last year by rushing for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns. Defenses loaded the box, daring quarterback Jarrett Brown to beat them through the air, yet Devine was still productive.
Things won't get easier with untested Geno Smith emerging after Brown's departure. However, Devine should now be quite familiar with loaded defensive fronts after surviving the challenge last year and, with the NFL on the horizon, personal motivation has never been higher. A breakthrough senior season could move Devine past Avon Cobourne (5,164 yards) as West Virginia's all-time leading rusher. Devine has 3,381 in his career, and is 1,783 short of the top mark, certainly doable if he can stay healthy and find a way to be productive against the LSU and Pittsburgh defenses that await in 2010.
Zach Collaros, quarterback, Cincinnati
Tony Pike was Cincy's Heisman candidate last year, but one wouldn't know it at times as Collaros sometimes upstaged the established starter. His first real action after Pike was injured against USF revealed what was about to hit the Cincinnati program. On an important third-and-11, Collaros flashed power, speed and charisma in shaking tackles, making moves, and outracing defenders for a 75-yard touchdown run.
In later opportunities, his arm wowed observers. Collaros completed a stunning 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions in reserve duty. His 344 rushing yards were good for third on the team to go with an impressive average of six yards per carry.
Perhaps most notable about Collaros: He wants the ball. Once in a while a quarterback comes along who is unable to hide his competitive enthusiasm. Collaros is that kind of player, demonstrative and flashy but backs it up with legitimate play.
If he can maintain his accuracy, Collaros will be the runaway best quarterback in the Big East. It helps he has one of the country's best set of receivers. Despite the graduation of Mardy Gilyard, the Bearcats' receivers remain an elite group. They welcome back D.J. Woods, second-team All Big East receiver Armon Binns, second-team All Big East tight end Ben Guidugli and highly recruited USC transfer Vidal Hazelton. In addition, Collaros' ability to scramble should be a year-long nightmare for defenses that must figure out how to slow down a balanced, explosive offense with a wild card at quarterback.
Tom Savage, quarterback, Rutgers
The quarterback position has changed a bit in recent years, but whatever the old prototype used to be, Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage fits that profile. A classic pocket passer, the 6-5 Savage was plucked from quarterback-rich Pennsylvania to lead a reshaped Rutgers offense as a true freshman. By winning eight of his 11 starts, he earned freshman All America honors in throwing for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
His completion percentage must improve and there are worries with a young group of receivers after losing deep threat Tim Brown. That said, Savage welcomes back the dynamic Mohamed Sanu and a pair of receivers 6-4 or taller. Coaches seem to relax once they know they have a quarterback who has been through the fire and Savage should see his opportunities blossom after throwing for 294 yards in an impressive 45-24 victory over UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Strange as it sounds, he's now one of the Big East's grizzled veterans behind center. As Phil Steele noted, "Savage goes from the least (experienced quarterback) in the Big East to one of the most (experienced)."
Jonathan Baldwin, receiver, Pittsburgh
He's no Larry Fitzgerald, but Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin knows how to get things done. The 6-5, 225-pound junior made first-team All Big East last year after gaining 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns on 57 catches, a 19.5 yard average. This following a freshman season where he averaged 22.4 yards a catch.
Big guys aren't supposed to run well, but Baldwin has some serious wheels, allowing him to consistently find ways to get downfield and make big plays. Although Dion Lewis will be the star of the offense, Baldwin is the unquestioned center of gravity for the Panthers' passing game. His numbers could jump even more this year thanks to the departure of tight ends Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham and receiver Oderick Turner. That will also mean more defenses skewed to shut him down, but without an established player on the opposite side plenty of passes will still be coming his way.
Jordan Todman, tailback, Connecticut
Todman has quietly waited his turn at Connecticut, a surprising home to elite running backs of late. In his freshman year, he was good enough to not burn a redshirt, but watched Donald Brown stampede to a rare 2,000-yard season. Brown left school early, but Todman found himself sharing carries with Andre Dixon in 2009. That proved a huge success, as they each surpassed 1,000 yards, the first time a pair of backs has done that in Connecticut history.
Skip forward to 2010, and Dixon is now out of the picture. Into the void steps the established, capable Todman. Despite sharing the workload he was still voted second-team All Big East last year, a heck of an honor in a conference loaded with quality rushers. Todman merits special Heisman attention as he averaged a commendable 25 yards on kickoff returns last year, including a touchdown. Heisman voters love versatility and that combination of rushing (1,188 yards), receiving (21 catches), returns, and touchdowns (15 overall) should help his cause.
The Connecticut offense clearly shows that the carries are out there for a 2,000-yard type season. If that materializes, we're very likely talking about a player who, despite his school's low profile, ends up capturing a fair number of Heisman votes.
SIX NOT-SO-OBVIOUS CANDIDATES
Delone Carter, tailback, Syracuse
The Syracuse brand conjures up a certain Heisman nostalgia. Its football brand, however, has been a disappointment of late. That said, the Orange were showing signs of competitiveness last year and look to be fielding a quality team for 2010, at least on defense. The one offensive bright light is Carter, who quietly ran for 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. If Syracuse shows any kind of life this year, it will be a major story in college football. When or if the press arrives, given the unsexy nature of defense, Carter could be the guy everyone directs their attention toward.
If he can boost his totals from 1,000 yards to 1,500 or so, and mix in a few highlight runs, there may just be some Heisman discussion coming his way.
It needs to be noted that Carter may not get the chance. He was suspended from school following an arrest an April. Though he can reapply for admission, there's no assurance his request will be granted. He may also face a suspension from the team.
Mohamed Sanu, receiver, Rutgers
As is the case with Todman, Heisman voters love versatility. Although just a sophomore, Sanu is expected to lead the Rutgers receivers and elevate his totals above last year's respectable 639 yards. The Scarlet Knights trusted him enough last year that he threw seven passes on reverses and trick plays, while also rushing for 346 yards and five touchdowns. Oh, and he was also their leading punt returner.
He'll enter 2010 a more established player, capable of gaining more than 1,000 yards through the air and boosting his touchdown total above last year's eight. Sanu's extra kick of speed and versatility should make him one of the Big East's most dangerous and talked-about offensive weapons.
Greg Romeus, defensive end, Pittsburgh
Gee, another star player out of Pittsburgh. This one's different, however, as Romeus is a pass-rushing menace at defensive end. Heisman talk for defensive ends is usually something to shrug off but the nostalgia factor should raise some eyebrows here as Pitt defensive end Hugh Green nearly won the 1980 Heisman Trophy. His second-place finish was the best for a defensive player until Michigan's Charles Woodson captured the award in 1997.
Romeus was named first-team All Big East in 2009 after recording eight sacks, five pass breakups and an interception. The effort was good enough to make him a Hendricks Award finalist and more is expected of him this year with many people anticipating Pitt's defensive line to be among the nation's most ferocious.
B.J. Daniels, quarterback, USF
Daniels took over for long-time starter Matt Grothe last year, and eventually led the Bulls in rushing with 772 yards and nine touchdowns. The Bulls will need more from his arm this year, as he struggled throwing the ball against quality defenses. Much of that can be forgiven for a freshman quarterback unexpectedly pressed into duty but the team is his this year and, after a rough offseason marked by a traumatic coaching change, stability will be of tremendous priority.
Daniels will rightly earn leadership points if he can direct the Bulls' offense back to prominence in a conference most are already handing to either Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or West Virginia.
Geno Smith, quarterback, West Virginia
Smith's job this year is made easier by the presence of superback Devine. However, Smith himself was highly recruited and has some ability. Given that coach Bill Stewart's offense demands more out of the passing game from its quarterbacks than predecessor Rich Rodriguez, Smith has an opportunity to be productive both through the air and on the ground.
If Smith thrives, West Virginia fans might start mentioning his name alongside that of Pat White and Major Harris, two Mountaineers with strong Heisman Trophy finishes.
Zach Frazer, quarterback, Connecticut
Consider this the Notre Dame factor. As noted above, running backs are the stars of the Huskies' offense, with quarterbacks expected to manage games and provide balance where needed. However, Frazer was heavily recruited and spent some time at Notre Dame before eventually transferring. Given that, his name recognition is unusually high for a Connecticut passer and, with nine career starts to his name, he may finally be putting things together. A victory over Michigan and/or a surprising Big East championship run could be a fresh reminder of his ability and boost his Heisman potential.