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Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Heisman Trophy is given to the best player in college football, even though it never goes to linemen and has hardly ever gone to a defensive player. Last year's winner was Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Heisman Trophy Finalists:
Barkevious Mingo, LSU
There are so many deserving candidates to be the defensive finalist, but even projecting one defensive player to be a finalist is somewhat of going out on a limb. Unfortunately, the Heisman has a blatant bias against defensive football players.In past years, standout defensive players have been the best player in college football, but were not awarded the Heisman. Consider that Ndamukong Suh didn't even place in the top three following his dominant senior season, and he went No. 2 in the 2010 NFL Draft.
It wouldn't surprise me if that is the case again this year. There are many candidates including Utah's Star Lotulelei, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, LSU's Sam Montgomery, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Mingo.
The reason why Mingo is my projection is because he has everything going for him to have a massive season. First of all, Mingo has dominating talent to rack up big production. He is a young, ascending player who is capable of putting up better totals as a junior. Mingo also has a great supporting cast to help him reach his potential.
Lotuelelei, Jones, Clowney and Te'o are the clearly the best players on their defenses, and they will be game planned for. Mingo has so much talent around him that it will be extremely hard to just focus double teams on him. Montgomery and defensive tackle Bennie Logan will also command some extra attention. Thus, Mingo should see plenty of good pass-rushing opportunities this season.
Even though Mingo didn't register double-digit sacks, the redshirt sophomore was one of the most fierce pass-rushers in college football last season. He was one of the young breakout stars of college football in 2011 and was a disruptive force for the Tigers. Mingo initiated many big plays for the Tigers' defense last year, and more than his stats indicate. Some of Montgomery's sacks were him cleaning up a quarterback running towards him and away from Mingo.
The first-year starter totaled 46 tackles with 15 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and a forced fumble in 2011. Mingo put a ton of pressure on the quarterback and was a Second-Team All-SEC selection. He was absolutely dominant against Auburn and played well versus Arkansas and Georgia.
Mingo should be as good, or even better, in 2012. With a year of starting experience against elite competition, he should be able to use that knowledge to his advantage.
It is obvious that Mingo has elite speed and athleticism. He is a physical freak and is reminiscent of Jevon Kearse, a.k.a. the Freak. Mingo has a lightning first-step and burst off the snap. He accelerates in an instant with fantastic closing speed. If Mingo (6-5, 240) has added some bulk to his frame and developed his pass-rushing moves, he could be an unstoppable force in 2012.
Geno Smith, West Virginia
Smith is my pick to be a Heisman finalist because I believe he will have a massive season as a senior. The signal-caller put up some big-time totals as a junior and showed serious improvement as a second-year starter.
Smith has his top two receivers returning with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Smith also leads a loaded offense that is a point-producing machine. Switching conferences will match him up against defenses he's unfamiliar with, and in turn those defenses don't have experience playing the Mountaineers' superb offense.
West Virginia moving to the Big XII from the Big East shouldn't slow Smith down. He will face some better NFL defensive prospects, but the Big XII is the Arena league of college football with fast-paced passing offenses producing video-game point totals on a weekly basis. The Mountaineers should fit right in.
Smith has played extremely productive football the past two seasons. He broke into the starting lineup in 2010 as a sophomore and played well. Smith completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,763 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He showed some mobility, too, running for 466 yards gained (217 net).
The junior quarterback had a fabulous 2011 season. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,385 yards with 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for 180 yards and two scores. Smith played his heart out against LSU's talented defense with 463 yards passing and two scores with two picks. He threw for 450 yards and four touchdowns versus Connecticut. Smith finished the year with 407 yards and six scores against Clemson.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder has a quality arm and some natural accuracy. He has good pocket presence to go along with nice athleticism. It wouldn't be surprising if Smith produces some huge yardage and touchdown totals as a senior. Good totals could easily lead him to being a Heisman finalist.
Matt Barkley, USC
The Heisman has gone away from players who have a lot of talent around them. As a result, I think Barkley will be a finalist, but not the winner. USC is jam-packed with NFL talent throughout its offense and some on its defense. Star wide receiver and teammate Robert Woods could even steal some Heisman votes from Barkley.
As long as the senior can stay healthy, he should have a massive season. Barkley has a tremendous supporting cast to work with, including one of the best receivers in the nation in Robert Woods. The offense has a number of other good receivers and two talented running backs in Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
Barkley also has an offensive line that should protect him well and provide plenty of time to distribute the ball to USC's playmakers. He looks poised for a dominant year to cap his college career.
Barkley laid claim to the Trojans' starting quarterback position as a freshman and completed 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, he also threw 14 interceptions. In USC's 12 games in 2010, the 6-foot-2, 220 pounder improved his production by completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Barkley had some huge outings as a junior, completing 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He really improved his decision making. Barkley is adept at reading defenses quickly and working through his progressions. He has mastered a West Coast offense.
Even though Barkley has lost his left tackle, Matt Kalil, to the NFL, the Trojans have recruited a lot of talent and should have a replacement who will be good enough to allow the senior quarterback to thrive. USC also has a lot of talented depth behind the big-name stars like Woods and Redd. Wide receiver Marqise Lee could turn into a household name this season, and sophomore tight end Randall Telfer is another weapon for Barkley to work with. The Trojans are loaded with Barkley leading the way.
Barkley looks like this year's version of Andrew Luck, so I think he will win the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Davey O'Brien Award, but not the Heisman Trophy.
Heisman Trophy Runner-Up:
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
The Heisman Trophy has favored quarterbacks, but a running back has a shot at it if he has a massive season. Randle could be poised for one, and thus he is the dark horse to overcome the bias in favor of quarterbacks.
With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon in the NFL, the Cowboys are going to lean heavily on Randle in 2012. He has the size and talent to be a bell-cow back who carries an offense.
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said Randle will take on a much bigger load this season. He only averaged 16 carries per game last season. Word out of Stillwater is that Randle has been working relentlessly this offseason and is preparing for a bigger work load per direction of the coaching staff.
Randle, a first year starter in 2011, had big shoes to fill with Kendall Hunter in the NFL. Randle didn't disappoint as he was massively productive. The sophomore averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 1,216 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns. Randle also chipped in 43 receptions for 266 yards and two scores. He was a First-Team All-Big XII selection for his breakout sophomore campaign.
Randle was listed at 6-foot-1, 194-pounds last year, but reports are that he has added muscle mass this offseason. Randle has the size to be a bigger power back. However, he runs smaller with some slashing quickness and elusiveness. Randle has a serious skill set and is capable of beating collegiate defenses on sheer talent.
It will help the junior that the team has a number of offensive linemen returning. Randle also plays in the Big XII, where there are few quality defenses, so he should see have plenty of big games in 2012. It wouldn't be surprising if Randle runs for something between 1,500 and 2,000 yards with 30 touchdowns this season. That could easily make him a finalist in New York.
Heisman Trophy Winner:
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
The Heisman has an inclination to go with players who are clearly one-man teams or carry the offense on their back. That was the case with Griffin last year and was also evident with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and Alabama running back Mark Ingram, the previous two winners. Thomas fits that mold with his dominant physical ability and being a player without a highly touted supporting cast. Thomas or Randle look like the best fit as the winner.
The athletic skill set with Thomas is off the charts. He is very much in the mold of Newton or Tim Tebow in that he can burn college defenses with running or passing. The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Thomas has the tools to dominate at the collegiate level, and he could be on the cusp of a massive 2012 season.
In 2011, his first year as a starter, Thomas recorded accomplishments that no other Hokie quarterback had been able to do, including Michael Vick. Thomas set the school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback as he ran for 627 yards and 11 scores. Thomas also completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The redshirt sophomore set a school record of 3,482 yards of total offense last season, leading Virginia Tech to an 11-3 record. He was a Second Team All-ACC selection and improved throughout the year. Thomas' best game came against Miami, but he struggled in two games versus Clemson.
One challenge for Thomas will be breaking in some new receivers. The Hokies have recruited well, but Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale were the quarterback's leading targets last season. They both have moved on, so Virginia Tech needs some young receivers to step up for Thomas.
The team also lost running back David Wilson, but that should only allow Thomas to make more plays with his arm or legs. A three-game stretch of Clemson, Miami and Florida State will provide a nice test for him in the second half of the 2012 season.
The massive signal-caller has a cannon for an arm. He can throw the ball to all parts of the field with the power to drive the ball outside the numbers and in the deep part of the field.
Thomas still has plenty of room for improvement as a passer. He needs to get more accurate, improve his reading of defenses, field vision and footwork.
Beyone his powerful arm, Thomas has great size, mobility and toughness. He is just raw and needs a lot of development. It wouldn't be surprising if Thomas has a massive season and grabs the Heisman just like Newton. The kind of quarterback that Thomas is, has been the rage of college football.
Offense: Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, USC wide receiver Robert Woods, California wide receiver Keenan Allen, Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, North Carolina running back Giovanni Bernard.
Defense: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, LSU safety Eric Reid and Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson.