When looking at potential Heisman darkhorses, it always helps to figure out which players are set up to make huge statistical jumps from one year to the next. I consider two factors: (1) How many additional touches the player will receive and (2) the natural arch of his physical improvement. Here’s my list of players whose numbers should really explode in 2012:
Eddie Lacy, Alabama — The math here is simple. Lacy carried the ball 95 times for 674 yards last season and now Trent Richardson’s 283 carries must be reapportioned amongst the remaining Tide backs. Most likely, a large chunk of those carries will go to Lacy, who should–conservatively–top the 200 carry mark (provided he stays healthy). That means if he averages just 6.1 yards per carry instead of the 7.1 he averaged last year, he’s looking at a minimum of 1,220 yards on the ground. He’s not the talent that Richardson is, but if he carries as much as Richardson did last year, he’ll be a Heisman candidate in the Tide’s run-heavy offense.
Curtis McNeal, USC – The overlooked McNeal totaled 1,005 yards last year on just 145 carries, with 104 carries and 716 of those yards coming in the last six games. So he enters 2012 on an upswing. A total of 150 carries have departed the program and there is little depth behind the senior, who will benefit from defenses focusing on USC’s strong passing attack. Give McNeal at least half of those departed carries and you are looking at a possible 1,500 yard season, if not more. He recently said his goal was 2,000 yards. It might not be that farfetched.
Fitzgerald Touissant, Michigan — Touissant was touted long ago here at HP but he didn’t break out until last season when he rushed for 1,041 yards on 187 carries and proved down the stretch that he was a go-to back for the Wolverines. As quarterback Denard Robinson becomes more comfortable with more of the pro style elements of the Al Borges scheme, I think it’s safe to assume his carries will continue to drop (they fell from 256 in 2010 to 221 in 2011). That means more opportunities for the shifty Touissant, who seemed to get better and better as last season wore on. I think we’ll see another 50 caries go Touissant’s way, which could lead to one of the better years by a Michigan tailback in recent memory.
Kenjon Barner, Oregon – Barner has quietly rushed for 1,874 yards as LaMichael James’ backup, but now he’ll get the bulk of the carries in the Ducks’ spread option attack. We got a glimpse of what he can do when he filled in for an injured James and rushed for 296 yards on 41 carries in two starts last season. There were times the rest of the year when he looked as good as, if not better than, James. This year, the Ducks lose not only James’ 247 carries, but also the 45 of freshman Tra Carson and the 56 of quarterback Darron Thomas, for a total of 347 carries to be redistributed. Barner carried the ball 152 times last year for 939 yards and we can see him taking at least 100 of those carries for himself, with the rest going to phenom DeAnthony Thomas, other young backs and emerging quarterbacks Brian Bennett and Marcus Mariota. We may well see Barner coming pretty close to what James did last season, which would make him one of the nation’s premier backs.
James Franklin, Missouri – Franklin had an excellent sophomore season as a first-year starter, passing for 2,872 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for another 981 and 15. So he was very close to being a 3,000/1,000 player in his debut campaign. In the same vein, Missouri finished the year strong with four straight wins and was a few close losses away from a possible top 10 ranking. The big question here is how Franklin’s off-season shoulder injury will affect him in the fall, but he is expected to be fully recovered. If that is not wishful thinking, I see no reason why he wouldn’t top the 3,000-yard mark in passing this season. As for his rushing totals, the mangled knee of running back Henry Josey could cause Franklin to take up even more of the rushing burden than he did last year. Oh, and let’s not forget that he’ll have a really good target to throw to this fall in highly-touted freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, who is rated 13th on HP’s list of incoming wide outs. Look for Franklin to top that 3,000/1,000 barrier.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State – The big breakout for Miller will be in 2013, but I still expect to see significant improvement in 2012 from the talented Buckeye rising sophomore. He is tailor-made for Urban Meyer’s spread system, which means that he’ll no longer have to produce based on his talent alone. Last season, Miller rushed for a team-leading 715 yards and seven touchdowns and passed for 1,159 yards and 13 scores (with just four picks). He was really starting to figure things out at the end and it will be enjoyable to watch him improve this season. With no obvious dominant tailback set to emerge for Ohio State (and besides, Meyer’s teams tend to do the tailback by committee thing), I see no reason why Miller wouldn’t maintain his ground totals. Meanwhile, his passing totals should jump considerably. Based on his last four games of last year alone, he’ll easily top the 2,000-yard mark and probably throw between 20-25 touchdowns. If he exceeds these expectations, he could ‘arrive’ a year early.
Kiehl Frazier, Auburn – I suppose it’s possible that Clint Mosely and not the far-more-talented Frazier could win the starting job for the Tigers this year, as the disruption of losing offensive guru Gus Malzahn may result in a more conservative disposition down on the Plains. But one can’t account for the stubbornness or stupidity of coaches when making these types of projections. If, indeed, Frazier is handed the keys to the Auburn offense–and is used correctly–he’ll develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the year. For a guy who threw for just 34 yards and rushed for 327 last year, this may seem like a stretch. But he’s got the talent to do it. I expect a dominant year from Frazier and he’ll likely produce a 2,000/1,000 type of season.
Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State – Rushing duos don’t always last. With rare exceptions, one of the backs is always better than the other. We saw last year how Montee Ball separated himself from James White. Eric Dickerson pretty much left Craig James in the dust. And last year, Le’Veon Bell showed he was superior to Edwin Baker. Bell rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in his sophomore season, while Baker (coming off a 1,200-yard campaign in ’10) fell to 665 yards and a 3.9 average. Bell was very consistent throughout the season, averaging 13 carries per game, but I expect that number to jump to 20 per game in ’12 as the Spartans rely on the running game more with the loss of quarterback Kirk Cousins to graduation. The 6-2, 237-pound Bell should become the workhorse of the Spartan offense. His yards per carry average may drop a bit, but he’ll probably rush for at least 1,300 yards, if not more.
Cierre Wood, Notre Dame – When you think of the backs out there who are primed for a big season, the first back who comes to mind is NOT Wood, who has had a quiet career for the Irish. I write ‘quiet’ because he’s managed to lead Notre Dame in rushing for two-straight years–including last year’s 1,102-yard effort–without a whole lot of fanfare, which seems unusual considering he was a relatively well-heralded recruit coming out of high school. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that Wood has a chance to break the Irish single-season rushing record of 1,437 yards set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979. The loss of Jonas Gray and his 114 carries means that Wood will be the bellcow for a Notre Dame offense that will probably emphasize the run more than ever. The emergence of running threats at quarterback like Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will probably be to Woods’ benefit, too, as defenses will be unable to key on him. I see no reason why Woods wouldn’t get an extra 50 carries this season, which should put him into the 1,400-yard region.
Christine Michael, Texas A&M – This projection is just common sense. Michael is a talented back who ran for 899 yards last season while getting about 43 percent of the carries in an offense that also featured Cyrus Gray and Ryan Tannehill (who had 306 rushing yards). Gray and Tannehill are gone and now Michael is the man, which means he’ll probably carry the ball upwards of 250 times and pile up a lot of yards in the process. He’ll be in the conversation as one of the top backs in the newly-reconfigured SEC and, if he stays healthy, he could have an All-American-level season.
Jesse Callier, Washington – Callier is a very talented back who has been in the shadow of Chris Polk the last couple seasons. With Polk gone to the NFL, the job is now Callier’s. He carried the ball just 47 times (for 260 yards) last season, while Polk ran it 293 times, so it stands to reason that he’ll get plenty of opportunities. I actually think there is a good chance that Washington experiences no dropoff at this position and that Callier establishes himself as one of the top backs in the Pac-12 with a season exceeding 1,300 yards on the ground.
De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon – Thomas is obviously an interesting case since he is such an all-around dynamo. Last year, he had just 140 touches, with 39 of them coming in the return game. This was a wise move by Oregon, as keeping the rather slight Thomas fresh and healthy is the key to his effectiveness. It worked, as he had 18 touchdowns and 2,235 total yards. In that vein, Oregon might be tempted to put a huge workload on him in 2012, but I don’t foresee it unless there is a desperate need. Nonetheless, he’ll easily surpass the 55 carries he had in 2011, though I don’t expect he’ll catch 46 passes since more Oregon receivers should emerge as downfield threats. If he carries the ball 120 times–as is likely–he’ll probably top 900 rushing yards while still doing considerable damage as a receiver and return man. So, I don’t expect his total all-purpose yardage to jump that much, but I do expect a significant jump in his yards from scrimmage. Either, we are probably talking about the most exciting player in the country and a legit Heisman candidate.