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30 Day Countdown: Day 13 - Pac 12 Heisman Darkhorse Candidates

With less than two weeks 'til football, we venture outside of our little UW bubble to look at the three players in the Pac 12 poised to make "darkhorse" Heisman runs in 2014.

Shaq Thompson could be a Heisman darkhorse in 2014
Shaq Thompson could be a Heisman darkhorse in 2014

I know that we all love our Husky content here on the UW Dawg Pound.  I also know that more than a few of you think that a Husky will make a run at the Heisman Trophy in 2014 ... but you are waiting to see who wins the QB race before making your bold prediction.  I get it.  I'm with you.

It isn't that often that a Husky actually is in the running for such an award.  We've had a few brushes with pre-season hype - most recently with Jake Locker - and a few short bursts of in-season drama when guys like Napolean Kaufman, Bishop Sankey and Marques Tuisasosopo have produced Heisman type of efforts over a span of two, three or four straight games.  But, for the most part, a Husky hasn't emerged as a legitimate end-of-season candidate for the award since Steve Emtman finished 4th in the balloting in 1991 (thus opening the door for future defensive player candidates).

The award has evolved to become one that is handed out to one of three types of players:  a dual-threat QB on any kind of team, the top-rated receiver of a pocket passer on a high-performing team, or a running back of high accomplishment on any team or medium accomplishment on an Alabama team.  That's about it.  With that criteria in mind, and understanding that a requisite amount of pre-season hype is required to even make the final list by end of season, I can most assuredly state that the odds of a Husky getting on the list in 2014 is pretty slim.

In fact, it looks like Heisman is shaping up as a two-man race between Jameis Winston, QB out of Florida State and Oregon QB Marcus Mariota.  Braxton Miller (QB Ohio State), Bryce Petty (QB Baylor) and Brett Hundley (QB UCLA) round out the top five of candidates that are listed as favorites for the award in Vegas.  However, there are some darkhorses right here in our very own Pac 12 who could make the cut.  I've whittled down the list to three and I'd appreciate your vote on who among these darkhorses you think have the best shot at usurping Hundley and Mariota as Heisman candidates out of the Pac.

Option 1 - Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State

Jaelen Strong is the best receiver that most people in the country have never heard of.  He may also be the best receiver in all of the Pac 12.  Strong came to ASU a year ago as a RS sophomore via community college and immediately burst onto the Pac 12 scene.  He recorded 100 yards receiving in just his second game as a Devil and went on to record five straight of those, catching the attention of every secondary coach in the Pac.  In their first game against an elite Stanford D, he recorded 12 catches for 168 yards.  He finished the season with 75 catches, 1200 yards and 7 TDs receiving.

This guy is a legit ace.  At 6'3" and 225 lbs, he's got great size, athleticism, and play-making abilities.  He also has an accurate QB who is very good at hitting him in the numbers or on the outside shoulder.  The sky is the limit for Strong.  If he can become more of a red zone threat and increase his scoring output to double digits, he is going to be the main Heisman candidate coming out of ASU, no matter how good Taylor Kelly is.

Reasons he will be: Tremendous upside on top of an already impressive body of work; Will undoubtedly be Kelly's main target; Best bet to be the #1 rated WR coming out of the Pac in 2014

Reasons he will not: WRs don't always get a lot of Heisman love; ASU may have a down season, especially compared to last year; Kelly is notorious for keeping the ball in the red zone.

Option 2 - Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford

There has never been any doubt that Ty Montgomery possessed elite athletic capabilities.  Up until last season, the questions around Montgomery were two-fold:  could he develop reliable enough hands to be a plus-receiver and could he master the technicalities of the position to make himself a "first-read" for Kevin Hogan on every down.  In 2013, Montgomery answered all of those questions.  After a 2012 season where he scored zero times on 26 catches, Montgomery exploded in 2013.  He recorded 10 receiving TDs on nearly 1,000 yards in the air.  For good measure, he added a couple of rushing TDs.  He was the best offensive player on a team that desperately needed a playmaker.

In 2014, the Cardinal are looking for him to reprise that role.  If he can increase his scoring by a few more TDs, add another 25% to his receiving totals and help the Cardinal to a third straight Pac 12 North Division title, his candidacy would be legit.

Reasons he will be: Best offensive player for Stanford since Andrew Luck; Voters love Stanford

Reasons he will not: David Shaw does not call a WR-friendly game; 2013 may have been an anomaly; Injury-prone

Option 3 - Cody Kessler, QB, USC

I can already see how the comments section is going to go with me putting a Sark player on this list.  However, if you take an objective look at the facts, you'll understand my reasoning.  First off, this kid is underrated.  His story was completely lost in all of the tumult of last season.  Looking at the stats, though, you see that over the course of the second half of the season, he was the second-most efficient QB in the league trailing some kid named Mariota.  And that was in an offense that did not play to his strengths.

Nobody is going to argue that Cody Kessler is the fastest kid or the one with the greatest arm strength.  That's not his game.  What he is good at, however, are the things that Sark is going to ask him to do in his up-tempo offense.  He's a quick decision-maker.  He's exceptional at spreading the ball around after looking off defenders.  He is highly accurate.  He has great overall mechanics.  I expect that Kessler is going to explode statistically for Sark in the same manner that Keith Price did at UW.  Combined with the media attention that USC draws, I could see Kessler getting some Heisman chatter assuming USC makes a run in the South.

Reasons he will be: QB at "Heisman U"; Sark's up-tempo offense will generate stats; It's Los Angeles

Reasons he will not:  May split the vote with other USC weapons like Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor; Most Husky fans hate Sark and, therefore, so does everybody else

Option 4 (BONUS!) - Shaq Thompson, LB/RB, Washington

No pure defensive player has ever won the Heisman trophy.  Ever.  There have been several two-way players that have claimed it - especially in the early years of the sport.  But nobody that was 100% committed to defense can claim that honor.  As I noted above, Steve Emtman caught the attention of those around the sport by mounting a legitimate campaign in 1991 as a defensive tackle for one of the greatest college defenses ever seen.  He finished fourth that year and opened the door for consideration for future defensive players.  Still, the closest thing to a defensive player to ever actually win was Charles Woodson, a cornerback for Michigan in 1997.  Woodson, while a great cornerback, was even more dynamic in special teams and won the award as much for his kick returns and pass catching.

Shaq Thompson enters 2014 as, perhaps, the one player in all of College Football best poised to have an impact on both sides of the ball.  He's on everybody's watch list and will definitely be drawing the requisite attention required to get an invite to New York should he produce the stats.  If he plays at an elite level as both a pass rusher and cover guy (a pick six and ten sacks, let's say)  and is able to generate 3-5 impressive rushes per game including one or two games that contain a Heisman moment, his candidacy could be quite legit.  Consider that Woodson, in his Heisman year, only had one kick return for a TD and just two TD pass receptions.  That plus his excellent CB play was enough.  Voters love two-way players.

So, Shaq is a legitimate candidate IF he gets regular carries.  That's the rub.

Reasons he will be: Athletic freak; Voters love two-way success stories; Voters love the name "Shaq"

Reasons he will not:  Tons of options for Chris Petersen at running back; Might split the "two-way" vote with Myles Jack

The Verdict - Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State

First off, I know that I'm going to get ripped by visiting fans - in particular Oregon and UCLA fans - for not including guys like Myles Jack, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner on this list.  My rationale there is pretty simple - any candidates from Oregon or UCLA are going to split votes with Mariota and Hundely, respectively.  The question isn't "who should be" but "who will be".

I also expect to get ripped by UW fans for not selecting Shaq.  My reasoning here is that I'm 100% sure that Jaelen Strong is going to catch passes in 2014.  I'm not 100% sure that Shaq is going to run the ball enough to generate a "Heisman moment" in 2014.

With apologies to Ty Montgomery, I think that Jaelen Strong is the best receiver in the Pac 12.  Compared to Montgomery, Strong  plays in an offense that is going to generate many more opportunities and, accordingly, greater stats.  Unlike Cody Kessler who has his own top receiver and a bucketful of excellent RBs to lever, Strong doesn't have too many people to split ASU's offensive stats with.  You could argue Taylor Kelly, but Kelly is more likely to help Strong's candidacy than the other way around.

I like the Sun Devils's red-shirt junior to take the prize as the Pac 12's top 2014 Heisman Darkhorse.  Vote now (go Shaq) and let the debate rage on.