Devon Heinen

Heisman Hopefuls

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Heisman Talk? Spring? Yes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The pens are finally down. The brackets are finally filled out. While the nation's eyes seem to be glued to all things basketball, there's another major college sport that's just getting under way.

Returners and early enrollees are reading playbooks, strapping on helmets and breaking huddles around the country. Spring football is back.

Although many months separate spring ball and the kickoff of 2011 season, three players already stand out as potential Heisman frontrunners.

A new head coach will stalk the Michigan sideline in The Big House this fall, but Brady Hoke's transition from San Diego State should be eased thanks to Denard Robinson. The 6-foot, 193-pound junior drew national attention in 2010 despite his team's overall lackluster season. In just his first year as the starting quarterback, Robinson completed over 62 percent of his passes and threw for more than 2,500 yards. He also added 1,702 yards on the ground and 14 rushing touchdowns.

Robinson's accomplishments don't end there, though. The dual-threat athlete rushed 256 times last season and never once fumbled.

Looking ahead, Robinson could be tested in 2011. Following what should be easier games against Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, he'll face three teams that finished no worse than 20th in either the AP or USA Today top-25 polls. The Wolverines are scheduled to play at Michigan State on Oct. 15 and then finish the regular season with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State.

Out west, another junior signal caller will be vying for the hearts of Heisman Trophy voters.

In 2010 Southern Cal's Matt Barkley improved his completion percentage, passing yards and touchdown-to-interception ratio while posting an 8-4 record in his second year as the team's starter. Putting this into further perspective, Barkley's Trojans arguably had little to play for as USC served the first of a two-year postseason ban for improper benefits received by one of the team's past players.

With the 2011 season comes a new-look league for the quarterback, as the Pac-10 becomes the Pac-12 thanks to the additions of Colorado and Utah – both of which will face USC in 2011. Also on the formidable conference schedule for the Trojans are Oregon, Stanford and the recently more relevant Washington Huskies.

When USC and Oregon take the field Nov. 15 at Autzen Stadium, Barkley shouldn't be the only offensive juggernaut on display.

Bolting out of the backfield, sidestepping would-be tacklers and darting down the sidelines should be Oregon's LaMichael James. The junior rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons in Eugene.

His most recent campaign saw the 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back carry the football 64 more times than he did as a freshman with 294 touches. With those added carries, James picked up an additional 185 yards and seven extra touchdowns.

While his single-season reception total remained the same at 17 last season, James improved his yardage total by 40 to 208. He also recorded his first three collegiate touchdown receptions.

In addition to the home game against the Trojans, James' Oregon squad will have interesting matchups against Louisiana State (Sept. 3), Washington (Nov. 5) and Stanford (Nov. 12).

Nobody can foresee exactly how the 2011 season will unfold, but following stellar sophomore seasons Denard Robinson, Matt Barkley and LaMichael James have to be considered the current leaders of the pack vying for the next Heisman Trophy.

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