It may be hard to remember, now that seemingly every sentence written about college football these days has to include some reference to Johnny Manziel, but this time a year ago, Johnny Football was hardly known outside of College Station. He was a redshirt freshman who hadn't played a down of college football and wasn't anywhere near the Heisman Trophy radar; the NSA might not have even been keeping track of his phone calls.
All of which is a long way of saying that Heisman winners can come from virtually out of nowhere. Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton weren't exactly favorites heading into their Heisman seasons, either. So while the Big Ten has some obvious contenders, such as Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and possibly even Northwestern running back Venric Mark, there are other guys who could make the giant leap from sleeper to stiff-arm trophy holder. When considering such candidates, we're really only looking at quarterbacks and running backs, since the past 15 Heisman winners have played one of those two positions.
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: OK, he's not really a secret to Big Ten fans. But nationally Gardner is still a little bit of an unknown as he played quarterback for just five games last season. He put up really big numbers during that span, and if he can do that over a whole season, he might stay in the Heisman race longer than Denard Robinson ever did.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers coaches and players have touted Gordon as possibly the most talented back to come through Madison, and that's really saying something. He averaged 10 yards per carry last season, and while we wouldn't expect him to surpass Montee Ball's ridiculous numbers, Wisconsin ball carriers usually have impressive stats.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: Again, he's not much of a sleeper for fans around the league. But most national observers think of Martinez first in the Nebraska backfield. Abdullah ran for more than 1,000 yards last season and is also a dangerous kick returner. If he can make some electrifying plays on the big stage as part of a powerful Huskers offense, who knows?
Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State, and Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Normally, we'd never consider putting freshmen on a list like this, because that seems like way too much pressure and hype for unproven players. And yet Manziel just won the Heisman in his first year of collegiate action. Wilson has drawn rave reviews for his speed early on at Buckeyes camp and could be used in a variety of ways, while Hackenberg has a great chance to win the Penn State job out of the gate and lead Bill O'Brien's quarterback-friendly offense.