Five true freshmen who could make some noise in the 2012 Heisman race

By Chris Huston | College Football Writer

Expanding a bit on colleague Bruce Feldman's piece on Tuesday about this year's most productive fantasy freshmen, here's my list of the five first-year players most likely to influence the race for this year's Heisman Trophy.

Now keep in mind that none of the players on this list have a shot at actually winning the award. Freshmen just don't win the Heisman. But every once in a while a rookie sensation has been known to put together a year that ends up significantly impacting the vote's final tally. Think Adrian Peterson, who finished second in 2004, or Herschel Walker, who took third in 1980.

It should come as no surprise that the players here listed are all either running backs or receivers. As promising as freshman quarterback Wes Lunt might be for Oklahoma State, the nature of his position means he's going to take more than his fair share of lumps in his debut season.

I don't see any slam-dunk entries on this list, but here are the fab five freshmen with the best chance of making some noise in this year's Heisman race:

Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas -- Gray comes to the Longhorns as the most heralded running back recruit in the nation. He joins a crowded backfield rotation that includes sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, but Gray has the talent to earn the starting spot at some point in the season. The 5-foot-11, 207-pounder from Aledo, Texas, brings more speed to the table than the other two, but he is also a physical, every-down back. Look for Gray to be brought along slowly but, if given the opportunity, he could catch fire early and never look back. Of course, a successful freshman season by Gray will automatically bring comparisons to the great Texas backs of old, which means Heisman voters could take note.

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama -- There is already considerable buzz surrounding Yeldon, a mid-year-entry who was the star of the Crimson Tide's spring game. He's a tall, lanky back at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but he has a great feel for the game and he's very athletic (he's been known to hurdle defenders). With the departure of Trent Richardson to the NFL, Yeldon will have a chance to play quite a bit for 'Bama in 2012, though Eddie Lacy will get first crack at the starting job. What better way to get the attention of Heisman voters early in your career than by toting the rock for the defending national champs?

Randy 'Duke' Johnson, RB, Miami -- It's been a long time since there's been a playmaker of this caliber in Coral Gables. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Johnson is an explosive downfield threat who will get reps as a return man as well as in the backfield. While he may not be an every-down back just yet, he has the ability to change games for Miami. If he can help spark a better-than-expected season for the 'Canes, he could garner some Heisman love.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pittsburgh -- The Panthers have one of the most underrated tailback traditions in college football. From Tony Dorsett, to Craig 'Ironhead' Heyward to Curtis Martin to LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis, Pitt churns out backs with the best of them. Shell, the state of Pennsylvania's all-time leading prep rusher, may be the next in that line. At 6-foot-0 and 215 pounds, he's a bruising runner with quick feet, good vision and excellent speed for his size. While senior Ray Graham returns for the Panthers, he is coming off a knee injury suffered last year and may not be 100 percent when the season starts. As a result, Shell has a chance to contribute right away.

Davonte' Neal, WR, Notre Dame -- Neal is an exciting 5-foot-10, 175-pound waterbug from Scottsdale, Ariz., who has already worked his way into the wide receiver rotation for the Irish. Neal has a level of speed and athleticism not seen in South Bend since the days of Rocket Ismail. He should shine in Brian Kelly's spread offense and also be a terror on punt and kick returns. We all know what happens when Heisman voters see golden-helmeted players scoring spectacular touchdowns under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus. They reward them.

Just missed the cut: Keith Marshall, Georgia; Trey Williams, Texas A&M; Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri; Brian Kimbrow, Vanderbilt

 
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