AUBURN, Ala. — Last summer, the words “Heisman Trophy” and “Jarrett Stidham” came together in a solid murmur. The Auburn football quarterback was considered a darkhorse candidate before he took a snap for the Tigers.
That talk will grow even louder this offseason as Stidham has decided to return to school for 2018.
Last month, way-too-early 2018 Heisman Trophy lists started popping up across several outlets. Stidham was a fixture in almost all of them.
Sports Illustrated listed Stidham with Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley as the top two candidates “probably coming back.” NFL.com listed him as No. 4 in the early forecast, as did with Bleacher Report.
Analysts will look at Stidham with Heisman fondness this offseason, even though his last two games of the 2017 season were marred by turnovers and mistakes inside the pocket. Former Heisman winner Tim Tebow said in December he thought Stidham would’ve been a candidate if he played the entire season like he did the second half of the regular season.
“You know, going back and watching the film, not just the TV copy of him, especially probably the last four-and-a-half, five games, he’s played really, really well,” Tebow said. “If he was playing like that the entire season, he would definitely be a Heisman candidate.”
Now that Stidham has confirmed he will not be making the early jump to the NFL draft, there’s plenty of time for him to emerge as one of the top names in college football this offseason.
This offseason will feature a massive talent exodus for the biggest names in the country. Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Mason Rudolph, Kerryon Johnson and Roquan Smith — seven of the top 10 vote-getters in this year’s Heisman race — are off to the NFL. Bryce Love, the runner-up, could join them.
That leaves a small number of established star players in the mix for the early hype machine. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor will be back, along with UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. McSorley, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant and Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins will be household names as well.
Stidham will be right in the thick of those names, and for good reason. His passing numbers were among the best in college football in 2017. He finished sixth in completion percentage, 14th in yards per attempt and 20th in quarterback efficiency. A lot of the big-school names ahead of him won’t be back in 2018.
Stidham’s own supporting cast will make a big difference in his hype for 2018, too. Every one of his wide receivers — including school record-holder Ryan Davis, vertical threat Darius Slayton and physical target Nate Craig-Myers — will be back next fall. There will also be a talent infusion of blue-chip freshmen such as Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Matthew Hill alongside rising playmakers Eli Stove, Noah Igbinoghene and Marquis McClain.
There’s also the issue of running back. Auburn moved closer to a balanced offense under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in 2017. With Stidham and all his receivers back, along with a question mark at the No. 1 running back position, 2018 might be a time for Auburn to throw it more than it did in 2017.
If Stidham can take on that bigger responsibility in the offensive production and improve on his already good numbers, he’ll have a solid foundation for accolades in 2018. Team success plays a big role in Heisman campaigns, and Auburn has the tools for a top-10 team. He’ll have big matchups to build his résumé, such as road trips to Georgia and Alabama and a star-studded opener against Washington ace quarterback Jake Browning.
Stidham has room for improvement, especially considering his ball-control and pocket-presence issues down the stretch. He’ll need to get more comfortable playing under pressure, which comes with experience. An offseason to get better running and protecting the football could unlock a new dimension for Auburn’s offense.
A lot will change between now and when Stidham takes his first snap against Washington in Atlanta in early September. But don’t expect the noise surrounding him and a famous stiff-arming trophy to go away anytime soon.