For the first time in nearly seven years, former Alabama star Amari Cooper became the first wide receiver finalist for the Heisman Trophy with 124 receptions for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Tide nearly claimed the national championship thanks to Cooper’s stellar production, but he fell just short of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, the fifth straight quarterback to win the Heisman.
But as the 2015 college season looms, a number of receivers stand to possibly break the quarterback stranglehold on the nation’s most coveted football award.
Here are the four best wide receivers in the country heading into the 2015 season.
Rashard Higgins, Colorado State
Edging out Cooper last season by 23 yards and one touchdown, Higgins was the most dominant receiver in the country last season with 96 receptions for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also eclipsed Cooper, who’s expected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft later this year, with 18.2 yards per catch and became the first Rams consensus first-team All-American in nearly 20 years.
Blessed with prototypical size at 6-foot2, 188 lbs., Higgins can outmuscle and quickly reach the ball's highest point over opposing defensive backs or break tackles after the catch to extend plays. He also has the speed to streak past opposing pass defenses and gain some distance before heading into the end zone.
With senior quarterback Garrett Grayson coming back after posting a career-best 166.2 passer rating and 64.3 completion percentage, Higgins figures to once again lead the country in receiving.
Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
In his junior year, Shepard was well on pace to put up numbers similar to Higgins and Cooper, but a groin injury forced him to miss three full games and see limited action in two others. Before he went down, Shepard had just torched Big 12 rival Kansas State for 15 receptions for 197 yards and one touchdown.
Despite missing almost five games, Higgins finished the year with 51 receptions for 970 yards and five touchdowns, and was still named to the All-Big 12 first-team
The Oklahoma City native decided to return for his senior season, likely to improve his draft stock for the NFL, and he’ll likely have a much healthier and more experienced quarterback in Trevor Knight. Knight missed the final three regular season games after suffering a neck injury but came back for the Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson.
Shepard doesn’t have Higgins’ size, standing at 5-foot-10, but is powerfully built at 195 lbs. He breaks tackles, and has displayed elusive footwork to glide past would-be tacklers in the open field.
Shepard will also have the help of freshman sensation running back Samaje Perine, who should keep defenses honest and open up room for Shepard to operate.
Nelson Spruce, Colorado
One of the few bright spots in the Buffaloes 2-10 campaign last season, the junior Spruce was tied for 13th in the nation with 1,198 receiving yards and pulled down 12 touchdowns off 106 receptions. He would tie the Pac-12 single game record with 19 receptions in the wild 59-56 double overtime loss at Cal back in September, and in four games last season he racked up double-digit catch totals.
He garnered Pac-12 second-team honors, and entering his senior season he’ll have a much more seasoned quarterback in Sefo Liugau, who threw 15 intercetpions but completed 65.3 percent of his attempts as a sophomore.
Spruce has tremendous hands, and is capable of catching the ball with defenders draped all over him. He also has the build to shuck off defensive backs, and the know-how to create space near the goal line.
KD Cannon, Baylor
Coming up with perhaps the most impressive debut by a receiver last season, the hulking Cannon could be the focal point for the Bears top-rated attack in 2015. He racked up an incredible 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns off only 58 receptions. Cannon exceeded the 200-yard mark with six grabs for 223 yards and three scores against Northwestern State and broke off catches of 67, 89, and 81 yards throughout the season.
Once the schedule entered the heart of Big 12 play, the Bears turned to sophomore Corey Coleman and upperclassman Jay Lee and Antwan Goodley, which caused Cannon’s numbers to slip.
But with Goodley headed off to the NFL, Cannon can step in and get a significant uptick in targets with sophomore quarterback Seth Russell likely to take over under center for the also NFL-bound Bryce Petty.
Honorable mentions: JuJu Smith, USC; Artavis Scott, Clemson; Mike Dudek, Illinois; Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh; Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss