Clemson quarterback and Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season, joining Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers and Oklahoma teammates Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.
The finalists were announced Monday on ESPN and the award will be presented Saturday in New York.
Watson finished third in last year’s voting, won by Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Just like last year, he heads to New York not as the favorite but as the contender coming on strong at the end. Mayfield finished fourth last season, but did not get an invite to Heisman presentation in New York.
Peppers is the first defensive player to be a Heisman finalists since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo was a distant runner-up to Johnny Manziel in 2012.
Westbrook and Mayfield are the first teammates to be finalists since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart from Southern California finished first and third, respectively in 2005.
Finalists are determined by the margins between vote-getters. The ballots of more than 900 voters, which included former Heisman winners, were due Monday.
Watson entered as the preseason favorite in what looked like a strong field of contenders, but Jackson quickly swept past them all to be front-runner. He was brilliant for the first two months of the season and Louisville was looking like a College Football Playoff contender.
It seemed as if Jackson would be a runaway Heisman winner, but the 15th-ranked Cardinals lost their final two games of the season. He was sacked 11 times in a lopsided loss at Houston and he committed four turnovers in a last-second loss against Kentucky.
Watson, meanwhile, has surged since Clemson’s only loss to Pitt in mid-November. He also had the benefit of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last Saturday and took full advantage of the spotlight. Watson threw three touchdown passes and ran for two scores in a 42-35 victory against Virginia Tech to seal a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The raw numbers still favor Jackson, who is second in the nation in total yards per game (410.7) and has accounted for 51 touchdowns (21 rushing TDs and 30 TD passes) with 13 turnovers (nine INTs and four lost fumbles) in 12 games.
Watson averages 341.8 yards per game and has 43 touchdowns (six rushing and 37 passing) with 15 turnovers (all interceptions) in 13 games.
When the two met on Oct. 1 at Clemson in what was one of the season’s most entertaining games, Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns, ran for 91 and was picked off three times. Jackson had 295 yards passing, 162 rushing and accounted for three touchdowns with one interception. Clemson won 42-36.
Mayfield and Westbrook have been a dynamic combination, and late in the season No. 7 Oklahoma started a dual campaign to promote both for the Heisman. Mayfield is on pace to break the NCAA record for passer efficiency rating in a season (197.75).
Westbrook has 74 catches for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns and has more receptions covering at least 20 yards (26) than any receiver in the country.
Peppers played defense, offense and special teams for Michigan, lining up all over the field.