Desmond Howard’s Heisman Trophy victory in 1991 remains one of the more historic performances in the award’s history. The Michigan wide receiver won with 2,077 total points -- a full 1,574 more than the runner up, Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon -- and also garnered 640 of the 738 possible first-place votes. The winning margin remains the fourth-largest in Heisman history, and Howard still stands as the last receiver to claim college football’s most prestigious prize.
Today Howard travels the country as an analyst on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” where he continues to keep an eye on the annual race for the Heisman Trophy. SI.com caught up with Howard to talk Heisman contenders, voting criteria and more.
SI: It’s been 23 years since you won the Heisman. Since then, 15 quarterbacks have claimed the award, including 12 of the last 13 winners. Why do you think that trend has taken hold? Are quarterbacks that much more dominant these days?
Desmond Howard: I never try to take a broad brush and make a statement like that. I’d have to look at it year by year. To make that statement, it would mean the other three or four finalists have been quarterbacks, too, and that hasn’t been the case.
Why exactly a quarterback wins has been different in different years. Often times recently, another frontrunner maybe gets hurt or loses an important game later on in the season. Or you have a guy who may have been as deserving in some voter’s mind, but the school didn’t push him early enough. Some schools with more than one candidate, they push one and he falters and doesn’t play well. The other guy, it’s too late for him.
When Russell Wilson was at Wisconsin [in 2011], and Montee Ball was there, the big push was for Russell. Then the Badgers lost back-to-back games to Michigan State and Ohio State, and that killed Russell’s Heisman campaign. The whole season, had they been pushing Montee Ball, because of his numbers and productivity, he’d have had a strong chance of winning it, even though he became a finalist later without them even being behind him. That’s how I look at it. There are just so many other factors involved than just saying quarterbacks have dominated the last few years. I wouldn’t make that statement.
SI: Is that the problem with wide receivers, too? You and Tim Brown of Notre Dame are the only two exclusive receivers to ever claim the Heisman. Is it difficult for a receiver to grab the spotlight?
DH: I remember last season with Texas A&M, they kept talking about Johnny Manziel. But Mike Evans was dominating out there. He was bailing Johnny Manziel out of some tough situations. I remember Kevin Sumlin coming out and asking why Mike Evans wasn’t mentioned in the Heisman race. He was right. Even though Evans’ numbers and his performance had been so dominant, people were so focused on Manziel that, to me, they weren’t giving Mike Evans his due.
DH: The thing about a guy from Baylor is, they’re at a disadvantage. It’s deceiving because they’re in such a pass-happy offense that the numbers are going to be good. They should be great. It’s harder for a wideout at Michigan or at Alabama like an Amari Cooper, with schools that still run traditional pro-style offenses. It’s much more difficult for them to put up those big numbers.
You talk about a guy from Baylor like that, where you have Bryce Petty. Going into the season, I think the focus and the attention will be on Petty and his numbers. If Baylor loses a game or two, he’s out of the conversation, but his receiver may still be putting up crazy numbers. By then it could be kind of late for him to be a guy who could actually win it. When they start to push you late, it could get you a trip to New York. But I doubt he could walk away with the hardware.
SI: It's been five years since a running back won the Heisman (Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009). What do you think of the chances of Georgia's Todd Gurley ending the running back drought?
DH: Gurley is definitely a guy people will keep an eye on. He’s such a fantastic running back. His freshman campaign was strong, but obviously he got hurt last season and was hobbled by that ankle. But when he played, you saw just how dominant he can be. That’s what you look for, no matter what position a player plays. You look for that dominance and how he can affect the game. I think Gurley’s a legitimate candidate.
SI: Auburn’s Tre Mason and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o are two dark horse players who reached New York as finalists in recent years. Do you see any darkhorses in this year’s field?
DH: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon could sneak into the conversation. He’s very talented. And you look at their schedule. Once that LSU game is over, they’ll be pretty much favored in every other game they play. That’s an opportunity for him if they build momentum in the season. If they keep winning and he keeps putting up big numbers, he’s a guy who could jump into that conversation.
SI: Only one player, Ohio State’s Archie Griffin, has ever won the Heisman twice. But given Florida State’s schedule and its returning talent, it’s hard to count out Jameis Winston as a threat. What do you think of Winston’s shot at a repeat?
DH: I think he has a legitimate shot at repeating, there’s no doubt about that. What he’s been able to do so far, in my opinion, it’s not out of his talent to really be able to repeat that. In some situations, you think a guy was playing above his head and can’t repeat that performance. I don’t see that with Winston.
Now, he did have the best trio of recovers at any given time last year, too (Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw). He’s going to return one of the three and the tight end, too (Nick O'Leary). We don’t know about the other guys, so we’ll have to wait and see. But just with Winston’s talent level, the way he can distribute the ball and his knowledge of the offense, he doesn’t have to play above his athletic ability to go out there and put up the numbers he put up a year ago. I think he can do it within the system and still be as effective as he was a year ago.
SI: Suppose Florida State goes undefeated, but Winston’s numbers drop. Could stats potentially affect Winston’s shot at repeating?
DH: That’ll affect some voters. Some are very numbers-driven, but I’m not a numbers-driven guy. That’s not my thing. For me personally, I know that you can boost your stats up against weaker opponents and make it look like you’re having a monster year. But I want to know what you’re doing in the big games. To me, that’s part of what the Heisman stands for, too: What do you do when the stage is the biggest? When the stage was huge, Winston stepped up big.
SI: Speaking of that, what are your criteria for picking a Heisman winner?
DH: There are two things that I look at when I’m trying to judge an individual, a unit or a team: I want to know what you did, and who you did it against. I’m consistent with that no matter what I’m judging. If this is the No. 1 defense in the country, I want to see what they did against some of the top offenses.
As for a player, if you go out and light up Duke, then you go up against Florida State and struggle, I’m more interested in what you do against Florida State than an opponent who isn’t ranked as high or isn’t talented. I want to know what you did and who you did it against.
With Jameis, we were at that game up in Clemson that Saturday night [last season, when Florida State won 51-14], which was as big as it could get in the regular season. And he lit them up.
SI: Manziel and Winston shattered the Heisman barrier for freshmen in consecutive seasons. What does that say about the award’s evolution?
DH: I think it’s good that any year, any player can win. Some coaches are willing to play these guys early on. But with Manziel and Winston, they label them as freshmen when they’re really redshirt freshmen. There’s a difference. I think it’s ridiculous to assume the general public understands that when you just say “freshman.” I think it should always be mentioned appropriately.
These guys spent a year on campus in the system doing the whole bit. The only thing they didn’t do was play in an actual game, which is important but it’s still different than arriving on campus in August, starting in September and winning the trophy is December. I think if you took a poll, you’d be surprise how many people didn’t know that.
After a year in the system, a lot of coaches are much more comfortable playing these guys. Winston was tutored by E.J. Manuel, the first quarterback off the board in the 2013 NFL draft. So he was tutored by him and walked into a situation where he had the best trio of wideouts on the field, one of the best tight ends at his disposal, a trio of running backs who were extremely talented and a very good offensive line. Not to take anything away from his talent, but that was an ideal situation for a quarterback that possesses his skills and had been on campus already for a year.
SI: Thanks in part to Manziel and Winston, some continue to debate what a Heisman winner represents. The Heisman Trust’s mission statement includes the word “integrity” in the first line. Do you think there should be a higher standard for Heisman winners, and how do you judge that as a voter?
DH: When you venture into that, that’s a whole different, deeper discussion. The sport has become so muddied nowadays. Was the person accused? If he was accused, but never arrested and it never came to any sort of fruition, what are you doing? You say he was accused and I need to hold this against him. Anybody can accuse anybody of anything at any given time. So then you have to make that decision. How important is an accusation to you as a voter? Every voter has to make that determination on his or her own.
Or if a person did do something, whether they got caught stealing something on campus, or whatever the case may be, you have to look at that situation and the circumstances as an individual voter. Do you give people second chances? There’s so much that goes into that discussion, but it’s all determined by the individual voter’s perception about what took place, how they perceived it and how important and relevant it is to how they judge that particular player.