- Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson have anchored one of the most surprising Heisman Trophy races of recent memory, but it still breaks along trend lines.
This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
The 2016 Heisman Trophy race began as a battle among established stars. Five of the top seven vote-getters from last year, plus the fifth-place finisher from 2014, returned as upperclassmen. All were set to lead teams with national championship potential, though two were from a single division, the ACC Atlantic: junior quarterback Deshaun Watson of Clemson and junior running back Dalvin Cook of Florida State. Yet none of the six emerged as the front-runner.
The player who did also comes from the ACC Atlantic, but only college football diehards and Louisville fans knew much about him before this season. This Saturday at the New York Athletic Club, Cardinals sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson will be the clear favorite to hoist the bronze trophy. If one of the other finalists is called to the podium instead, it would not be the most shocking election result of the fall, but it would be pretty close. The strength of Jackson's candidacy is surprising considering that he plays for a "basketball school" that didn't earn an invitation to a major bowl. Plus, he entered this season having started just eight games. But his likely victory becomes clearer after examining the trends that have defined the Heisman race over the last decade.
Of the seven quarterbacks who have won the trophy since 2007, two were pro-style, but five, like Jackson, were dual threats, which makes sense considering the proliferation of spread offenses. That scheme is designed to create gaps by stretching the defense; a QB who can both throw to the receivers doing the stretching and run through the gaps they create can put up astounding statistics.
Only one Heisman-winning quarterback, Brigham Young's Ty Detmer in 1990, gained more total yards in a season (5,022), excluding bowls, than Jackson's 4,928. Only two, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford in 2008 and Oregon's Marcus Mariota in '14, totaled more touchdowns (53) than Jackson's 51. Dual threats who have earned the award in the last decade have produced five of the top nine totals in yards gained among Heisman winners and five of the top eight totals in touchdowns. It's difficult for pro-style quarterbacks—whether they're limited by scheme, mobility or both—to keep up. This season, for example, sophomore Jake Browning led Washington to a College Football Playoff berth and was on track at one point to smash the single-season passing efficiency record set by Russell Wilson, but he didn't draw as much praise as dual threats like Jackson, Watson and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. Says Heisman historian Chris Huston, "Instead of being a guy who was either handing the ball off a lot of the time or dropping back, [the quarterback] has become someone who has the ability to make a play with his feet or with his arm on every single play."
Jackson also represents the latest face in the Heisman youth movement. Five of the nine winners since 2007 have been freshmen or sophomores; none were seniors. Before '07 the award went to an upperclassman every year. Of course, now more than ever, players declare early for the NFL draft, but that's not the sole cause for the early accolades. The Heisman has always been to some extent a popularity contest, favoring players at big-time programs that get a lot of exposure. The expansion in recruiting coverage means that some prospects are already highly visible when they arrive on campus, with elevated acclaim and immense expectations that help them earn more attention earlier in their college careers. "The Heisman used to be that you have to have your breakout season to then, in the next season, be considered for the award," says Joe Tessitore, a Heisman expert and ESPN play-by-play commentator. "That's just not the case anymore."
Jameis Winston won as a redshirt freshman in 2013 after arriving at Florida State with a reputation that preceded him to the degree that he was known as Famous Jameis before he even took a snap for the Seminoles. He and his team delivered on the hype, but that preseason buzz primed the pump for his candidacy. The same was true of Tim Tebow, the first sophomore to win the award, in '07, who arrived at Florida as a Sunshine State legend after dominating at Nease (Fla.) High.
Jackson, a three-star recruit according to Scout.com, didn't benefit from that sort of advance notice, but when he started the season with a string of eye-popping performances, the ground broken by high-profile underclassmen before him made voters more receptive to him as a possibility.
Heisman voters risk falling into a trap early in the season, getting excited about a player's candidacy only to watch him face-plant during conference play. (See: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in 2010 and West Virginia QB Geno Smith in '12.) It seemed possible that Jackson would follow a similar trajectory. Not only were most voters unfamiliar with Jackson, but the astonishing 13 touchdowns he racked up in his first two games came against the bad defenses of Charlotte and Syracuse. The following week, though, Jackson shredded then No. 2 Florida State for 362 yards and five touchdowns in a 63–20 rout. Two weeks later he went toe-to-toe with Watson in a prime-time matchup in Death Valley, losing 42–36 but bolstering his campaign with 295 yards passing, 146 rushing and three touchdowns.
At the same time, potential competitors stumbled. Two running backs, Texas junior D'Onta Foreman (2,028 yards rushing, 15 TDs) and San Diego State senior Donnel Pumphrey (2,018 yards, 16 TDs), had the numbers to hang with Jackson, but their teams did not factor into the national championship picture. And two other dual-threat quarterbacks who helmed Power 5 heavyweights, Alabama freshman Jalen Hurts and Ohio State junior J.T. Barrett, a 2014 finalist, could not match Jackson's output.
The two returning finalists from last year, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU running back Leonard Fournette, were written off either because of injuries or their teams' descent from the playoff race. Mayfield was undermined by his own teammate, senior wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who became a contender in his own right, with 74 catches for 1,456 yards and 16 touchdowns.
One of the more interesting contenders to arise was Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers. A safety-linebacker, he was as likely to shadow a receiver as he was to tackle a runner for a loss. He also lined up at running back, receiver, Wildcat quarterback and returner. His season stats: 66 tackles, 13 TFLs, three sacks, 27 rushes for 167 yards, two receptions, and 31 total returns for 470 yards and a touchdown.
Still, the Peppers candidacy felt like an attempt to divert attention from the inevitable. "There was never that big, Well, this is a two-man race, and here it comes down the stretch," Tessitore said of this year's race. Jackson's dynamic skill set, penchant for producing big plays in the clutch and robust statistical résumé set him apart. He captivated voters with his blazing speed, laser-beam passing and uncanny ability to elude tacklers in the open field; delivered multiple Heisman moments, including his seemingly effortless leap over a defender on a touchdown run against Syracuse; and catalyzed the Cardinals' rise into a national title threat. Louisville fell out of contention with losses to Houston and Kentucky, but Jackson's lead in the race never faltered.
Jackson is a modern Heisman winner: an underclassman, dual-threat QB who wowed voters with his rapid development into the nation's most outstanding player.