DeVonta Smith's Heisman Win Is a Long-Overdue Breakthrough for Wideouts

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Our long national receiver nightmare is over.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith has broken the quarterback stranglehold on the Heisman Trophy. The previous four winners were all quarterbacks, and 12 of the previous 14. The other three finalists this season were all QBs—runner-up Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, third-place Mac Jones of Alabama, and fourth-place Kyle Trask of Florida.

The only non-QBs to win the little stiff-armer since 2005 are Alabama skill players—running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, and now the guy they call “Smitty.” So there are essentially two paths to the Heisman: be a quarterback or be a star back or receiver for Nick Saban.

This was a long-overdue breakthrough for Wideout Nation. Smith is the 85th winner of the Heisman, but just the sixth receiver.

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The last from that position to win was Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. The others: Notre Dame’s Tim Brown in 1987, Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers in 1972, Notre Dame’s Leon Hart in 1949 and Yale’s Larry Kelley in 1936.

The latter two were labeled “ends.” They did catch passes, just not many of them back in those days. Kelley caught 17 passes in ’36; Smith caught 15 in the Southeastern Conference championship game alone last month.

You could argue that Smith is the first to win the Heisman on pass-catching ability alone. Howard, Brown and Rodgers all returned kicks and ran the ball with greater frequency than Smith has. Brown had three punt-return touchdowns in his Heisman season; Howard returned both a kickoff and a punt for a score, plus two running touchdowns; and Rodgers actually had more TDs running than receiving when he won it.

Smith had one TD on a punt return, but only ran back nine punts all season. He had four rushes for six yards and one TD. He was, quite simply, America’s best wide receiver—and for once, that was enough.

Smith leads the nation in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and touchdown catches (20) in 12 games. He has been routinely spectacular, making difficult catches and big plays. His route running is impeccable and his hands reliable. Teammates and coaches rave about his work ethic and character.

“He’s probably one of the most selfless guys I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Saban said. “He’s one of the most popular guys on the team, and one of the people the players look up to because of his attitude.”

From the small town of Amite—an old cotton-trading town that is annually home of the Oyster Festival—Smith becomes just the second native of talent-rich Louisiana to win the Heisman. The first: John David Crow, of Marion, in 1957. Until Tuesday, there had been as many Louisiana-born Heisman winners as those born in Croatia (Frank Sinkwich), The Philippines (Tim Tebow) and Japan (Robert Griffin III). Louisiana’s lack of representation is an anomaly, given the state’s importance as a hotbed of great players.

Is Smith’s Heisman win a sign of things to come, or a blip? We don’t know. Probably just a blip, given the way quarterbacks can accumulate stats with the increase in both passing and in QB runs. That position increasingly dominates the game.

But it also stands to reason that an elite wide receiver can have dominant seasons in a passing era and gain more serious consideration. DeVonta Smith could be the trend starter.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith runs for a touchdown against Notre Dame cornerback Clarence Lewis (in the first quarter of the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium.

For Lawrence, it seems hard to believe he will leave college without a Heisman. Imagine a near-lock No. 1 NFL draft pick who plays in three straight College Football Playoffs, has a 34–2 record as a starter and puts up great stats three years in a row not winning. Lawrence compiled more than 10,000 yards passing, more than 11,000 yards total offense and 107 total touchdowns in three seasons.

The catch, for Lawrence, is that he was not statistically the best QB in any of his three seasons. And this is supposed to be a single-season trophy, not a lifetime achievement award. If the balloting were done after all games are played, he very well may have won his freshman season after leading Clemson to a 15–0 record and destroying Notre Dame and Alabama in the playoff.

He finished seventh in the voting last year, and a surprisingly distant second this year. For the record: I voted for Lawrence first, Smith second and Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall third. It was a very difficult choice between the first two.

But know this: If you’re picking players in the sandlot to play, everyone takes Lawrence first. And the NFL will do the same in the spring. His consolation prize will be tens of millions of dollars.

Until then, he joins a distinguished group of snubbed greats. Among them:

Adrian Peterson ran for 4,000 yards in three seasons at Oklahoma, but his single-best season (as a freshman in 2004) yielded only a runner-up Heisman finish to USC quarterback Matt Leinart. The year before, Peterson’s less-worthy future teammate, Jason White, won the Heisman over Larry Fitzgerald. Oops.

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Frazier was part of consecutive national champions, in 1994 and ’95, but finished second in ’95 to Eddie George.

And of course, Peyton Manning thrice finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting but was beaten out his senior year by Michigan defensive back/kick returner Charles Woodson. While this evoked much anger from Tennessee fans, Woodson is one of the greatest players in the history of the game, college and pro. So is Manning, of course, but it’s not like he was beaten out by some rube.

Manning might come closest to a parallel for Lawrence, although Peyton never sniffed a national title. Lawrence won one and had a live shot at three. Again, it is surprising that he will hang up his Clemson helmet without a Heisman.

Other all-time college greats who were in the mix for multiple years but never won: Marshall Faulk, Major Harris, Emmitt Smith, Jim McMahon, Ricky Bell, Joe Washington, etc. There is so often more than one player who has a compelling case for “deserving” the Heisman.

(The most controversial year of them all was probably 1956, when Paul Hornung won as a member of a 2–8 Notre Dame team—the key explanatory words there being “Notre” and “Dame.” Not only is Hornung the only guy to win from a losing team, but he won it while throwing three touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Not a misprint. All that said, he was a player of unmatched versatility who went on to have a Hall of Fame NFL career.)

But the worthiness of Smith should not be up for much debate. He has been spectacular, and may leave Alabama with two national titles in addition to most of the school receiving records. From being the guy on the receiving end of the most famous touchdown in school history, when Alabama called “Seattle” in the 2017 championship game and Tua Tagovailoa launched his walk-off bomb, until now, Smith is the most decorated receiver at the school that has become Wide Receiver U.

As Mike Locksley, his former position coach at Alabama, said, “Couldn’t happen to a better dude.” Wideout Nation has its new inspiration.