Why Riley Leonard Could Win the Heisman Trophy for Notre Dame

Notre Dame plucked Riley Leonard out of the portal to replace Sam Hartman at quarterback. Can Leonard go on to become the Fighting Irish’s first Heisman winner in 37 years?
Notre Dame quarterback Riley Leonard (13) who is hurt, dresses and throws some pre-game passes with fellow quarterbacks Saturday, April 20, 2024, at the annual Notre Dame Blue-Gold spring football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Notre Dame quarterback Riley Leonard (13) who is hurt, dresses and throws some pre-game passes with fellow quarterbacks Saturday, April 20, 2024, at the annual Notre Dame Blue-Gold spring football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. / MANDATORY CREDIT GREG SWIERCZ / USA

Not since Tim Brown in 1987 has Notre Dame produced a Heisman Trophy winner. In fact, only two Irish players have finished top 3 in the balloting this century – Manti Te’o in 2012 and Brady Quinn in 2006. So, why is Leonard ready to snap the longest Heisman dry spell in school history? And what will keep him from getting to New York in December?

Why Riley Leonard WILL win the Heisman this season

1. In his last full season, 2022, he was emerging as one of the game’s star dual-threat quarterbacks. As a sophomore, Leonard accounted for 3,666 yards from scrimmage and 33 total TDs while leading Duke to nine wins. The same Duke that went 3-9 overall and was winless in ACC play a year earlier. 

2. Mike Denbrock is back to coordinate the Irish offense. This is Denbrock’s third stint in South Bend so he knows all about the school culture, academic standards, and title-or-bust expectations. He also knows how to maximize the potential of athletic quarterbacks like Leonard. Denbrock’s last gig? Running an LSU attack that led the FBS in scoring and produced 2023 Heisman winner Jayden Daniels.

3. Leonard is about to get the spotlight to match his talent. When Duke has a winning season, it’s a nice story. But let’s be honest, it’s a basketball school so nobody really pays close attention to Blue Devil football. However, at Notre Dame everything is obviously magnified, and the schedule provides just enough marquee matchups to generate the needed Heisman buzz.

4. Leonard has never had access to this much skill position talent. In his breakout sophomore year, he led Duke in rushing and his receivers were average. In South Bend, Leonard will get plenty of support, especially with the addition of speedy WR Kris Mitchell and the healthy returns of TE Mitchell Evans and receivers Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse.

Why Riley Leonard WON’T win the Heisman this season

1. Is he 100% healthy? Leonard missed the second half of last season after injuring his ankle in a Sept. 30 loss to Notre Dame.

He’s already had two surgeries this year, a TightRope procedure in January to stabilize the ankle and a follow-up procedure during spring to address a stress fracture that was beginning to develop. Any loss of mobility completely changes the dynamic of what makes Leonard so special.

2. Leonard might still be raw as a passer. He was hardly prolific in 2022, ranking 47th nationally in TD passes and 48th in passer rating. And he regressed last year. In seven games, Leonard threw just three TD passes, completed 57.6% of his throws, and his arm talent doesn’t pop on film. We know what he can do with his legs, but he won’t contend for the Heisman unless he elevates as a passer.

3. There’s no playbook for handling the pressure of being the face of Notre Dame football. Playing in Durham, where seven wins get coaches contract extensions, didn’t prepare Leonard for the scrutiny he’ll face in South Bend.

Yeah, being ND’s quarterback is a dream, but it’ll feel like a nightmare if Leonard doesn’t give the Irish what it needs after he was Marcus Freeman’s handpicked choice to lead the offense in 2024.

4. To win the Heisman, you either have to ring up massive numbers (Daniels and Caleb Williams the last two years) or lead your team into the national championship conversation.

Do both and you’re a lock. But Leonard might accomplish neither. He’s never been a monster stats guy, and while ND will certainly be in the expanded playoff hunt it’s not a top-tier title contender this season.

- Riley Leonard Is Still Growing In the Notre Dame Offense


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Rich Cirminiello

RICH CIRMINIELLO