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The Case for ... A Running Back to Win the Heisman

Sept. 14, 2015
Sept. 14, 2015

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Sept. 14, 2015

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The Case for ... A Running Back to Win the Heisman

WHEN WISCONSIN running back Melvin Gordon left for the NFL draft after last season, Big Ten defenses breathed a sigh of relief. In 2014 the Badgers junior rushed for 2,587 yards, the second most in an FBS season behind Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders, who ran for 2,628 yards in 1988. Gordon, now a member of the Chargers, also set a then FBS single-game record with 408 rushing yards in Wisconsin's 59--24 win over Nebraska.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 2015 issue

But unlike Sanders, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1988, Gordon finished second in 2014 balloting, losing to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. One of the most remarkable seasons ever by a running back was, by voters' accounts, just not Heisman-worthy. Gordon's snub was the most recent example of a trend: Quarterbacks have won 13 of the last 14 Heismans. Only Mark Ingram's '09 win, after a stellar sophomore season at Alabama, during which he ran for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns, has prevented a clean sweep. (USC running back Reggie Bush returned the '05 trophy after the NCAA sanctioned the school for offenses involving Bush.)

Before the proliferation of the spread offense, running backs won 41 of the 79 Heismans handed out between 1935 and 2014, still the highest total for any position. Heck, the iconic trophy is of a ballcarrier dishing out a stiff-arm.

But before anyone suggests a redesign, take note that this could be the season a running back reclaims the statue. With the exception of TCU senior quarterback Trevone Boykin, who set a school record for passing yards (3,901) in 2014, most Heisman-caliber passers enter the '15 season facing questions. Clemson sophomore Deshaun Watson was a stud as a freshman, but he's coming off a torn ACL and a year of rehab. Michigan State senior Connor Cook is NFL-ready but might not have the necessary wheels—five of the last seven Heisman-winning quarterbacks rushed for more than 600 yards. And Dak Prescott, a senior, leads a Mississippi State squad that brings back the fewest starters (seven) of any SEC team. Then there's Ohio State. Coach Urban Meyer has said he may use both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, but Heisman history isn't friendly to quarterbacks playing musical chairs.

That leaves a hole that any number of rushers could run through. Georgia sophomore Nick Chubb blitzed the SEC for 1,547 yards in backup duty in 2014 and is now the premier weapon in Athens. Leonard Fournette, LSU's 6'1", 230-pound bruiser, set a Tigers freshman record with 1,034 yards last year. And junior Ezekiel Elliott looked like the best player on Ohio State's roster while rushing for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the Buckeyes' final three games last season.

And of course the spotlight matters in a Heisman race. Like Chubb, Fournette and Elliott, Oregon sophomore Royce Freeman, Alabama junior Derrick Henry and Oklahoma sophomore Samaje Perine will get both carries and airtime in high-profile games this fall.

Since Ingram's Heisman win, five rushers have finished in the top four, but statistical comparisons benefit contenders who can throw and run, like dual-threat winners Mariota, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Baylor's Robert Griffin III in '11. "With the spread going on, and teams throwing the ball left and right, these quarterbacks are padding their stats and putting up crazy numbers," says Ingram, who's with the Saints. "Melvin Gordon didn't even win it, and he went for 2,000 yards. You have to put up insane numbers to win it as a running back now."

Well, here comes the crazy.

"You have to put up insane numbers to win it as a running back now," says Ingram.
PHOTOCHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGESLeonard Fournette