The first 72 years of Heisman history were fairly predictable when it came to the class status of the winner. To wit: Every player who won the trophy from 1935 until 2006 was either a senior or a junior.
That all changed in 2007, when Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman. With Tebow’s win, the floodgates opened and he was followed by Sam Bradford (redshirt sophomore), Mark Ingram (true sophomore), Johnny Manziel (redshirt freshman) and Jameis Winston (redshirt freshman).
The reason for the sudden change wasn’t just about Tebow, though he personified the new era he helped usher in. Rather, it was the result of a combination of two things:
1. The new offensive styles that came to dominate college football from 2006 onward.
2. The digital media revolution.
If we made a chart of the statistical production of Heisman winners over the years, we’d see a fairly consistent range of values between 1974 and 2006 (with a few sudden blips here and there), then a hockey stick-like jump in the years since 2007. Of the last seven Heisman winners, six have been quarterbacks running a version of a ‘non-traditional’ offense. This means some permutation of the spread, or a no-huddle, from a shotgun and often with read option mixed in. These six quarterbacks averaged 49.6 combined touchdowns with 4,578 yards of total offense and a passer rating of 177. For comparison’s sake, Ty Detmer totaled 5,022 yards and 45 touchdowns with a rating of 155.9 in 1990, the year he won the Heisman. But Detmer’s win was seen at the time as a dramatic statistical outlier, one of the great Heisman seasons ever. We now see that kind of season every year, not just with the winner of the Heisman, but often with the contenders as well.
It seems unlikely that this recent swarm of underclass Heisman winners would’ve happened without the opportunities afforded them by the offensive philosophies currently in vogue. And because each of these players were highly-unique talents operating in systems that were easy to learn and molded to fit their skill set, they were able to produce these staggering numbers early on in their careers. The result was they became Heisman candidates much earlier, too.
The media change has been just as important and possibly even more dramatic. The Heisman is an election. And, as with all elections, the candidate who is the most familiar to the electorate generally has the best chance of winning. For years, this meant that juniors and seniors had the advantage since over the course of three to five years they tended to receive more exposure in the media. The more exposure in the media, the better known you become to voters and the better chance you have of building your brand as a Heisman candidate.
But the digital revolution changed all that. The proliferation of recruiting web sites means we learn about players at a much earlier point than before. Certain players are over-hyped in high school and are already seen as Heisman candidates the moment they step foot on campus. Meanwhile, social media provides multiple channels of access to players while schools promote them in new and innovative ways. A remarkable performance or a memorable play now spreads throughout the internet like wildfire thanks to a media eager to serve up the latest meme in ever-smaller and chewable bites. This means a player like Tebow is already a known commodity — nay, a legend — by the time he takes his first snap. It means Johnny Manziel’s nickname, Johnny Football, is in widespread use after one game. In other words, the old timeline for players to gain name recognition and media exposure has been condensed and the advantage that upperclassmen once had in this area has now been diluted.
Combine the new media environment with the new offenses and the result is five underclass Heisman winners since 2007.
But one more class frontier remains: The true freshman.
It could be argued that it’s even harder for a true freshman to win the Heisman now than it was in the 1970s. That’s mostly due to the aforementioned change in football over the last decade. But the 1970s and early 1980s were dominated by the running back and the offensive systems set up to feature that position — USC’s I-formation, Oklahoma’s wishbone, Nebraska’s I-bone, etc. The most talented player on the field in that era was the tailback and he played a position that was more conducive to early productivity. That’s why we saw instant success from players like Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett.
But we are now in a quarterback-dominated era and the most talented players on offense are often taking the snaps. But football is still football and the complexity of the game remains the biggest obstacle to young players in the Heisman race. As talented as Manziel and Jameis Winston are, they both needed a redshirt year to adjust to the speed of the game and to absorb their respective playbooks. Even then, they each had to have absurd statistical production to win the Heisman in their first years as starters.
Could a true freshman quarterback come in and dominate in the mold of Manziel and Winston? It seems unlikely. If it did happen, I’d assume it’d be a true freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Otherwise, we’re talking about a young player learning a system and taking over a team in a few short weeks. He would have to be a prodigy of a kind we’ve not seen before.
I suppose a true freshman running back could make a run at it. Adrian Petersen did so in 2004. But the bar for what constitutes a Heisman-worthy season has been raised since then. Meanwhile, the prominence of the running back position has receded a bit as the quarterback has taken center stage. Nonetheless, an elite talent like Leonard Fournette of LSU could certainly make some noise in this year’s Heisman race, though he’d probably need to break the 2,000-yard barrier and have the rest of the field implode to win. It’s also smart to keep an eye on the offensive systems that are best at generating yards, which is why Racean Thomas of Auburn is an intriguing prospect, too.
But the Heisman electorate is highly adaptive and I think the back-to-back crowning of redshirt freshmen — and all the issues that have surrounded these young men in their too-early exposures to college football immortality — could give some voters pause moving ahead. The Heisman is a great honor, but also a heavy burden to place on a young player’s shoulders. Herschel might’ve been able to handle it back in the days when one could go to a party without having the highlights appear on TMZ, but times have changed — maybe a little too much.
Voters might think twice before pushing this envelope any further, which is why I think the true freshman frontier won’t be crossed any time soon.