When Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk declared, “I’m going to win the Heisman” this year, it caught the attention of college football fans, but there was one problem: Running backs are becoming afterthoughts in the annual Heisman Trophy discussion.
Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne gave running backs back-to-back Heisman wins in 1998 and 1999, but since the turn of the century, only two running backs have won it — Reggie Bush in 2005 and Mark Ingram in 2009. Bush’s Heisman has since been rescinded because of NCAA violations at USC.
Last year, when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman, Kenjon Barber was the top running back among voters, and he finished ninth.
This year, on ESPN.com’s latest “Heisman Watch,” the top five candidates are all quarterbacks — Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Manziel, Bryce Petty and A.J. McCarron.
Entering Thursday’s showdown with Oklahoma, Seastrunk wasn’t even the best Heisman candidate on Baylor’s team. That was Petty, who led the nation in passing efficiency (219.0), and averaged 350.4 passing yards per game.
In this age of warp-speed offenses, the running back numbers simply aren’t as eye-popping as the quarterbacks’. Last year, Manziel averaged 109 yards rushing per game, to go along with his 285 yards per game passing average.
No quarterback put up those kind of total offense numbers when Dayne won his Heisman in 1999. Purdue quarterback Drew Brees led the nation in total offense that year with 4,086 yards — 1,030 fewer than Manziel had last year.
Dayne was the classic workhorse running back, averaging 28 carries and 170 rushing yards per game.
This year, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey leads the nation with 153.1 rushing yards per game. He averages 27 carries per game, so he’s a workhorse. But many of the other top running backs just don’t touch the ball as much. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are two of the elite running backs in the Big Ten. Abdullah averages 19.6 carries per game, and Gordon averages 15.5.
Seastrunk, a transfer from Oregon, remains an extremely potent threat. Entering Thursday, he was averaging 9.1 yards per carry and had rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of 11 games dating to last season. But Baylor’s games have been so lopsided this year, he often finds himself sitting after halftime, leaving him with just 13.7 carries per game.
The highlights of Seastrunk’s 11 touchdown runs have been lost in the endless loop of touchdown passes from Oregon’s Mariota (20), Florida State’s Winston (24) and Manziel (26).
Those three are the consensus Heisman favorites this year. Barring a sudden turn of events, it looks like a quarterback will claim the Heisman for the 12th time in 14 years.
It wasn’t always like this. The Heisman has been handed out since 1935, and 34 of the first 49 winners were running backs, including the Gophers’ Bruce Smith in 1941.
Voters are asked to select college football’s “most outstanding player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” The trophy itself is a bronze statue of former New York University running back Ed Smith.
The award went to a running back every year from 1972 to 1983. Remembering the winners during that span — Johnny Rogers, John Cappelletti, Archie Griffin (twice), Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Charles White, George Rogers, Marcus Allen, Hershel Walker and Mike Rozier — it’s hard not to think of the Heisman as a running back’s award.
Now it seems like an award for the game’s most potent quarterback. This isn’t bad. It’s just different.
Big Ten Short Takes
• Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio improved to 5-1 against Michigan last week, all but eliminating the Wolverines from the Legends Division race. Saturday, the Wolverines will try to spoil Nebraska’s chances, as the Cornhuskers visit Ann Arbor, where Michigan is 19-0 under Brady Hoke.