Brutally Honest Heisman Chase
E-mail ... Pete Fiutak
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Even if you're a die-hard college football fan, you only heard of Cam Newton last year at this time because of a scandal at Florida, and he was hardly on anyone's radar to become a starting quarterback, much less a slam-dunk Heisman winner.
No one saw a race between Mark Ingram and Toby Gerhart coming down to the wire in 2009 - and with Ndamukong Suh a finalist - with names like Tebow, Bradford, and McCoy the preseason Heisman slam dunks. This year, players like Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, and Kellen Moore aren't coming out of the blue, but as we've learned in recent years, the winner will probably come out of left field.
Remember, to have a realistic shot at winning the Heisman, you have to 1) be on offense, 2) be a quarterback or a running back, and 3) be in the national title chase. Monster stats are nice, but as Ingram, Newton and Bradford proved, be in the hunt for the whole ball of wax means almost everything.
So for everyone else, realistically, forget about it.
With all of that in mind, here's the brutally honest look at what the 2011 Heisman race will probably look like with the top ten candidates.
10. QB Kellen Moore, Sr. Boise State
The 2010 Heisman finalist threw two touchdown passes or more in every game and threw for 300 yards or more five times including a 507-yard day against Hawaii and 328 yards against Utah in the bowl win. Moore was No. 1 completing 71% of his passes for 3,845 yards with 35 touchdown passes and a mere six interceptions. Two of those picks came in the blowout win over Hawaii and none of the interceptions came in a close game; he was nearly flawless.
Why He Won't Win It: As good as he was, he's going to have to be even sharper and even more efficient without Austin Pettis and Titus Young to throw to, and there's no reason to think he won't be. The numbers might not be there, but his leadership, accuracy, and clutch ability should once again be peerless.
9. RB Marcus Lattimore, Soph. South Carolina
The breakout SEC star came through with a huge season and gave USC a running game, but he needs a bit of a break. Beaten, battered and bruised throughout last year, the workhorse needs more options to take the heat off. Fortunately, the Gamecock offense has some other nice backs to take the heat off. The 6-0, 231-pound true sophomore was brilliant rushing for 1,197 yards and 17 scores averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and he also showed off nice hands out of the backfield with 29 catches – third most on the team – for 412 yards and two scores. He announced his arrival into the SEC world with 182 yards and two scores on 34 carries in the win over Georgia, and while he was slowed down in the loss to Auburn and was held under 100 yards in six of the first seven games, he still scored 12 touchdowns in the first six games and became a weapon for the rest of the attack to work around.
Why He Won't Win It: Those other backs. Lattimore's numbers should be solid, but he's not going to get as many chances with the hope to keep him fresh throughout the year. To win the Heisman, he has to be a special back on a national title caliber team. South Carolina will be good, but if it loses right away to Georgia, and if Lattimore isn't fantastic, the campaign will be over.
8. WR Justin Blackmon, Jr. Oklahoma State
Blackmon was supposed to be good, and he showed the talent and athleticism early on in his career to justify the lofty status as a top recruit, but no one expected him to become the most consistent and dominant target in the country. He missed the Kansas State game after being suspended for a driving incident, but he won the Biletnikoff Award anyway with 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns, making at least one scoring grab and hitting the 100-yard mark in every game. Even with teams loaded up to stop him, he still produced with ten or more catches in six games and with nine catches in two other games. At 6-1 and 211 pounds he has the size and the strength to outmuscle most defensive backs, and while he's not a blazer, he's terrific at getting separation deep and he's always breaking into the open.
Why He Won't Win It: He's a wide receiver. Remember, it's not like Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree got a sniff of New York a few years ago, and he had a much bigger profile than Blackmon. Will the loss of offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to West Virginia bring down the production a bit?
7. QB Geno Smith, Jr. West Virginia
For the first time in four years, West Virginia returns its starting quarterback, an ideal situation as the program begins installing a very different style of attacking. Smith was a revelation in his first year on the job, far exceeding all expectations. A top recruit, who could have chosen a much brighter spotlight, he earned a spot on the All-Big East second team, going 241-of-372 for 2,763 yards, 24 touchdowns, and seven picks. A throw-first quarterback, he still added 217 rushing yards and a bunch of escapes to his opening stat line. Standing tall in the pocket, the 6-3, 214-pounder has tremendous poise, throws a catchable ball, and has a great feel for the game. In an offense that really features the quarterback, he's set to explode in 2011. The tools are all there, and now he gets quarterback-friendly head coach Dana Holgorsen to deal with.
Why He Won't Win It: Will West Virginia team be in the title hunt? If it loses at Maryland or against LSU early on, it'll be out of the BCS Championship chase and yet another year will be spent trying to figure out where to put all the pieces. If WVU isn't playing in a huge bowl, it'll be a fight to get Smith on everyone's radar.
6. RB LaMichael James, Jr. Oregon
James elevated his place from his brilliant debut to become an All-American and darn near winning the Heisman Trophy. Like a torpedo out of the backfield, the 5-9, 185-pound junior strafed opposing defenses for a nation's-best 1,731 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on 294 carries. For the second straight year, he had nine 100-yard games, topping 200 yards three different times. A perfect fit for the spread-option, he has gamebreaking speed, the vision needed to locate holes, and far more toughness than his size might indicate.
Why He Wont Win It: It'll be hard for the Doak Walker winner to come up with consistent success with everyone and the waterboys keying on stopping him. There's too much depth to keep him on the field for a full game, and there's too much talent waiting in the wings to not keep
the stats down a bit.
5. RB Trent Richardson, Jr. Alabama
For the last two years, the fashionable belief has been that Richardson might be better than Mark Ingram. Ingram had one special year and two decent ones, but he was the type of back who had to be fed the ball time and again to establish him as a base for the offense. Richardson has been more of a jack-of-all-trades home run hitter who averaged 6.2 yards per carry with 700 yards and six touchdowns, while catching 23 passes for 266 yards and four scores and averaging a whopping 26.4 yards per kickoff return. At 5-11 and 224 pounds, he's very big, freakishly strong, and lightning fast. With his size and track star speed, the former star from the same Florida high school as Emmitt Smith could be a starting back for an NFL team right now. However, he has to prove he can handle the role of being the main man for a full season, and he has to prove he can hold up. With Ingram hurt, Richardson tore off 144 yards and a score against Penn State, and ripped up Tennessee for 119 yards on just 12 carries, but he had a midseason knee injury and has only carried the ball more than 15 times twice in his career. But if he can stay in one piece, everything is there to be in the hunt for Bama's second Heisman winner in two years.
Why He Won't Win It: He's a cog in the system. He'll be even more dynamic than Ingram was, and he'll have his wow moments in big games against top SEC foes, but Alabama's biggest star is the defense that should swarm and make it easy for the offense to capitalize. The Tide backfield is too deep for Richardson to be fed the ball 30 times a game.
4. QB Landry Jones, Jr. Oklahoma
He'll always be known as the guy who stepped in for Sam Bradford, and the weird facial hair got more attention early on than his passing ability, but he came up with a brilliant 2010 completing 65% of his passes for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, and he ran for a score. More importantly, he led the way to a Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl win, coming up with the big games at the big times throwing for 468 yards and four scores against Oklahoma State and bombing away on Nebraska for 342 yards and a score. Even in the loss to Missouri he threw for 303 yards and three scores. However, interceptions were an issue. Yes, he threw 12 picks, but two came against Utah State, two came against Missouri, and three came against Oklahoma State. In 11 games he didn't throw more than a pick, and considering he put up 617 throws and with as many plays as he made down the field, the errors weren't that egregious. At 6-4, 230-pounds with a live arm and great poise, he's moving up the draft charts into a first round talent whenever he's ready to come out.
Why He Won't Win It: He might not be considered the No. 1 guy on his own team. WR Ryan Broyles will get just as much respect and attention, and while Jones is more Bradford than he is Jason White, his numbers won't be quite at Bradford's level. The Big 12 schedule is going to be tougher than usual with the Sooners having a bigger bull's-eye on their back than normal.
3. QB Taylor Martinez, Soph. Nebraska
After tearing up Kansas State for 241 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and after bombing away for 323 passing yards and five scores against Oklahoma State, "T-Magic" had all the makings of a Husker legend. The 6-1, 205-pound sophomore hurt his ankle and tried to play through it, but he wasn't the same player. The cuts weren't as decisive, he didn't have the same burst, and he appeared to play tentatively, forcing the coaching staff to play around with the quarterback situation to try to generate more consistent production. Now he's healthy and now he appears to have the same burst and the same quickness he showed at the beginning of last year. With Nebraska in the spotlight every week, he'll get his chances to shine in big game after big game.
Why He Won't Win It: Can he really stay healthy? The deep group of Nebraska quarterbacks has been reduced down to Martinez, and as long as he's in one piece, he'll be among the nation's most dangerous all-around weapons.
However, he has to prove he can stay 100%.
2. QB Andrew Luck, Jr. Stanford
Luck broke with tradition, passed on being the likely No. 1 overall NFL Draft choice, and returned to the Farm for his junior year, and because of it, Stanford is a top five team when it probably would've started out the year outside of the top 25. The 6-4, 235-pounder was brilliant in 2010, finishing as the Pac 10 Player of the Year and as the Heisman runner-up, completing 263-of-372 passes for 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns, and eight picks. A sneaky-good runner, he also rushed for 453 yards and three scores. From the arm and the athleticism to the smarts and leadership, he has everything a program looks for in a franchise quarterback.
Why He Won't Win It: He'll be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, unless he really wants to be an architect, but his overall stats should
only be above average. All that matters will be his performance in the big games, and if Stanford is in the national title chase, he'll be the reason.
Despite the preseason rankings, Stanford won't be in the national title chase. He'll get to New York in December, but his bigger moment will come when he returns in April.
1. QB Denard Robinson, Jr. Michigan
Robinson was the best player in America over the first half of last season with jaw-dropping performance after jaw-dropping performance, running for 105 yards or more in seven of the first eight games with 258 yards and two scores against Notre Dame and 217 yards and two scores against Indiana. Finishing with 1,702 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns to earn the Big Ten rushing crown, he was more than fine even when he wasn't taking off for highlight runs. Yes, he only ran for two scores in his last five games, with both coming against Wisconsin, but he was still electrifying and had to be focused on every time he was under center. He can throw and he has a strong, adequate arm, but the former Florida state champion-level sprinter is at his best when he gets to show off his 4.32 speed and cutting ability.
Why He'll Win It: Don't believe the talk from new head coach Brady Hoke that Robinson's carries will be limited. Whether it was Ronnie Hillman at San Diego State, and MiQuale Lewis at Ball State, Hoke knows how to get little runners in space for huge statistical seasons. Robinson's numbers will be there with at least 1,500 rushing yards, and if he can pull off a win over Ohio State, and/or if he can lead the way to a Legends division title, the Heisman should be his.