Boston College hosted a football symposium a few years back that featured two former Eagles first-team All-Americans, quarterback Doug Flutie and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Whenever the topic is college football, the discussion will inevitably include the Heisman Trophy, an award given annually since 1935 to the top player in the country.
As a Heisman voter since 2013, I directed a question at Flutie that caught Kuechly’s attention.
“Doug, has it become impossible for a defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy?”
Kuechly gave Flutie an inquisitive stare while the 1984 Heisman winner formulated a diplomatic response as the most decorated defensive player in BC history looked on.
“I wouldn’t say impossible,” said Flutie. “But they would probably have to include returns on special teams.”
Flutie immediately cited Michigan cornerback/punt returner Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman winner. Woodson is the only purely defensive player to win the award, but he had the special teams element on his resume.
If that is a criterion for a defensive player to win the Heisman, it effectively rules out the front seven. Coaches generally don’t have defensive tackles returning kicks or punts.
Kuechly was a two-time first-team All-American who in 2011 led the nation with 191 tackles (102 solo) in 12 games. He set an NCAA record with an average of 16.0 tackles per game and cleaned up the postseason hardware.
Kuechly won the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award, the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Chicago Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus attended a ceremony at BC to personally present Kuechly the award.
But in 2011, Kuechly did not finish in the top 10 in Heisman balloting. The award was won by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Kuechly’s achievements were only recognized when the Carolina Panthers drafted him with the ninth overall pick.
To even the most casual observer, the Heisman Trophy has become a quarterbacks’ award. In this century, the award has gone to 17 quarterbacks and three running backs.
Two of the ball-carriers are from Alabama, Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015), and the other was Reggie Bush (2005) of USC. Bush was forced to vacate the Heisman when it was revealed that he received gifts from a sports agent during his college career.
In years past when elite players tended to stay in school for four years, an athlete’s body of work was an important consideration. That was the case with my first-year voting when the finalists were quarterbacks Jameis Winston (Florida State), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois) and a player I covered, Boston College running back Andre Williams.
McCarron’s body of work was beyond reproach. He was 36-4 as a starter, won back-to-back national championships (2011, 2012) and threw for over 3,000 yards his senior year. Winston exploded on the ACC scene that season as a redshirt freshman and led the Seminoles to the national championship.
Williams led the nation and set the ACC single-season rushing record with 2,177 yards, but he was a part-time starter in his previous two seasons. Winston became the youngest player to win the Heisman. My three votes in descending order went McCarron, Williams and Winston. Since Winston was the top vote-getter in all four regions of the country, you could say I got that one wrong.
Any emphasis on body of work was rendered totally irrelevant by two quarterbacks who took diverse paths to award night in Manhattan.
The first was Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the ultimate college dual-threat quarterback. Jackson was a true sophomore in 2016 when he surpassed Winston to become the youngest player to win the Heisman. Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns. He registered near-identical numbers in 2017 but the Heisman went to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
The other was 2019 recipient Joe Burrow, a college football retread who found salvation at LSU. Burrow was a backup for two seasons at Ohio State before transferring to LSU. He broke into the starting lineup in 2018 and enjoyed one of the finest passing seasons in NCAA history the next year. Burrow started 15 games and completed 402 passes for 5,671 yards and an NCAA-record 60 touchdowns while leading the Bayou Bengals to the FBS National Championship. My first-place votes in those years went to Jackson, Mayfield and Burrow.
Some voters take character into consideration and that possibly denied Winston a second Heisman. Winston played the 2014 season under the dark cloud of sexual assault allegations stemming from a 2012 incident. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota won the 2014 Heisman while Winston came in sixth.
Ohio State running back Archie Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman winner.
Where you play is also an influential factor. The last winner not from a Power-5 conference was Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer in 1990.
There was an emphasis on all-purpose yards before Jackson redefined the criteria in 2016. That was the reasoning behind my voting for Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey in 2015. In his sophomore season, McCaffery carried the ball 337 times for 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns.
McCaffrey had 45 receptions for 645 yards and five touchdowns and returned 37 kickoffs for 1,070 yards and a touchdown. He finished the season with 3,864 all-purpose yards, but the Heisman went to Henry.
The ‘Bama back rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns but had only 11 receptions for 91 yards. The 28 touchdowns likely put Henry over the top with 378 first-place votes, well ahead of McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. All three are enjoying fruitful careers in the NFL.
The 2020 Heisman will be announced on Jan. 5, 2021, a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the college football season. This year’s vote will have more “if only” questions than any in the past because some leagues played a full slate while others only six or seven games. Even so, there are several quality players to choose from and most of them are quarterbacks.
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