Heisman Trophy watchlists had most of the same names this offseason. Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Saquon Barkley and Sam Darnold, among many others, were preseason favorites for college football’s most prestigious trophy.
But if recent history is any indication, someone who was nowhere near any of those lists could be the one to win it in December.
Jackson won the Heisman last year after bursting onto the scene with a scorching-hot start. A year earlier, Derrick Henry won it thanks in part to a key win in early November. He was joined in New York City by Christian McCaffrey, who was in his first season as Stanford’s starting running back, and Deshaun Watson, who was coming off a torn ACL the previous year. Jameis Winston (2013) and Johnny Manziel (2012) won the Heisman as redshirt freshmen.
So, what’s the secret to finding a Heisman sleeper?
“I don’t think there’s necessarily like, ‘This is how it has to be to win the Heisman,’” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Newsday last Thursday during a call to promote Allstate’s All Hands In program. “I think it just varies every year, but the one thing that we definitely know is, it’s very fair to say that somebody that we’re not thinking of now becomes a big-time candidate and ends up in New York City.”
Herbstreit pointed to 2015 as one example of how unpredictable the Heisman race can be. That season, Leonard Fournette was running away with the Heisman with 1,352 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in LSU’s first eight games. But he stalled against Alabama on Nov. 7 with just 31 yards on 19 carries, while his counterpart Henry had 210 yards and three scores to vault to the top of the list.
“Derrick Henry, he wasn’t even a Heisman candidate until like Week 8, and then he started to catch fire late in the year, had a couple of big games in the last two or three games and ended up winning the Heisman,” Herbstreit said. “And he came out of nowhere.”
On the other hand, while conventional wisdom seems to dictate that the late-season games mean more toward the Heisman race, Jackson shot a hole through that theory last year when he racked up 25 of his 51 total touchdowns in Louisville’s first four games and won it despite the Cardinals dropping their final two games of the regular season.
“Usually you win the Heisman in November or December -- you kind of position yourself for it in September,” Herbstreit said. “And [Jackson] did the exact opposite of Derrick Henry – he won it basically with his game against Florida State.”
Jackson was 13 of 20 passing for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and had 17 carries for 146 yards and four touchdowns on Sept. 17.
Herbstreit has his eye on a few players as potential breakout candidates this season, one of whom already did quite well in Week 1.
“A guy like Josh Rosen for example,” Herbstreit said. ‘Nobody’s really talking about him much, but he’s got talent around him, he’s got a new offensive coordinator. If they were to beat [Texas] A&M in their first game and he got on a little bit of a roll, Josh Rosen is a name that easily could start to surface as, ‘You need to be aware of him.’
Of course, Rosen engineered one of the biggest comebacks in college football history on Sunday night when he threw for 491 yards (292 in the fourth quarter) and four touchdowns (all in the fourth) to rally UCLA from a 44-10 deficit to beat the Aggies, 45-44.
Herbstreit also mentioned USF quarterback Quinton Flowers and TCU quarterback Kenny Hill as off-the-radar guys who could be this year’s Jackson or Henry.
Even if it isn’t one of those three, Herbstreit is confident a new name will crash the Heisman party sooner than later.
“By Week 4, people start talking about who’s the Heisman front-runner,” Herbstreit said, “and I guarantee you that in that discussion is going to be someone that you and I did not talk about today. It happens every year.”