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Can a wide receiver ever win the Heisman Trophy again?

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper moves against Auburn

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper moves against Auburn defensive back Joe Turner during the second half of the Iron Bowl, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Cooper is trying to become the third wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy, following Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991). Credit: AP / Brynn Anderson

On Dec. 14, 1991, gasoline averaged $1.075 per gallon, Michael Jackson's "Black or White" was No. 1 on the Billboard charts and there were only about 150 Starbucks stores in the United States.

It also was the last time a wide receiver won the Heisman Trophy.

In the 23 years since Michigan's Desmond Howard took home college football's highest individual honor, only a handful of receivers have come close to winning. None were selected as "the most outstanding player in college football.''

This year, that could change.

Alabama junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, after a strong season highlighted by a huge performance against rival Auburn Nov. 29, should be among the finalists invited to New York for the Dec. 13 presentation ceremony. Can he win it? The better question may be this: can any wide receiver ever win the Heisman Trophy again?

The game has changed drastically since Howard posed with his Heisman at the Downtown Athletic Club. The growth of the spread offense has meant receivers -- and, by default, their quarterbacks -- are putting up bigger numbers than in previous eras.

Brown, Howard stand alone

Only two wide receivers have won the Heisman since it was first awarded to the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger in 1935 -- Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987 and Howard in 1991.

Brown knew he was a Heisman contender after Notre Dame's second game in 1987 -- a 31-8 win over Michigan State. He didn't start thinking about it until after the first loss, to Penn State eight games later.

"It wasn't until after that [Penn State] game that the team started to talk about winning the Heisman for me,'' Brown told Newsday. "So the whole talk that week was, 'Let's go play great for Timmy to win the Heisman!' So now I'm thinking about that instead of just going out and playing the game.''

Brown had 846 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns in 11 games in 1987, numbers that hardly would draw much attention in 2014. At the time, Brown had no idea he could become the first receiver to win the Heisman.

"I think it was a cool year for me because I didn't have any of those kinds of pressures,'' said Brown, who ranked fifth in the nation that season with 21.7 yards per catch. "Being that I didn't know the history of the Heisman as far as no wide receivers winning it, I didn't feel that pressure to be the first.''

Like Brown, Howard burst onto the Heisman scene after the first two games of the 1991 season -- a 35-13 win against Boston College, and a thrilling 24-14 win over No. 7 Notre Dame. In that game, Michigan had a 17-14 lead, but faced a fourth-and-inches situation from the Irish 25 early in the fourth quarter when Howard made a diving catch of Elvis Grbac's pass deep in the end zone. It landed Howard on the cover of Sports Illustrated and remains one of the most famous TD catches in Michigan history.

Howard finished 11th in the nation with 985 receiving yards, 12th with 62 catches and pulled in an NCAA-best 19 touchdowns in 12 games in 1991. But his catches and receiving yards wouldn't put him in the top 20 in 2014.

Unkind history

Since 1987, 231 different players received enough votes to finish in the top 10 in Heisman balloting, but less than 10 percent of those players (22) were wide receivers. Notre Dame's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was the only receiver to land in the top 10 more than once, in 1989 and 1990. Meanwhile, 105 different quarterbacks and 74 different running backs (including two two-way players) placed in the top 10. Quarterbacks have won 12 of the last 14 Heismans (includes USC running back Reggie Bush's since-vacated 2005 Heisman Trophy win).

On nine of those top 10 ballots there no wide receivers at all, including twice in the last three years. There were five seasons that two wide receivers finished in the top 10, including 2012.

Since Howard's 1991 victory, only two wide receivers have finished in the top three. Ismail finished second to BYU's Ty Detmer in 1990, garnering 1,177 total votes (237 first-place votes) to Detmer's 1,482 (316 firsts). In 2003, Larry Fitzgerald finished second to Oklahoma's Jason White. Fitzgerald, then a sophomore at Pitt, received 1,353 total votes (253 firsts), while White won with 1,481 total votes (319 firsts).

Brown, Ismail, Howard and Fitzgerald are the only receivers with more than 1,000 votes on a single ballot. The next highest vote-getter? Marshall's Randy Moss, fourth in 1997 (253 total votes, 17 first-place votes).

Spread offense: Friend or foe?

At first glance, it seems today's up-tempo spread offenses would bolster a receiver's Heisman case. After all, bigger numbers means more national attention, right?

Not quite.

"I know some people say 'Numbers never lie,' " Howard said. "They may not, but they can be as deceptive as hell."

The reason is two-fold. Since spread offenses tend to utilize multiple-receiver formations, the ball gets distributed more than in a more "traditional" offenses.

"The balance is no longer like when you and I grew up," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "The balance was running vs. throwing. Now the balance is, 'This receiver needs to have 100 yards, this receiver over on this side needs to have 100 yards.' "

As a result, Herbstreit said, more receivers get more opportunities, limiting the chance for one guy to truly stand out.

"Now these receivers are putting up ridiculous numbers, but I don't think fans or media members really respect it the same way they used to because they're playing in these offenses where they're catching 100 balls," said Herbstreit, who has a Heisman vote. "It's almost like they're a dime a dozen as opposed to, 'Wow, this guy is really unique.' "

Receivers certainly are catching more passes. From 2000-13, there were 65 instances where a receiver caught 100 or more passes. From 1987-99, there were 18.

From 2000-13, a receiver had gained more than 1,500 yards 33 times. From 1987-88, there were 13.

Last season, Fresno State's Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse each caught 100 or more passes. West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey each caught 114 passes in 2012. Only Austin was among the top 10 Heisman vote-getters (eighth with 47 points), and he also returned kicks and punts.

Howard compared Alabama's Cooper -- a Heisman candidate in a traditional offense -- to West Virginia's Kevin White, who had some Heisman buzz earlier in the season despite playing in a spread offense.

"I don't just look, 'OK, this receiver leads the nation in yards or yards per game, so he must be the best receiver in the country," Howard said. "He's targeted, like, 15-18 times a game, where as a guy like Cooper is targeted maybe 10 times a game. But his productivity is even greater than the other kid, in my opinion, because of how limited his opportunities are versus how great his production is."

Then there's this: the quarterback. He plays a role, too. A fairly significant one.

"When it comes to a receiver," Howard said, "if you're putting up big numbers, chances are the quarterback's putting up some pretty impressive numbers, too."

Those QB numbers grew more impressive since the turn of the millennium. Since 2000, there have been 65 instances where a quarterback threw for more than 4,000 yards in a season and 11 instances where one threw for more than 5,000. From 1987-99, there were a dozen 4,000-yard seasons and just two 5,000-yard seasons.

So how can a receiver show that he deserves the attention? By making his quarterback look good instead of the other way around.

"If you've got a great quarterback, it may make it tougher for you to win the Heisman," Brown said. "But if you're catching a 5-yard pass and turning it into an 80-yard touchdown, then you're making your quarterback look good in that situation."

'More than just catching balls'

Brown's advice for receivers who want to separate themselves from the pack: Don't just be a receiver.

"You look at even the last 10-12 years at the guys who have come out, they've all been the Calvin Johnsons, the Larry Fitzgeralds, and they've been incredible as far as the receiver position has gone in college and the numbers they put up," Brown said. "But I just think it takes more than that. It takes more than just catching balls and doing that. If you're running reverses or running in the backfield, then you've got a little bit better shot."

Of course, that's a big part of how Brown and Howard won their Heismans.

Brown fielded 34 punts for 401 yards and three touchdowns, had 144 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown and returned 23 kicks for 456 yards. Meanwhile, Howard had 13 carries for 180 yards and a touchdown, returned 15 kicks for 412 yards and a score and had 20 punt returns for 282 yards and a touchdown in 1991.

Remember Howard's famous "Heisman pose" in the end zone after scoring a touchdown against Ohio State? That was on a punt return.

"The [defensive] coordinator had to worry about us, the special teams coordinator had to worry about us, and now you're affecting two-thirds of the game," said Brown. "It just becomes a much bigger problem for a defense."

Of course, the logic is simple. More versatile players get more chances to make plays, while players who strictly play wide receiver potentially face double-teams from defenses that try to neutralize the opponent's top threat.

"If they really want to take you out of the game [as a receiver], they can," Brown said. "But unless you're going to be like USC and sky punt every ball and average 15 yards per punt like they tried to do with me my senior year, you've got to kick the ball to the guy. And all the pooch kicks on kickoffs and kickoff returns, well, that's an advantage to your offense, so from that standpoint, now you're affecting the game in more than just one facet.

"I'm looking for guys like that every year, believe me," Brown continued. "I want guys to win the trophy like I won the trophy. And it's hard for me to vote for a guy who's just going out there and catching passes."

As a former winner, Brown gets a Heisman vote every year. There are 929 eligible voters, comprised of media members and past winners. Each voter designates a player for first, second and third place. First-place votes are worth three points, second place two, and third place one.

'Big on the big stage'

Howard stressed another aspect of the Heisman campaign: showcasing your stuff when everyone's watching.

"It's not just a statistics award," Howard said. "You have to show up big on the big stage."

That was the case with Howard against Notre Dame. The game already was a must-watch because of the storied rivalry, but it helped that Michigan was ranked No. 3 and Notre Dame No. 7. As a result, Howard's diving TD catch became his "Heisman moment" because it was witnessed by a large audience.

"If that's against Purdue on a Saturday afternoon, it's a great catch, but it's not going to land me on the front cover of Sports Illustrated," Howard said. "It's not only what you do, it's when you do it. You have to show up on the big stage and do something significant or magnificent so people can really notice your talent."

That's not to say his four-TD game against Boston College a week earlier didn't matter.

"Maybe if I had scored one touchdown against Boston College, the statistics wouldn't have been as impressive," he said. "But to score four -- three receiving and one on a kickoff return -- I think made it that more relevant, like 'OK, this thing against Notre Dame isn't some sort of fluke.' "

Herbstreit agreed with his ESPN College GameDay partner.

"To win it as a receiver, I think it requires those highlight moments where you're walking through the family room, and you see that highlight and you stop and you hit rewind," Herbstreit said. "Or your buddy texts you or calls you and says, 'Oh my gosh, did you see so-and-so on that play?' "

Cooper's shot

SiriusXM Radio and MLB Network host Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, who has had a Heisman vote since the mid-1990s, said that he thinks a receiver will win the Heisman in the coming years, but that it would have to be a special player.

"I think eventually there will come a day, good team, so-so quarterback, huge wide receiver, a team that's right in the mix for the championship," Russo told Newsday. "Julio Jones would be the perfect example when he was with Alabama a few years ago. It'll be that kind of player who stands out on that kind of team that'll win the award."

Jones didn't finish in the top 10 in any Heisman voting from 2008-10. But four years after Jones left for the NFL, there is a Crimson Tide receiver who fits Russo's description.

Cooper has 103 catches for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns -- all among the top three in the nation -- through 12 games this season, with the SEC Championship Saturday, plus bowl games. The junior has put together three 200-yard receiving games, and 15 of his catches this season have gone for 25-plus yards. His biggest game came last week when he exploded for 13 catches, 224 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

But Cooper knows the Heisman is about more than just stats, citing ex-Crimson Tide Heisman winner Mark Ingram as an example.

"I think it's how the season goes, what team you play on, who you do it against," Cooper told Newsday. "I remember back when [Ingram] won the Heisman, he won it with 1,500 or 1,600 yards. It was a lot less than other running backs who had won it."

Ingram finished the 2009 season with 1,658 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns as Alabama (14-0) won the national championship.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said Cooper "has his own style" and can't be compared to any other receiver in program history.

"He's made a lot of big plays for us this year," Saban said on a conference call before this week's SEC Championship against Missouri. "I think he is probably one of the best wide receivers in the country. I don't get the opportunity to see them all. But he's certainly been a dynamic player for our team and has made a great contribution to our season."

The catch? He's done it exclusively as a wide receiver.

"It's up to the coaches," Cooper said about the possibility of returning kicks. "We have a lot of athletes who are really fast and do a good job back there."

But that's not to say he wouldn't want to try his hand at it some time.

"I think I can make an impact back there," Cooper said. "If I ever get the chance, that'd be nice."

At least one former Heisman winner seemed to be optimistic of Cooper's shot.

"I think Cooper definitely will," Brown said of Cooper's chance to be named a finalist. "He's been pretty dominant this year. The game he had [against Tennessee] didn't hurt him, that's for sure."

Cooper caught nine passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols on Oct. 25. Of course, Cooper's 10-catch, 201-yard, three-touchdown game against Florida on Sept. 20 didn't hurt either. Nor did that performance in the Iron Bowl, a game ESPN said was its most-viewed (13.5 million) and highest-rated (7.4) regular-season college football game on record since 1990.

That was Cooper's "Heisman moment." Will it be enough to make Cooper a Heisman winner?

"I think the Heisman race is a 'What have you done for me lately?' type of deal," Cooper said. "So since it was the last [regular-season] game and I played pretty good, I think it helped me out a bit."

Cooper seems to have almost all of the boxes checked for the first serious Heisman run by a receiver since Fitzgerald took second 11 years ago. And with the official Heisman finalist announcement coming Monday, there's a strong chance Cooper's name will be on the list. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota (3,470 passing yards, 36 TDs, two INTs, 636 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (2,260 rushing yards, 26 TDs) also are among the likely candidates to be a finalist.

"No doubt about it," Brown said, "he'll be in New York for the second weekend in December."

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