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Non-QBs Could Make Heisman Push

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Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads a strong field of running backs who are dark horses for this year's Heisman Trophy. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads a strong field of running backs who are dark horses for this year's Heisman Trophy. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.

Here he comes, Mr. Heisman.

It’s all a beauty pageant. The most outstanding college player in the country comes with requirements. Aside from gaudy numbers, you must be on a BCS-qualifying team or have posted an NCAA record. Either one may get you a seat in New York.

Or, you could be a quarterback.

The age of the running back in college football is over. For 12 straight seasons, from 1972-83, all Heisman Trophy winners were running backs. From 1990-99, six of the 10 winners were non-quarterbacks and four were running backs. During the next decade, the first nine selections were quarterbacks. Only Alabama running back Mark Ingram kept it from being a quarterback sweep by taking the Heisman in 2009. Since then, of course, three more quarterbacks have won.

The quarterback love carnival isn’t exactly a new trend. In fact, the NCAA is just following its big brother, the NFL, which gave seven of its past 10 MVPs to quarterbacks. But when there’s Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who’s to argue? The game has changed and we clearly like it. Viewership is higher than ever, but that doesn't mean tailbacks are any less deserving.  

In college, some of the quarterbacks to have won the Heisman during the last 15 years have included Troy Smith, Jason White, Eric Crouch and Chris Weinke. Are we really saying that Weinke deserved the award over LaDanian Tomlinson (who finished fourth), with his 2,158 yards passing and 22 scores? Or how about White (3,846 yards, 40 TDs, 10 picks) swiping it from second-place sophomore WR Larry Fitzgerald (1,672 yards, 22 TDs)?

We get it: Quarterback is the most important position on the field. But when choosing the Heisman, a winner should be selected based on his skill and performance. Running backs and receivers cannot become extinct from this competition.

Unfortunately, it’s looking like more of the same this year. The favorites are quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Tahj Boyd and Jameis Winston. Other quarterbacks, like Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Hundley, A.J. McCarron and Bryce Petty, fall just behind in that elite field for the Heisman. 

Watching these guys is awesome, no doubt. What Mariota and Manziel can do on a football field is the stuff of Heisman winners, which Manziel already knows. What Winston is doing as a freshman is legendary, Petty is prolific and McCarron is near perfect. 

While these guys deservedly are stealing headlines, once again, there is a handful of trophy-worthy non-quarterbacks who are steadfastly — and ever so productively — going about their business.

If the second half of this season plays out similar to the first, a couple of these quarterbacks should be joined in New York by players who don’t wear red pinnies at practice.

Wisconsin dynamo Melvin Gordon is torching defenses so far this season. He ranks third in the country in rushing with 870 yards on just 90 carries, which ranks 52nd in the country. That’s 9.7 yards per attempt to go with eight scores. If you want Heisman moments, Gordon has three touchdown runs longer than 70 yards. He also rushed for 193 yards against Arizona State and 172 yards against Northwestern.

Gordon has gotten the tough tests out of the way. He faces only one remaining defense — Iowa — that allows less than 100 rushing yards a game. He also will get to carry the ball against Illinois and Indiana, the two teams that give up the most rushing yards in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin can win out over the rest of its schedule for a 10-2 record and a possible big bowl game. If Gordon keeps his torrid pace, he could have about 1,800 yards rushing and 20-plus scores (while sharing carries). Those numbers would be much better than the last running back to win the Heisman Trophy, Alabama's Mark Ingram, who reigned in 2009 with 1,658 yards rushing, 17 TDs and an average of 6.1 yards per carry.

Gordon is not the only running back tearing up the turf in limited use this season. Lache Seastrunk is doing notable work for Baylor, which is mostly using its passing game to average 60 points a game.

Seastrunk, though, is averaging 10 yards a carry and is dazzling on the field. He has 648 yards on just 65 carries, but still should finish with more than 1,000 yards and 15 or so touchdowns. He’s getting plenty of ink at the moment because of Baylor’s point-spewing offense. I think that will change, though, once the Bears play the likes of Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas and TCU.

Seastrunk also will lose Heisman votes to his teammate, Petty. Both will be in the running if the Bears keep winning, but neither will high-step the other, as they block each other’s path.

Seastrunk is one of the most skilled and determined backs in the game. He is filthy, an absolute blazer who is nimble and capable of putting up numbers against big-time programs. If he can continue to do that, he'll stay in the conversation.

A straight-up wide receiver never has won the Heisman. While Desmond Howard (’91) and Tim Brown (’87) both were receivers, their big Heisman moments came as return men.

But we’ve been close.

Fitzgerald finished second in the 2003 Heisman voting and Michael Crabtree finished fifth in 2007. Oddsmakers this season like Clemson's Sammy Watkins as the top wideout in the race, but that’s only because the Tigers still are unbeaten. Fact is, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State is quietly — at least for everyone outside the Northwest — having one of the best receiving seasons in college football history.

After six games, Cooks tops the nation in catches (63), yards (944) and touchdowns (11). Think about that. If he keeps it up, he’ll top 120 receptions and near 2,000 yards with 20-plus TDs — as a receiver. He also has 106 yards rushing and a score.

To put that in perspective, Crabtree set single-season receiving records at Texas Tech for catches (134), yardage (1,962) and touchdowns (22). Fitzgerald went 92/1,672/22 in his second-place Heisman season and Randy Moss’ best year at Marshall was 90/1,647/25.

If things shake out, Cooks is right there. After an embarrassing season-opening loss to Eastern Washington, the Beavers have won five straight, are 3-0 in the Pac-12 and with a couple upsets, could make a run at a BCS game. If that happens and Cooks reaches 100/2,000/20, he should be seated in New York.

In the end, do I think these outsiders can, or should, win the Heisman Trophy? No. That’s why they are outsiders. Still, they deserve to be noticed for the things they are doing on the field.

Right now, the Heisman Trophy is Mariota’s to lose, but if he does falter in the second half, those quarterbacks behind him aren’t so stable either. Gordon, Seastrunk or Cooks have the potential to sneak up on the voters.