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Heisman Watch: Washington’s Shaq Thompson likely won’t win award, but it’s time to take notice

Duke Johnson’s play has surged of late. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Heisman Trophy debuted in 1935, then it took 27 years for it to go to anyone playing football west of Texas, only partly because Americans tend to be lousy at geography and did not realize anything west of Texas existed.

The time-honored Eastern bias held on in a species which tends to favor its nearby athletes, until the 1962 award finally went to a guy who had such shining college days that the insular Easterners could spot him all the way out in Corvallis, Ore.

Oregon State Quarterback Terry Baker not only won the Heisman that November, but played in the basketball Final Four as a point guard four months after that, all while majoring in mechanical engineering before getting a law degree at Southern California. (You wonder if he was actually two people.) He was good enough that the first west-of-Texas Heisman could go not only to the Pacific Coast, but to the hushed Pacific Northwest.

It has never gone there again.

Not only does it look like it could go there in the next few weeks, but that gorgeous and sensible pocket of the country ought to send two players to New York.

In solving the Stanford brain-teaser — and body-crusher — that has beset Oregon in recent years, quarterback Marcus Mariota just lurched ahead in the 2014 Heisman race. It is not so jarring. Mariota contended on many a list in the summertime as well as some lists from springtime, last winter, and the moments just after the last Heisman, when the new Heisman lists began. He has always bubbled near the top through this season, even as his Ducks took a home loss to Arizona and everyone worried for his safety given the ailing offensive line.

The Ducks seem to have emerged from that. They just trumped the Stanford bugaboo Saturday, 45-16. They’re probably headed into the top four Tuesday night in the second College Football Playoff committee findings. And their captivating quarterback from Hawaii has a touchdown-interception ratio of 26-to-2. He also rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns against Stanford’s outstanding defense.

With all of that, he has inched past for now the admirable quarterback Dak Prescott of No. 1 Mississippi State, who did pilot a 17-10 home win over Arkansas while clearly sub-100-percent physically, and who did scramble to his left from a horde of Hog chasers to find a frighteningly open Fred Ross for the winning 69-yard touchdown. He did pass for 331 yards while throwing two interceptions.

And while Mariota and Prescott both clearly belong among the invitees to New York pending the final weeks, Mariota might want to stop by Seattle and collect a rival on his way.

Shaq Thompson is not going to win the Heisman, but he would be a credit to the award. The Sacramento-raised student at Washington is a football marvel. Playing the first half of the season predominantly as a linebacker bound for shelves full of honors, Thompson not only played Hercules on the Huskies’ defense — and defense is important! — but returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown, a fumble 32 yards for a touchdown and a fumble 100 yards for a touchdown.

When the team needed help at running back, he went over there, where the last two weeks he gained 98 yards against Arizona State and 215 all-purpose yards against Colorado, including a 24-yard touchdown run and a 41-yard catch-and-run to set up another score.

He’s happy to help out, but when Seattle reporters asked for his true wish, he said of linebacker, “You get to hit people instead of getting hit.”

What a player.

Some other contenders, bubbling just below:

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He didn’t play on Saturday, and defensive backs across the country felt unexplained pangs of relief. Next he’ll play at LSU and home to Mississippi State, and defensive backs will be troubled again.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (Fla.): Every so often, a player will prove consistently good enough to edge his way into a first mention come November. Johnson began this season with steady games of 90, 97, 90 and 93 yards, then has gone for 155, 100, 162, 249 and 177.

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana: Here’s to the guy on the 3-5 team, because we should always acknowledge the honest effort of really good players on 3-5 teams. His 108 yards at Michigan pushed him to 1,300 for the season.