“To all the young kids out there, not the biggest, not the strongest, keep pushing, ’cause I’m not the biggest,” Smith said on ESPN.
In 20 of the 28 years between Howard and Smith, the Heisman had gotten snapped to quarterbacks, including the previous four years and nine of the past 10. Then voters in 2020 noticed Smith’s 98 catches for 1,511 yards before the College Football Playoff began; his 41 catches for 753 yards and nine touchdowns in Alabama’s four biggest games; his “Heisman moment” with an implausible end zone catch at LSU; his all-time lead in receiving yards and touchdowns at receiver haven Alabama; and, heck, maybe even the punt return touchdown he tossed onto the pile of plays. They decided the time had come even as it came only thrice previously for receivers: Howard, Tim Brown of Notre Dame in 1987 and Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska in 1972.
Smith’s margin of victory, 669 points over Trevor Lawrence, the dynastic Clemson quarterback, suggested less suspense in the ballots than seemed present in the run-up for an award that went in 2019 to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in the biggest landslide yet. Smith got 447 first-place votes and 1,856 points; with Lawrence next with 222 and 1,187; then Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with 138 and 1,130; then Florida quarterback Kyle Trask rounding out the finalists with 61 and 737. Smith’s winning margin was the second largest for a receiver, behind only Howard’s 1,574-point win over Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon in 1991.
As another emblem of Alabama dominance, fifth place went to Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris, who picked up 16 first-place votes and 216 points.
Thus did Alabama, mysteriously devoid of a Heisman winner through all its heydays from the award’s origin in 1935 to 2008, pick up its third in the past 12 presentations and its first for a non-running back. Its other two happened in squeakers: Mark Ingram Jr. by 28 points over Stanford running back Toby Gerhart in 2009, and Derrick Henry by 293 points over Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in 2015. This one went to a player who then hugged his teammate Jones, on site with Smith in Tuscaloosa, and then hugged his coach, Nick Saban, from whom all Crimson Tide blessings flow.
From his hometown in Amite City, along Interstate 55 not far from the Mississippi border, a community-center gathering of masked townspeople and family members felt the joy. “Continue being humble, let God guide him, and we are here to support him every step of the way,” his mother, Christina Smith-Sylve, told ESPN after the presentation.
She concluded by saying, “Roll Tide,” and most Louisianans surely forgave the sacrilege after a native of the talent-rich state claimed the trophy for just the second time — and the first since Texas A&M’s John David Crow in 1957.
Even without his 2020 season, Smith already had an all-time college football highlight when, as a freshman, he raced by a Georgia defender to haul in Tua Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to win the College Football Playoff title, 26-23, in overtime in Atlanta. His Heisman Trophy came 365 days after Jan. 6, 2020, when he wrote on Twitter: “There’s a lot I have left to accomplish as a player and as a student, and I feel that my time is not up at Alabama. I have unfinished business to take care of and the only way to do that is to stay one more year. After praying and talking with my family and Coach Saban, I’ve decided that I will return for my senior season.”
A year later almost on the dot, Smith took a lectern in the relative virtual silence of a room in Alabama, rather than in the usual New York, and thanked many people from his childhood to his college years. He thanked Alabama school president Stuart R. Bell and Athletic Director Greg Byrne for their roles in sustaining a season that might have gone blank during a pandemic.
“It’s just unbelievable, just coming from a small place like that,” he said of his hometown on ESPN. “I just really have to work day in and day out.” He looked at video of the community center and said, “Some of those people have seen me since I was a little kid, playing youth football and youth basketball.”
He had accessed a pinnacle for arguably the best position group in the sport: Alabama wide receivers. Smith credited the influence of the sparkling Tuscaloosa receivers room, which in recent years has seen Julio Jones and Amari Cooper; followed by Smith’s former teammates Jerry Jeudy, Calvin Ridley and Henry Ruggs III; and, among others, Jaylen Waddle, whose midseason injury threw more defensive attention on Smith, who handled it with aplomb. Of those, Cooper, of the Dallas Cowboys these days, had the best Heisman finish: third place in 2014 behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon III.
On Tuesday, those positions bowed to a guy dynamic enough to win it from the end.