If you remember the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner as Deshaun Watson of Clemson, that’s fine. From here, a season removed, Watson had the greatest impact on the sport, and his team won the greatest prize, and he must have taken the hardware.
If you entered this season thinking the Heisman favorite was Sam Darnold of Southern Cal, that’s fine, too, because the last time he appeared on a field, in the Rose Bowl against Penn State, he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns and looked very much like he could quarterback the New York Jets a day later.
And then the 2017 season starts, and you’re reminded: Oh, yeah. Lamar Jackson.
“I mean, the guy is very, very special,” said North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora, whose team was torched by Jackson for six (six!) touchdowns last week. “I don’t care who he plays against.”
This week, he plays against Clemson.
“Oh, man,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said.
Now, only one man has won the Heisman Trophy twice, and that was Archie Griffin, the running back from Ohio State. Griffin is 63 years old. This is not because only seniors win this award. In fact, there hasn’t been a senior as a Heisman winner in more than a decade.
So here comes Jackson, the junior quarterback of the Louisville Cardinals. A year ago, he used a losing effort at Clemson — in which he accounted for 457 yards of total offense and three scores , up against Watson’s 397 yards of total offense and five scores (with three picks ) — to introduce himself as a Heisman hopeful.
Now Jackson and the Cardinals will host the Tigers, who are without Watson but with perhaps the country’s most destructive defensive front. And the Heisman winner that defensive front will confront is . . . better?
“I think he’s much improved as a passer,” Fedora said.
Before we examine that claim — and, just two games into a season in which Jackson has already produced 1,010 yards and eight scores combined on the ground and through the air, there’s plenty of evidence that Fedora’s right — there is the matter of that cast bronze statuette awarded each December in Manhattan.
Starting with the award’s inception in 1935, the first 10 Heismans went to seniors. By the time Griffin won as a junior in 1974, there had been 35 seniors and just four juniors . The opportunity to repeat was rare.
Now the award’s trends have completely flipped. The last senior to win the Heisman was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. There had never been a sophomore winner until Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007 — and he was the first of three straight. No freshman won the award before Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 — and then Florida State frosh Jameis Winston won the next year.
And yet none of the underclassmen repeated.
Of course, several — Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry from the past decade alone — won the trophy and went straight to the NFL. But wouldn’t the odds have it that one of these other players would repeat?
Has recent college football produced a bigger star than Tebow? The Florida great won his award in a year in which his team went a pedestrian 9-4 — when he accounted for an astounding 55 touchdowns. Yet even as he led Florida to the national championship as a junior in 2008, he produced 762 fewer yards of total offense and 13 fewer touchdowns and finished third behind Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy .
Bradford was just a sophomore, but his repeat attempt was derailed by a shoulder injury suffered in the opener, a problem that put him out for the year by October. So Alabama running back Mark Ingram, also a sophomore, edged out Stanford back Toby Gerhart in the closest Heisman race in history (1,304 votes to 1,276 votes). But Ingram’s repeat effort went awry from the start. He missed the Tide’s first two games with a knee injury, and he ran for barely half the yards he had as a sophomore. So Newton, as electric a college performer as there has been for a generation, easily seized the award in his only season at Auburn, a year that produced a national title.
Manziel joins Tebow in the conversation as the sport’s biggest star of the past two decades, and his sophomore year produced a higher completion percentage, more touchdown passes and a higher quarterback rating than his Heisman-winning freshman campaign. But he didn’t have the sport-shaking victory over Alabama that he notched as a freshman, and Texas A&M lost four games. Thus, Winston and his 40 touchdown passes stepped through the crack in the door en route to a national title. And when Winston followed by throwing fewer touchdowns and more interceptions as a sophomore, well, there was Mariota — beating him in the Heisman race, in which Winston came in sixth, and then in the college football playoff.
So entering this year, it was easy to dismiss Jackson as a back-to-back winner because what evidence do we have, over the past 40 seasons, that such a creature existed? Both Darnold and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield entered the year as betting favorites over Jackson, and you could get decent odds, before the openers, on Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett or Penn State running back Saquon Barkley .
And then they started playing football again. And Jackson stepped in, confounding first Purdue, then North Carolina .
“He’s not a player that you can assign a single defender to,” said Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team allowed Jackson 449 yards of offense and four touchdowns last season and must face him again this fall. “It takes a player down the middle and usually one on both sides of him. . . . You run out of numbers if you have to put that many on the quarterback. . . . It’s an amazing challenge.”
The challenge, this week, falls to Clemson. Swinney’s midweek assessment is that Jackson is “as good a player as there is on the planet.” He referred to this season simply as “Part Two.”
And Part Two could be better. One play from last week’s game against the Tar Heels shows how. Midway through the second quarter, Carolina came with a corner blitz from Jackson’s right. Last year, Jackson had the athletic ability to sidestep a single rusher and gain yardage. This year, though, when confronted with an unblocked defender, Jackson not only dodged him with ease but kept his eyes downfield. The play, on which a normal quarterback would have been dead, turned into a 75-yard touchdown pass.
He is a better passer than Tebow. He is a better runner than Manziel. He is Vince Young. He is Michael Vick. He might be better than them all. He is your 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, even if you need a reminder.
Could he win it again?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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