Will a true freshman ever win the Heisman Trophy?
The short answer – probably not.
If this question was brought up before 2007, it’s highly likely those who asked it would have been laughed at.
Prior to 2007, the Heisman Trophy was only won by upperclassmen – juniors and seniors. That means it took 73 years for one sophomore to take home college football’s most coveted individual award. And Tim Tebow was no average sophomore.
But since Tebow’s historical Heisman victory, zero seniors and just two juniors – Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III – have hoisted the trophy come December.
Instead, the trend has shifted drastically younger. Two sophomores and two redshirt freshmen have won the award and as college football’s stars keep getting younger, the question of a true freshman winning the Heisman becomes more relevant.
Besides recent history, conversations of a true freshman winning the Heisman Trophy have spiked because of LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
Fournette is no ordinary true freshman. At 6-foot-1, 230-pounds, he has an NFL-ready body right now and he hasn’t even played a down in college. LSU’s offensive line returns four starters and is expected to be one of the best in the SEC. He plays a dominant position and LSU starts the season off ranked No. 13, making the Tigers one of the premier contenders to reach the College Football Playoff. If the hype surrounding Fournette is even close to reality, it seems Fournette could compete for the award.
It’s great to build up a player and talk about him making history, but you can’t ignore the factors going against Fournette and future true freshman Heisman candidates. The difficulty in making the transition from high school to college football is virtually unparalleled in other sports. Nothing can prepare you for your first year in the SEC, let alone in college football. The difference in size, speed and athleticism between college and high school competition is incomparable. It usually takes the best of freshman at least half a season or a full year to adjust, maybe even longer (see Dorial Green-Beckham). For every five-star recruit that comes into college that significantly contributes as a true freshman, there’s about a dozen that are forced to wait to contribute And that won’t change, at least any time soon.
I’m not going to go out and make a “bold prediction” and say Fournette wins the Heisman. Chances are, he won’t. Everything – and I mean everything – would have to go right for Fournette to make history, which means at least 2,000 yards rushing, a CFB playoff run and he’d have to be the clear-cut winner among a number of dynamic players in college football.
However, the trend is shifting in favor of these younger players. With the immense amount of media coverage throughout college football, voters are exposed to virtually every player in college football and practically into high school. Fans and voters know about the most talented of players as early as their freshman or sophomore year in high school. Social media has opened up so many new doors for schools and how they can campaign for their players to be considered for the Heisman. The list goes on and on.
In addition to the media coverage, offensive systems are evolving into high-powered machines, and teams are scoring upward of 40 or even 50 points per game. The offensive numbers are higher than they’ve ever been, which provides more opportunities to the players in systems that are designed around their skill sets (see Auburn, Baylor, Oregon, etc).
Hypothetically, if there ever was a true freshman to win the Heisman, it would probably be a quarterback. The QBs are the stars of college football now, more so than the running backs. Often times, they are the team’s most athletic player and as offenses continue to push the pace, quarterbacks are taking an increased number of snaps than in prior decades, which gives them more chances to put up higher numbers.
Offenses are evolving, but true freshman quarterbacks still have the deck stacked against them. The youngest of Heisman winners – Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston – needed a redshirt year before getting the opportunity to compete on the field. And even they had struggles during their Heisman season, albeit mostly off-the-field.
If I had to say whether a true freshman would win the Heisman Trophy – I just don’t see it. There are just too many on-the-field factors working against true freshmen With both the mental and physical adjustments that true freshmen endure, it would take a caliber of player unlike we have seen before – a true prodigy.