Heisman launching points

When Louisville’s Lamar Jackson captured the 2016 Heisman Trophy, it continued three very important trends in the award’s history.

First, Jackson was the 10th-consecutive non-senior to win the Heisman. An honor once dominated by the senior class — 25 of the first 28 and 56 of the first 70 Heisman winners were seniors — did not have a senior winner between Troy Smith and Baker Mayfield.

Second, Jackson’s honor was the first for Louisville, marking the fourth time in the past nine years that a school has won its first Heisman. This mirrors the overall trend in college football, as scholarship parity and other factors have enabled less storied programs to break into the national title picture.

Finally, Jackson continued the recent trend of players coming from relative obscurity to win the Heisman. Indeed, until Mayfield won the Heisman in 2017 after placing third in 2016, the last Heisman winner to finish in the top 10 of the Heisman vote the year before winning the Heisman was Matt Leinart in 2004. Since 2006, we’ve seen three true sophomores, a redshirt sophomore, two redshirt freshmen and a JC transfer win the Heisman.

This trend is actually not an isolated one in Heisman history. For instance, none of the Heisman winners from 1960 to 1966 managed to chart in the Heisman top 10 the year before winning the Heisman either. The four Heisman winners between 1949 and 1952 didn’t.  In fact, of the 83 Heismans awarded, just 33 have gone to players who prefaced their Heisman-winning seasons by placing in the top 10 of the Heisman vote.

Of course, it’s not easy to define what exactly qualifies as ‘coming from obscurity’, which is why previous Heisman balloting is not the only metric upon which to base this assessment. While Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 without any preseason fanfare, his name was well-known in college football thanks to his play as an oft-used backup to Chris Leak during Florida’s 2006 national title run. Though Marcus Mariota didn’t receive any significant Heisman support prior to 2014, he had already established himself as a premier player in his first two seasons at Oregon. Finally, while Derrick Henry was by no means a preseason favorite for the 2015 Heisman, his status as a high-profile prep recruit playing for the No. 1 team in the country (for whom he had already showed flashes of greatness) meant Heisman voters were well aware of his presence heading into his junior season.

So let’s look back and chart the relative obscurity levels of past Heisman winners. In the chart below, we record which players earned All-American honors, All-Conference first-team honors, or finished in the top 10 of the Heisman vote the year before winning the trophy. Thirty-four of them failed to hit any of these metrics. The Heisman quests of these 34 players, while sharing the same qualities, were not equally obscure at the start, however. For instance, though Billy VesselsEarl CampbellBilly Sims and Bo Jackson all battled injuries prior to their Heisman seasons, their talents were already established. Meanwhile, Les Horvath spent 1943 going to dental school after starring in the Big Ten the previous season.

Six players set the standard for ‘coming out of nowhere’ to win the Heisman. None received honors or recognition heading into their Heisman-winning seasons and all had little-to-no established standard of play at their positions at the Division One/FBS level prior to winning.

Vic Janowicz – He played defensive back as a 1949 sophomore, switched to offense and won the Heisman in 1950 as a junior halfback.
John Huarte – After two seasons at Notre Dame, he had all of 50 attempted passes to his credit. He then cruised to the Heisman as a senior.
Jason White – He had 871 passing yards in three injury-riddled seasons before blossoming in 2003.
Cam Newton – He had 54 passing yards at the FBS level before winning the Heisman in 2010 as a double transfer (Florida/JC).
Johnny Manziel – He redshirted his first season at Texas A&M.
Jameis Winston – He redshirted his first season at Florida State.

These six Heisman winners prove that, while preseason hype can be helpful, the Heisman is always won on the field in the end.

Winner Year Team All-American Honors Previous Year?* All-Conference Previous Year?# Heisman Top 10?
Jay Berwanger 1935 Chicago Yes Yes N/A
Larry Kelley 1936 Yale No Yes No
Clint Frank 1937 Yale Yes Yes 5th in 1936
Davey O’Brien 1938 TCU No No No
Nile Kinnick 1939 Iowa No No No
Tom Harmon 1940 Michigan Yes Yes 2nd in 1939
Bruce Smith 1941 Minnesota No No No
Frank Sinkwich 1942 Georgia Yes Yes 4th in 1941
Angelo Bertelli 1943 Notre Dame Yes N/A 6th in 1942
Les Horvath 1944 Ohio State No No No
Doc Blanchard 1945 Army Yes N/A 3rd in 1944
Glenn Davis 1946 Army Yes N/A 2nd in 1945
John Lujack 1947 Notre Dame Yes N/A 3rd in 1946
Doak Walker 1948 SMU Yes Yes 3rd in 1947
Leon Hart 1949 Notre Dame Yes N/A No
Vic Janowicz 1950 Ohio State No No No
Dick Kazmaier 1951 Princeton Yes Yes No
Billy Vessels 1952 Oklahoma No No No
John Lattner 1953 Notre Dame Yes N/A 5th in 1952
Alan Ameche 1954 Wisconsin Yes Yes 6th in 1953
Howard Cassady 1955 Ohio State Yes Yes 3rd in 1954
Paul Hornung 1956 Notre Dame Yes N/A 5th in 1955
John David Crow 1957 Texas A&M Yes No No
Pete Dawkins 1958 Army No N/A No
Billy Cannon 1959 LSU Yes Yes 3rd in 1958
Joe Bellino 1960 Navy No N/A No
Ernie Davis 1961 Syracuse Yes N/A No
Terry Baker 1962 Oregon St. No N/A No
Roger Staubach 1963 Navy No N/A No
John Huarte 1964 Notre Dame No N/A No
Mike Garrett 1965 USC Yes Yes No
Steve Spurrier 1966 Florida Yes Yes 9th in 1965
Gary Beban 1967 UCLA Yes Yes 4th in 1966
OJ Simpson 1968 USC Yes Yes 2nd in 1967
Steve Owens 1969 Oklahoma Yes Yes No
Jim Plunkett 1970 Stanford Yes Yes 8th in 1969
Pat Sullivan 1971 Auburn No Yes 6th in 1970
Johnny Rodgers 1972 Nebraska Yes Yes No
John Cappelletti 1973 Penn State No N/A No
Archie Griffin 1974 Ohio State Yes Yes 5th in 1973
Archie Griffin 1975 Ohio State Yes Yes 1st in 1974
Tony Dorsett 1976 Pittsburgh Yes N/A 4th in 1975
Earl Campbell 1977 Texas No No No
Billy Sims 1978 Oklahoma No No No
Charles White 1979 USC Yes Yes 4th in 1978
George Rogers 1980 South Carolina Yes N/A 7th in 1979
Marcus Allen 1981 USC Yes Yes No
Herschel Walker 1982 Georgia Yes Yes 2nd in 1981
Mike Rozier 1983 Nebraska Yes Yes 10th in 1982
Doug Flutie 1984 Boston College Yes N/A 3rd in 1984
Bo Jackson 1985 Auburn No No No
Vinny Testaverde 1986 Miami Yes N/A 5th in 1985
Tim Brown 1987 Notre Dame Yes N/A No
Barry Sanders 1988 Oklahoma St. Yes (see @ note) No No
Andre Ware 1989 Houston No No No
Ty Detmer 1990 BYU Yes Yes 9th in 1989
Desmond Howard 1991 Michigan No No No
Gino Torretta 1992 Miami No N/A No
Charlie Ward 1993 Florida State No Yes 6th in 1992
Rashaan Salaam 1994 Colorado No No No
Eddie George 1995 Ohio State No No No
Danny Wuerffel 1996 Florida Yes Yes 3rd in 1996
Charles Woodson 1997 Michigan Yes Yes No
Ricky Williams 1998 Texas Yes Yes 5th in 1997
Ron Dayne 1999 Wisconsin Yes Yes No
Chris Weinke 2000 Florida State No No No
Eric Crouch 2001 Nebraska No No No
Carson Palmer 2002 USC No No No
Jason White 2003 Oklahoma No No No
Matt Leinart 2004 USC No Yes 6th in 2003
Troy Smith 2006 Ohio State No No No
Tim Tebow 2007 Florida No No No
Sam Bradford 2008 Oklahoma No No No
Mark Ingram 2009 Alabama No No No
Cam Newton 2010 Auburn No No No
Robert Griffin III 2011 Baylor No No No
Johnny Manziel 2012 Texas A&M No No No
Jameis Winston 2013 Florida State No No No
Marcus Mariota 2014 Oregon No Yes No
Derrick Henry 2015 Alabama No No No
Lamar Jackson 2016 Louisville No No No
Baker Mayfield 2017 Oklahoma No Yes 3rd in 2016

* – 1st, 2nd or 3rd team honors
# – 1st team honors
@ – Sanders made AP 2nd team All-American as a kick returner