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.

WinnerYearTeamAll-American Honors Previous Year?*All-Conference Previous Year?#Heisman Top 10?
Jay Berwanger1935ChicagoYesYesN/A
Larry Kelley1936YaleNoYesNo
Clint Frank1937YaleYesYes5th in 1936
Davey O’Brien1938TCUNoNoNo
Nile Kinnick1939IowaNoNoNo
Tom Harmon1940MichiganYesYes2nd in 1939
Bruce Smith1941MinnesotaNoNoNo
Frank Sinkwich1942GeorgiaYesYes4th in 1941
Angelo Bertelli1943Notre DameYesN/A6th in 1942
Les Horvath1944Ohio StateNoNoNo
Doc Blanchard1945ArmyYesN/A3rd in 1944
Glenn Davis1946ArmyYesN/A2nd in 1945
John Lujack1947Notre DameYesN/A3rd in 1946
Doak Walker1948SMUYesYes3rd in 1947
Leon Hart1949Notre DameYesN/ANo
Vic Janowicz1950Ohio StateNoNoNo
Dick Kazmaier1951PrincetonYesYesNo
Billy Vessels1952OklahomaNoNoNo
John Lattner1953Notre DameYesN/A5th in 1952
Alan Ameche1954WisconsinYesYes6th in 1953
Howard Cassady1955Ohio StateYesYes3rd in 1954
Paul Hornung1956Notre DameYesN/A5th in 1955
John David Crow1957Texas A&MYesNoNo
Pete Dawkins1958ArmyNoN/ANo
Billy Cannon1959LSUYesYes3rd in 1958
Joe Bellino1960NavyNoN/ANo
Ernie Davis1961SyracuseYesN/ANo
Terry Baker1962Oregon St.NoN/ANo
Roger Staubach1963NavyNoN/ANo
John Huarte1964Notre DameNoN/ANo
Mike Garrett1965USCYesYesNo
Steve Spurrier1966FloridaYesYes9th in 1965
Gary Beban1967UCLAYesYes4th in 1966
OJ Simpson1968USCYesYes2nd in 1967
Steve Owens1969OklahomaYesYesNo
Jim Plunkett1970StanfordYesYes8th in 1969
Pat Sullivan1971AuburnNoYes6th in 1970
Johnny Rodgers1972NebraskaYesYesNo
John Cappelletti1973Penn StateNoN/ANo
Archie Griffin1974Ohio StateYesYes5th in 1973
Archie Griffin1975Ohio StateYesYes1st in 1974
Tony Dorsett1976PittsburghYesN/A4th in 1975
Earl Campbell1977TexasNoNoNo
Billy Sims1978OklahomaNoNoNo
Charles White1979USCYesYes4th in 1978
George Rogers1980South CarolinaYesN/A7th in 1979
Marcus Allen1981USCYesYesNo
Herschel Walker1982GeorgiaYesYes2nd in 1981
Mike Rozier1983NebraskaYesYes10th in 1982
Doug Flutie1984Boston CollegeYesN/A3rd in 1984
Bo Jackson1985AuburnNoNoNo
Vinny Testaverde1986MiamiYesN/A5th in 1985
Tim Brown1987Notre DameYesN/ANo
Barry Sanders1988Oklahoma St.Yes (see @ note)NoNo
Andre Ware1989HoustonNoNoNo
Ty Detmer1990BYUYesYes9th in 1989
Desmond Howard1991MichiganNoNoNo
Gino Torretta1992MiamiNoN/ANo
Charlie Ward1993Florida StateNoYes6th in 1992
Rashaan Salaam1994ColoradoNoNoNo
Eddie George1995Ohio StateNoNoNo
Danny Wuerffel1996FloridaYesYes3rd in 1996
Charles Woodson1997MichiganYesYesNo
Ricky Williams1998TexasYesYes5th in 1997
Ron Dayne1999WisconsinYesYesNo
Chris Weinke2000Florida StateNoNoNo
Eric Crouch2001NebraskaNoNoNo
Carson Palmer2002USCNoNoNo
Jason White2003OklahomaNoNoNo
Matt Leinart2004USCNoYes6th in 2003
Troy Smith2006Ohio StateNoNoNo
Tim Tebow2007FloridaNoNoNo
Sam Bradford2008OklahomaNoNoNo
Mark Ingram2009AlabamaNoNoNo
Cam Newton2010AuburnNoNoNo
Robert Griffin III2011BaylorNoNoNo
Johnny Manziel2012Texas A&MNoNoNo
Jameis Winston2013Florida StateNoNoNo
Marcus Mariota2014OregonNoYesNo
Derrick Henry2015AlabamaNoNoNo
Lamar Jackson2016LouisvilleNoNoNo
Baker Mayfield2017OklahomaNoYes3rd in 2016

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