Yards per play and the Heisman

Advanced analytics has become all the rage in sports of late, with several new metrics being created to determine the effectiveness of teams and individual players.

While the craze has yet to fully envelop our understanding of college football statistics, there are some standards that guide us well in measuring which players are the most efficient at producing yardage.

The best metric we have right now for gauging offensive players in this area is yards per play. This figure is devised by dividing total yards gained rushing and passing by the number of plays run. When adjusted for opponent difficulty, pace and garbage time, this number paints a fairly clear picture of what a player can do.

The history of Heisman winners and yards per play is a bit difficult to catalogue. Statistics for large chunks of earlier eras are spotty at best and it’s very tough to adjust the final total due to the lack of documentation available. Nonetheless, we did a little research and came up with a list of the Heisman winners who produced the best yards per play.

The king of this metric, for our purposes, is Glenn Davis of Army. As a 1944 sophomore, “Mr. Outside” finished second in the Heisman race to Ohio State’s Les Horvath, but his season was one for the ages — perhaps the best by a sophomore in history.

Davis attempted 11 passes for 197 yards and rushed 58 times for 667 yards. His 864 yards of total offense on 69 plays meant he averaged an astounding 12.5 yards per play. Before you shrug off what seems like a meager offensive total, keep in mind that Davis — like every other player of that time — also played defense.

So, technically, Davis’ best season didn’t come when he finally captured the Heisman in 1946. But it’s fairly safe to conclude that his 12.5 yards per play total is the top figure produced by any Heisman winner at any point.

That all said, here are the top 14 yards-per-play totals for Heisman winners (in their trophy-winning seasons) from the modern era*:

WinnerYearYards per Play
Kyler Murray201810.68
Baker Mayfield201710.24
Jameis Winston20139.42
Sam Bradford20089.39
Marcus Mariota20149.01
Chris Weinke20008.83
Robert Griffin III20118.74
Danny Wuerffel19958.33
Cam Newton20108.19
Ty Detmer19908.07
Johnny Manziel20127.87
Lamar Jackson20167.64
Barry Sanders19887.60
Charlie Ward19937.58









* — numbers are from at the time of the Heisman vote.

A few notes from this ranking:

— If there’s any better way to put into context the impact Kyler Murray had while winning the Heisman in 2018, it might be his position at the top of this chart. Keep in mind that his passer rating of 205.72 at the time of the Heisman vote is also the best of all time.

— Sam Bradford is not far behind Murray, Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston, but his accomplishments from the 2008 season gets overshadowed at times in Heisman lore. His 53 combined touchdowns running and passing at the time of the vote is tied with Marcus Mariota‘s 2014 season as a Heisman record.

— The term ‘once in a decade talent’ gets thrown around a lot, but Florida State has three quarterbacks from three different decades in this ranking. That points to the staying power of the Seminoles when it comes to recruiting.

— Is anyone surprised that the great Barry Sanders is the only running back to make this list?

— Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (10.39), Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts (10.06), Utah’s Tyler Huntley (9.73) and LSU’s Joe Burrow (9.38) — among others — have a chance to make it on this list if they win the Heisman this season.