Yards per play and the Heisman

Which winners were the most efficient?

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 12 yards-per-play totals for Heisman winners (in their trophy-winning seasons) from the modern era*:

Winner Year Yards per Play
Jameis Winston 2013 9.42
Sam Bradford 2008 9.39
Marcus Mariota 2014 9.01
Chris Weinke 2000 8.83
Robert Griffin III 2011 8.74
Danny Wuerffel 1995 8.33
Cam Newton 2010 8.19
Ty Detmer 1990 8.07
Johnny Manziel 2012 7.87
Lamar Jackson 2016 7.64
Barry Sanders 1988 7.60
Charlie Ward 1993 7.58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* — 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 Jameis Winston had while winning the Heisman in 2013, it might be his position at the top of this chart. Keep in mind that his passer rating of 190.05 at the time of the Heisman vote is also a close second to Robert Griffin III‘s record efficiency rating of 192.31 in 2011.

— Sam Bradford is just a sliver behind Winston. His accomplishments from the 2008 season gets overshadowed at times in Heisman lore, but 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?

— Arizona’s Khalil Tate (10.45), Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (10.20), UCF’s Mackenzie Milton (9.95) and Stanford’s Bryce Love (9.64) are all current Heisman candidates who, if they win the trophy, have a shot at topping Winston’s record.