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Heisman Futures: What Does A Running Back Need To Do?

Justin Hartling's picture
Ohio State Buckeyes running back J.K. Dobbins gives a stiff arm to Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal

The Heisman Trophy is supposed to be awarded to the most outstanding player in college football every season. But more often than not, the term “player” means “quarterback.” Since 2000, a quarterback has been awarded the Heisman on 15 of 18 occasions.

The other three? They were all running backs.

This upcoming college football season is expected to be dominated by running backs. In fact, the two front-runners – according to oddsmakers – to win the Heisman next season are running backs. Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin (+750) and Bryce Love of Stanford (+800) are expected to be in a heated competition for the statue – with J.K. Dobbins (+1500) also in the mix. 

But what do those running backs need to accomplish in order to beat out not just one another but every other quarterback in the nation?

The three running backs to win a Heisman since the turn of the millennium are Derrick Henry in 2015, Mark Ingram in 2009 and Reggie Bush in 2005. And yes, Bush has since had his Heisman vacated but he is still one of the few benchmarks we have for what a running back needs to do in order to win the award.

Averages Of Last 3 Heisman-winning Running Backs
PlayerCarriesRushing YardsYPCRush TDsScrimmage Yards
Derrick Henry (2015)39522195.6282310
Mark Ingram (2009)27116586.1171992
Reggie Bush (2005)20017408.7162218

Of course, that trio of backs put up ridiculous numbers. If you look at the averages of Henry, Ingram and Bush as the standard for a running back to win the Heisman, you can truly see how impressive each of their seasons was. Just last season, only four running backs topped the benchmark above in rushing yards, seven in carries, three in yards per carry (minimum 200 rushing attempts) and three in touchdowns.  

However, both Taylor and Love surpassed two of the four averages listed above – Love was only 15 carries short of the Heisman average as well. Dobbins did not find his name in any of the categories – though he did average 7.2 yards per carry on 194 attempts – but keep in mind that he was a freshman last season and saw plenty of carries taken away due to J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber’s spot on the roster.

Taylor gets the edge over his competition largely due to how phenomenal he was during his freshman campaign. Despite being just 18 for the bulk of the 2017 college football season, he racked up 2,118 rushing yards on 8.1 yards per carry while finding the end zone on 19 occasions. In addition, the entirety of Wisconsin’s offensive line returns from last season, which means there is little reason to expect Taylor to falter.

The real wild card is Dobbins. It is clear that he is the best offensive player in Columbus this upcoming season and he was the shining star last season when given the opportunity. With quarterback Barrett gone, Dobbins will be asked to shoulder more of the running load this season – especially with new quarterback Dwayne Haskins expected to take over. If Haskins is the starter, it will be interesting to see how Dobbins is employed, as the offensive scheme would likely need to shift to a downfield passing attack to properly utilize Haskins’ strengths.

All these numbers don’t mean much if you look at one factor that is out of the players’ hands. The past two running backs to win the Heisman (Henry, Ingram) saw their biggest competition come from other backs (Christian McCaffrey, Toby Gerhart). Both 2015 and 2009 were somewhat down years for quarterbacks and so voters turned toward the backfield. And though there is no quarterback who stands out as a competitor for the Heisman, surely a few will emerge throughout the season.

That being said, if there was one year where you could expect a running back to win the Heisman, it is 2018.

2018 Heisman Trophy Winner
Jonathan Taylor (RB Wisconsin)+750
Bryce Love (RB Stanford)+800
Tua Tagovailoa (QB Alabama)+900
Trevor Lawrence (QB Clemson)+900
Jake Fromm (QB Georgia)+1200
Khalil Tate (QB Arizona)+1400
J.K. Dobbins (RB Ohio State)+1500
Jarrett Stidham (QB Auburn)+1600
Justin Herbert (QB Oregon)+1800
Trace McSorley (QB Penn State)+1800
Will Grier (QB West Virginia)+2000
Kelly Bryant (QB Clemson)+2000
Shea Patterson (QB Michigan)+2000
Jake Browning (QB Washington)+2200
Dwayne Haskins (QB Ohio State)+2200
Cam Akers (RB Florida State)+2500
Rodney Anderson (RB Oklahoma)+2500
Drew Lock (QB Missouri)+2500
McKenzie Milton (QB UCF)+2800
D’Andre Swift (RB Georgia)+2800
Brandon Wimbush (QB Notre Dame)+3500
Nick Fitzgerald (QB Mississippi State)+3500
Damien Harris (RB Alabama)+5000
Trevor Etienne (RB Clemson)+5500
Ryan Finley (QB NC State)+5500
David Sills (WR West Virginia)+6600
Ed Oliver (DL Houston)+6600
Nick Bosa (DL Ohio State)+6600
Justice Hill (RB Oklahoma State)+8800
Frank Nutil (QB Temple)+10000

Odds as of June 21 at Bovada