Heisman Check-In: The Case for the Michigan Man

By Aaron Weiss

With the college football season about 3/4ths finished, and with the official College Football Playoffs finally getting their first release a few days ago, the race for the Heisman Trophy has narrowed down to five players:

  1. QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
  2. QB Jake Browning, Washington
  3. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
  4. LB Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
  5. RB Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State

If I were a betting a man I’d guess that the reward will either go to Jackson or Watson, most likely the former. In the past two decades the Heisman, like the NFL MVP award, has become incredibly biased towards quarterbacks. Here’s a quick breakdown of Heisman recipients by decade (note that in circumstances where a player played multiple positions, if a dominant position could not be identified the player would be counted for each position played. Also for the sake of convenience Bush’s forfeited 2005 award is included)

1935-1939: HB (60%), QB (40%), End (20%)

1940-1949: HB (60%), QB (30%), End (10%), FB (10%)

1950-1959: HB (80%), QB (10%), FB (10%), P (10%)

1960-1969: QB (50%), HB (40%), FB (20%), LB (10%)

1970-1979: RB (80%), QB (20%), WR (10%)

1980-1989: RB (60%), QB (30%), WR (10%)

1990-1999: RB (40%), QB (40%), Punt Returner (20%), WR (10%), CB (10%)

2000-2009: QB (80%), RB (20%)

2010 – 2015: QB (83%), RB (17%)

There has only been 6 instances in 81 years where the recipient was not a RB or a QB: Larry Kelley (End), Leon Hart (End), Johnny Rodgers (WR, although he also ran the ball 73 times), Tim Brown (WR), Desmond Howard (WR), and Charles Woodson (Cornerback). (It should be noted that 1961 winner Ernie Davis also played linebacker in addition to HB and FB, but he was predominantly a back.) Yet it’d be ridiculous to argue that for 81 years the best player in the entire country was either a QB or RB.

This truism is once again prevalent in this year’s class. While Watson, Jackson, and Browning are the best QBs in the country, I believe, at least with Browning and Watson, that they are not vastly superior to the other QBs in the country (Lamar may have a more decisive edge on the competition.) Let’s break it down (stats are acquired from the NCAA webpage and ESPN.com):

Stat Lamar Jackson Jake Browning Deshaun Watson
QBR 1st 3rd 23rd
Pass Efficiency 12th 1st 33rd
Points Responsible For 1st 6th 14th
Pass Yards 14th 44th 22nd
Completion % 73rd 11th 26th
Yards/Attempt 8th 4th 46th
Pass TDs T-11th 4th T-11th
Rushing TDs T-1st T-147th T-398th
Total Offense 2nd 55th 13th
Strength of Record 8th 5th 1st
Game Control 6th 2nd 3rd
FPI 3rd 7th 4th
Offense Rank 2nd 1st 26th
Defense Rank 9th 13th 6th
Record 8-1 8-0 9-0

If you ask me, these numbers are not exactly illuminating. Statistically the most dominant of the three is Jackson, but with a lackluster completion percentage, uncomfortably tight games against Virginia and Duke, and, most importantly, a loss to Watson’s Clemson, I don’t believe he is the player in all of college football who “best exhibits the pursuit of excellence” as the Heisman’s mission statement says. Likewise, I don’t believe in Watson or Browning, as I think Jackson is the better player.

So, if none of the quarterbacks truly distance themselves from the rest of the country, we look to the star running back, Pumphrey, to be truly great. Let’s look at where he stacks up against the rest of the country:

Stat Donnel Pumphrey
All Purpose Yards 1st
Points Responsible For T-87th
Yards per Rush 20th
Rush TDs T-3rd
Rush Yards 1st
Rush Yards per Game 1st
Rush attempts 2nd
Points Per Game T-14th
Strength of Record 35th
Game Control 25th
FPI 45th
Offense Rank 70th
Defense Rank 16th
Record 7-1

Pumphrey shows up as a every down runner who accrues massive amounts of yardage on a massive number of attempts, putting him near or at the top of total yardage, and rushing touchdowns. However, his less stunning yards per rush, and his questionable opposition leaves his status as a Heisman candidate in question. The highest FPI San Diego State has faced is California’s 46th ranked FPI, a game San Diego State won 45-40. Comparatively, Clemson’s highest opponent FPI was Louisville’s 3rd ranking, Louisville’s was Clemson’s 4th ranking, and Washington’s has been Utah’s 36th ranking, but Washington still faces USC’s 12th ranking and Washington State’s 24th ranking.

And that leaves Jabrill Peppers. Listed as a linebacker, he’s yet to record a pick this year, yet to record a fumble, and only has 4 sacks on the year, and he’s tied for 370th for total tackles.

He’s also played 12 positions for the Wolverines. He’s played 615 snaps, or 68 snaps a game.

Michigan averages 76 snaps a game.

He averages 8.7 yards per carry. He’s scored 4 touchdowns, plus a 98 yard defensive 2 point conversion. He’s had 10 tackles for loss, good enough to tie for 36th in the country. Only 8 other linebackers have more than that. He has as many scores this year to date as the last defensive Heisman winner, Michigan’s own Charles Woodson, had all season. He’s the only conference player to win defensive and special teams player of the week in the same week. He also won the Walter Camp FBS player of the week, the Lott Impact Player of the week, and was added to the Paul Hornung Award Honor Roll that very same week, just for good measure.

He’s since been recognized for the Paul Hornung Award Honor Roll 3 additional times. He’s a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and the Bednarik Award, and was nominated as a quarterfinalist for the Lott Impact Award.

He has the most punt return yards in the country. His punt return average is 4th best. He also has 168 yards on kickoff returns to his name on only 6 attempts.

As a unit, Michigan has the 4th ranked Strength of Record, 4th ranked Game Control, 2nd ranked FPI, and a 9-0 record. Michigan has the 2nd ranked defense, the 5th ranked offense, and 17th ranked special teams, leading to a 1st overall ranking. Only one player plays all three facets of the top ranking team in College Football, and that’s Jabrill Peppers.

The Heisman’s mission statement says that the award “recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” With this in mind it is hard not to see Peppers as the ideal candidate. His versatility to play almost every position on the field at a high level highlights a great ability that is not shown amongst anyone else this year, and it’s an ability we haven’t seen in college football in a long time. The last player to play as many positions as Peppers has was Gordie Lockbaum, who was drafted in the 9th round of the 1988 NFL draft. Comparatively, the best of the QB candidates, Lamar Jackson, is an imitation of 2010 Heisman Award winner Cam Newton.

Despite all of this, Jackson is the most likely candidate to win the trophy. However, Peppers does have the advantage of a marquee matchup at the end of Michigan’s season at Ohio State, plus admirable contests at Iowa and versus Indiana. Comparatively, Louisville’s best remaining opponent is Houston, Clemson’s is Pittsburgh, Washington’s is USC, and San Diego State’s is Wyoming. So while the race for the Heisman is hardly over, we can all keep our fingers crossed that the man in Blue does enough over the last three games before the Big 10 Championship to remind the world that the Heisman is not synonymous with college’s best QB or HB.

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