Dramatic Shift to More Freshmen on Field Means Changing Heisman Paradigm

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Dramatic Shift to More Freshmen on Field Means Changing Heisman Paradigm
USA Today

At the moment, the Heisman is a young man’s award. The once-impenetrable barrier standing between underclassmen and the giant hunk of bronze is long gone. Only rubble remains.

And there’s absolutely no reason to believe the future will be any different. 

The award is still frustratingly set in its archaic ways, like all but eliminating defensive players well before the season begins; or telling wide receivers they’re only as good as their quarterback, therefore eliminating them from contention as well; or giving quarterbacks an enormous upper hand, a trend—like the sudden youth infusion—that won’t break anytime soon. 

With Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston’s Heisman victory on Saturday night, per USA Today's Dan Wolken, however, it has become abundantly clear that youth no longer serves as an enormous roadblock. 

Winston is the youngest player to ever win the award, and he—as expected—won it by a large margin despite being left off a significant number of ballots. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron finished second, while Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch finished third.

With this, the trend of underclassmen taking center stage progresses to yet another level. The sudden surplus of outstanding young talent thriving early in their careers has altered the dynamic of the award entirely.

Remember when “yeah, but he’s only a freshman” was used to discourage a player’s Heisman campaign? That actually was pretty typical. While it feels like ages ago, this shift away from history is a new revelation of sorts, one that took another step on Saturday.

Between 1935 and 2006, zero sophomores and freshmen won the Heisman. Not one. Since then, freshmen and sophomores have heard their name called in five of the past seven years. The last senior to win was Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (you know of him, yes?) was the first sophomore to ever win in 2007. Two more sophomores followed—Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Alabama’s Mark Ingram—and this caused significant damage to the barrier.

Just last year, Johnny Manziel became the first-ever freshman to win. While the talk surrounding his age and the history in play surfaced before his name was finally announced, such talk has now dissolved.

For Jameis Winston, his Heisman victory was never about his freshman status. In fact, throughout a turbulent season off the field and a brilliant one on it, his age never really factored into this discussion of whether he would be podium-bound.

He used his redshirt season behind EJ Manuel last year as a learning opportunity, coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters.

"EJ taught Jameis a lot, and he followed his footsteps a lot in how he prepared," Fisher said, via USA Today. "I think that's the thing about Jameis, he didn't wait to play last year, he prepared to play last year and he learned how to watch film, what he's looking at."

The transition to embracing youth—or at the very least, accepting it—has not always been protocol. Just ask Adrian Peterson.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Arguably the greatest Heisman snub of all time, Peterson ran for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Sooners back in 2004, carrying the team (literally) to the national championship game. It’s one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had—let alone a true freshman—although it was good for a distant second-place finish in New York.

At the time, age mattered. It was working against Peterson all season, and the discussion of his freshman title served as a deterrent for no good reason at all. This wasn’t 1984. This was 2004, a time that most football junkies remember well enough.

Peterson’s effort helped take a brick out of the wall. A few years later, Tebow gave it a tremendous blow. Johnny Manziel’s 2012 season created an enormous hole, and Jameis Winston just cleared an even bigger path.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There’s no reason to believe this will suddenly shift back to juniors and seniors either. Of course, this movement won’t suddenly swing back in the other direction—leaving the experienced players out of the mix.

But with quarterbacks entering college more physically and mentally developed, and with the NFL just a few short seasons away, the reluctance to throw talented players on the field early is gone. Play them while you can.

This is the case for other players and positions as well, but at the moment, it’s a quarterback-driven award. With Winston's win, 12 of the past 13 winners have played the position.

The sport is getting younger, and the Heisman voters—while imperfect in their evaluation process—are unable to keep youth out of the picture any longer. The players have been entirely too talented, the seasons too remarkable. And in the end, what does it matter?

Perhaps this trend will continue past Winston, or maybe it’s the start of something else. With youth being served, will a linebacker or wide receiver finally hear his name called in 2014?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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