It’s been five years since a running back has won the Heisman. Somehow it feels like the drought stretches even further back, an era that feels lost in a new age of the sport.
In this time, the running back has been de-emphasized and the quarterback bias surrounding college football’s most prestigious award has only gained momentum. The position you once fought over as a child is under siege, especially when it comes to highlighting greatness.
Whether it’s the lack of presence in the NFL draft, the plummeting value at the next level or the air-attack offenses that are impacting how the game is played, the running back is no longer worshiped like it once was. The lack of Heisman presence is alarming. It's also not shocking.
That could all change in 2014, although “could” cannot be emphasized enough.
At the very least, there are a handful of runners—some obvious, some poised to become obvious—who could put an end to the drought and the stigma that the position no longer is worth considering. It will take a dream season, likely a stat-heavy campaign, an undefeated team (or perhaps both), but it feels more than possible given the talent in place.
Here are some of the names to keep an eye on.
The Obvious (and Appropriate) Favorite: Todd Gurley, Georgia
He’s the best running back in college football, and there really isn’t much back and forth necessary to confirm this.
At 232 pounds, Georgia running back Todd Gurley is one of the most physically impressive players the position has seen in the last five years. Because of this—and the prospects of playing in the SEC—he has the makeup to be the back that breaks through. His head coach certainly thinks it’s possible.
"If he's in great condition and he stays healthy, I think he can't help but to have a tremendous amount of production and be a very strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy,” Mark Richt told Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee.
Health will be critical. Gurley has averaged more than six yards per carry for his career, and there’s no reason to see a dramatic change in this if he stays on the field. He will be productive, and he will get the ball plenty as Georgia adjusts to life after Aaron Murray.
The other matter to be conscious of is Georgia’s prospects entering the season: Can the Bulldogs win enough games to keep their star player in the Heisman conversation?
This, more than anything, will be what sinks or swims his campaign. And as strange as it might seem, the Georgia defense and likely QB starter Hutson Mason could be more important to keeping Gurley in the running.
To Be Determined: an Alabama Running Back
This is a much different situation than Georgia, although don’t dismiss the scenario despite the haziness of the intro.
Alabama running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry should have your full Heisman attention heading into next season despite how counterintuitive that may sound. The classic scenario is such: Both running backs get ample work, ample touchdowns and kill the other’s Heisman hopes in the process.
That might be the case—in fact, it likely will be—but if one back steals the workload, it could change the perception entirely.
What’s working in their favor—more than playing in an offense that is conducive to ball-carriers—is the name on the front of the jersey. Heisman voters will recognize Alabama because it’s Alabama. And having an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball will help when the Heisman voters get to the "what's their record?" portion of the debate.
They are different runners with different styles, but Yeldon and Henry both have 1,500-yard, 20-touchdown seasons in them. It boils down to who’s delivering the production and if there’s enough of a case to be made for one over the other.
The Most Explosive Talent in the Sport
That number just so happens to be what Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has averaged per carry for his college career. That’s startling and yet somehow not all that shocking if you’ve watched him work. There might not be a more dangerous back from a play-to-play standpoint than Gordon.
Unlike some of the names mentioned above, he’s not this enormous physical specimen. He’s special (obviously), but his game is built on getting to the second level and then just running past everyone.
(He does this frequently.)
Last season, Gordon delivered more than 1,600 yards while getting less carries than James White. White, of course, is off to the NFL, which means Gordon’s touches should increase. You can expect Corey Clement—another incredibly different runner for the Badgers—to take on some carries, but Gordon will shine as the starter.
If you were asked to attach your wagon to one runner capable of breaking the 2,000-yard barrier this year, this would be the guy. And if he gets close to that, he’ll be on plenty of ballots regardless of how close Wisconsin is to the College Football Playoff.
Other Backs That Fit the Bill
Mike Davis, South Carolina
If the Heisman were handed out based off facial expressions made as a running back destroyed hopeful tacklers, this would be a runaway winner. There simply is no tougher back in all of college football than Mike Davis.
He turns five-yard gains into works of art, and he did this all the way to more than 1,100 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns last season. He also caught 34 passes. Davis doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves, but perhaps that will change in time. If it does, he could (and should) get Heisman buzz.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Nebraska’s feature back ran for more than 100 yards in all but two games last year, and even in those contests he finished with a combined 256 yards from the line of scrimmage. In total, Ameer Abdullah rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and finished with 11 scores.
The biggest question for him isn’t actually something he can completely control. Can Nebraska win enough games for him to be a factor in the award?
Karlos Williams, Florida State
As it stands, you know him as Florida State’s third running back from a season ago. He might have been the most physically gifted ball-carrier on the team, though.
With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. off to the NFL, Williams should cruise past his 730 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns from last year. Running behind the nation’s best offensive lines—and playing for a team that will open at No. 1—has all the makings of a Heisman run.
Well, if his quarterback doesn't win it again.
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
From October on—when Jeremy Langford’s workload increased dramatically—there might not have been a better running back in college football. His 1,422 and 19 total touchdowns simply weren’t celebrated enough, although he will be going forward.
Whether such celebrations come in the form of Heisman buzz is another story, although he’ll be a key cog on a team that should be in the thick of things for a College Football Playoff spot.
That’s got to be worth something.
If Things Go Well…
Shock Linwood, Baylor
For starters, he has a Heisman name. He also plays in an offensive that is kind to Heisman pushes. And much like Florida State’s situation with Karlos Williams, Shock Linwood will get plenty more chances this season.
Last year he filled in for Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin as the third back. Even with limited chances, he still managed to rush for nearly 900 yards and eight touchdowns.
Can he outperform Bryce Petty and garner more Heisman buzz than his teammate? That’s where this gets tricky.
Thomas Tyner, Oregon
He only carried the ball 115 times as a freshman, but his off-the-chart potential is simply too great to leave off this list. Also, he did this to a teammate this spring.
Perhaps this is a year too early for Tyner, who will be taking his handoffs from Marcus Mariota—a Heisman favorite. Whether it’s early or not, you’ll need to learn his name for Heisman considerations at some point.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
The ultimate wild card, although Leonard Fournette will enter his first season of collegiate football with one distinct advantage: All eyes will be on him, and the hype will be enormous.
This can be both good and bad, but this kind of presence could be exactly what pushes the award back in the running back’s corner. Production is another story entirely, and Fournette will be vying for carries in a backfield with plenty of returning talent.