DeVonta Smith would be a Heisman Trophy winner unlike any other.
The Alabama star receiver is considered the favorite to win the award Tuesday night over three quarterbacks: Crimson Tide teammate Mac Jones, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Florida's Kyle Trask.
Smith would be the fourth wide receiver to take home the Heisman, but none of the previous winners had his resume. Unlike Michigan's Desmond Howard, Notre Dame's Tim Brown and Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers, who bolstered their cases by being dynamic kick returners and more than occasional runners out of the backfield, Smith has barely dabbled in that stuff.
The explosive evolution of the passing game has made receivers more important than ever. Simply being the best pass catcher is all Smith needed to make a case for being the best player in college football.
"I think that the emergence of 7-on-7 has increased the skill level of a lot of receivers and quarterbacks, and they get the ball on the perimeter a lot faster than maybe they did 10 or 20 years ago, spreading the field horizontally and vertically," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “And we’re always looking for ways to create explosives, and the easiest way to create an explosive is to throw the football.”
Day and the Buckeyes (7-0) will be faced with figuring out how to slow down Smith and the Crimson Tide (12-0) in the national championship game on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Not one to brag, Smith doesn’t see himself as carrying the banner for his position group as much as representing the grinders.
“I guess you could say that,” Smith said Monday. “The person that goes out and just puts in the work, they’re going to get the things that they deserve. So if you work for things, you’re going to get the things that you deserve."
When Rodgers won the Heisman in 1972, he had 58 catches for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns, but he also ran the ball 73 times for 348 yards and 10 touchdowns and returned two punts for scores.
After Rodgers' win, the Heisman when to running backs 11 straight times.
Brown fit the mold of Rodgers when he won the award with relatively modest stats: 990 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns, including three via punt return.
Howard was closer to the modern receiver, but again versatility was part of the package. In addition to his 19 touchdown catches, Howard ran for two scores and had a kick and a punt return for a touchdown. His famous Heisman pose came after a returning a punt for a score against Ohio State.
Howard said that back in his day there just weren't many passes coming the way of even the best receivers.
“We had to use other means to show our talents,” Howard told AP. “I'm playing for (Michigan coach) Gary Moeller in (former coach) Bo Schembechler's offense. We’re not quite airing the ball out. You have to shine in other ways.”
After Howard won, receivers were rarely more than fringe Heisman contenders.
Randy Moss from Marshall finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 1997 and Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh was second behind Jason White of Oklahoma in 2003. Neither of those future NFL greats needed more than their receiving stats to get Heisman consideration.
As quarterbacks piled up Heisman victories in the 2000s, recognition for the guys catching all those passes started to pick up.
Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree finished fifth in Heisman voting in 2008 and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon did the same in 2010. Marquise Lee of Southern California finished fourth in 2012.
The next receiver to be a finalist was Alabama's Amari Cooper in 2014, 11 years after Fitzgerald did it. Cooper finished third. Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook was fourth as a finalist in 2016.
The steady increase in reliance on the pass has helped receivers gain recognition, but it comes with a catch — so to speak.
“What could potentially work against them is the guy throwing them the ball is often given more credit than the guy catching the ball,” Howard said.
There was little to no Heisman buzz around Smith this year until late October, when Alabama's other star receiver, Jaylen Waddle, was lost to a leg injury.
While Jones was putting up big passing numbers in the Crimson Tide's potent offense, Smith was the player who most stood out. And he didn't need gadget plays and special teams highlights to do it.
Smith did return a punt for a touchdown late in the season against Arkansas and he had 14-yard TD run on one of his four rushes. But he is the Heisman favorite because he excels in his primary role, and he might just start a trend considering the direction the game is moving.
“I think having those kind of skills guys that can score points are something you certainly want to try and feature," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “and I see more and more teams trying to do that.”
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