Can A Running Back Really Win The Heisman Trophy?

College football's biggest award seems to have turned into a question of who's the best quarterback in the country. Quarterbacks hold on a five-year reign on the trophy; the last non-quarterback to nab the Heisman Trophy was running back Mark Ingram of Alabama, back in 2009. 

This year, there's reason to be optimistic that a running back will emerge successful in a Heisman bid. With a plethora of elite runners building off of impressive campaigns last season, many of whom were only freshmen then, the quarterback Heisman reign might finally end. 

Last season was the start of the push towards a break in the trend. We saw two backs, Toddy Gurley and Melvin Gordon, begin the year as serious contenders. 

Pre-season, Gurley's chances seemed to be strong. He had been Georgia's star the past three seasons, gaining 3,285 yards in only 30 games. Unfortunately, he only played six games his senior year, due to a suspension and torn ACL.

While Gurley's Heisman prospects were derailed by suspension and injury, Gordon's actual bid for the Heisman was particularly strong. Gordon took over running back duties for Wisconsin when Montee Ball went to the NFL in 2013, and ran for 2,587 yards, including a 408-yard game against Nebraska, and scored 29 touchdowns his senior year. Gordon finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, highest for a running back since Ingram.   

Derrick Henry from Alabama, Dalvin Cook from Florida State, Georgia's Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette from LSU, and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott are thought of as potential Heisman candidates this year. Cook, Chubb, and Fournette are putting up big numbers in only their sophomore seasons, while both Henry and Elliott are juniors. 

While Ohio State was busy trying to decide who their starting quarterback was going to be, many forgot about Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield. Elliott made a name for himself at the same time as quarterback Cardale Jones, during the Big Ten Conference Championship and two playoff games.

Against Wisconsin, Elliott ran for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He topped that performance with 230 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama in the semi-finals, and 246 yards and four touchdowns in the championship against Oregon. Elliott won't catch attention like the quarterbacks in Columbus, but that may be because there's no question marks about his play.

Alabama has been known to use a duo at running back ever since Ingram and Trent Richardson were together in 2010. Last season was no different, with TJ Yeldon and Henry splitting carries. Henry had 990 yards on 172 carries, while Yeldon had 979 yards on 194 carries. Even with the presence of Kenyan Drake in the backfield this season, Henry should be seen as the bell cow for the Tide offense. At 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, Henry is a bruising back and should be able to have similar, if not better, production than he had last year in an offensive system that thrives on the run game. 

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Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the three then-freshman runners captured attention playing for top tier colleges, even though at the beginning of last season they were seldom used. 

Cook at FSU was overshadowed by the former Heisman winner Winston in 2014. The Seminoles' offense was designed around the quarterback, but Cook made his mark when given the chance. His breakout game was Week 7 against Syracuse, when he ran for 122 yards and a touchdown, his first hundred-yard game of the year. Cook still managed an impressive 1,008 yards with eight touchdowns in his freshman year. 

Fournette was the No. 1 overall player coming out of high school in 2014 and had high expectations coming to LSU. He didn't have the start many wanted, only averaging 50 yards per game the first four weeks. His production picked up, and he rushed over 100 yards five times on the season, finishing with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

Chubb's situation at Georgia last season was an interesting one. Everyone expected Gurley to be the lead back, and even compete for a Heisman Trophy. Gurley carried the load through the first five weeks, but Chubb took over as Gurley served a four-game suspension, and then tore his ACL in his first game back. After not running for more than 78 yards in a game as a backup, Chubb ran for more than 110 yards every game the rest of the season. He finished the year ranked 17th in the NCAA for rushing yards with 1,547 and 14 touchdowns. 

2015 Rushing Stats after Week 3

CarriesRushing YardsYards/CarryTouchdowns
Dalvin Cook-FSU64476    7.55
Nick Chubb-Georgia 564688.44
Leonard Fournette-LSU473878.26
Derrick Henry-Alabama543706.97
Ezekiel Elliott-OSU613315.44

After Week 3 of the season, all five running backs are in the top-25 for rushing yards. Andrew Sharp of Grantland wrote that 'the running back race is the best debate in college football.' It's hard to argue with this statement. These guys look like the ones to break the recent streak of quarterbacks winning the Heisman Trophy. The only quarterbacks that seem to be serious contenders are TCU's Trevone Boykin and Ole Miss' Chad Kelly. However, the running backs, especially Chubb and Fournette, are in the spotlight and pulling ahead as favorites. 

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