Why aren't seniors winning the Heisman Trophy?
NEW YORK – Before Johnny Manziel overwhelmed college football in November 2012, the idea that a first-year player could win the Heisman Trophy almost seemed taboo. But with Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston following Manziel on Saturday as the winner of college football's most prestigious award, having a freshman quarterback take home the trophy can no longer be considered an anomaly.
It might even be the new normal.
HEISMAN: Florida State's Jameis Winston wins
"When you look at the quarterback position, there's more guys ready going into college football," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "The majority of high school offenses around the country are running some type of spread, opening it up, so there's more quarterbacks who are ready going into college football."
Though high school preparation undoubtedly has something to do with the instant success of Manziel and Winston, both were good enough to overcome a traditional bias against freshmen in the Heisman voting process.
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For most of the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s, it was unusual for a sophomore to be invited to New York, with only the rarest of freshmen getting enough votes to qualify. In 2004, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson finished second as a freshman but lost in a landslide to USC quarterback Matt Leinart.
Even as Manziel's candidacy was surging last season, he wondered if voters would make him wait his turn simply out of respect for the award's history.
"There was a time where I might have thought that might be held against me," Manziel said. "Now that that barrier has been broken down, I don't know if it ever should have been there. I thought it was kind of silly. The award is stated the way it is that if you fit the criteria, if you're eligible, you should have a chance to win it."
And now that the glass ceiling has been shattered, freshmen will conceivably win it as often as seniors going forward. Since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith took home the Heisman 2006, three sophomores, two juniors and two freshmen have won it.
"Back in the spring, I didn't really think I'd be sitting here right now," Winston said. "But with the weapons and people around me and the players we have at Florida State, I knew that there would be a great chance."
JAMEIS WINSTON'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
Though it would have been difficult to conceive Manziel or Winston winning the Heisman so early in their careers, Winston's success didn't come totally out of nowhere. Several scouting services considered him the top quarterback prospect in the country before he enrolled at Florida State, and a significant buzz about his ability emanated from the program last season while he waited behind senior E.J. Manuel.
Alabama's AJ McCarron pointed to the redshirt season for both Manziel and Winston as key in their ability to produce gaudy, Heisman-winning numbers right out of the gate.
"They did sit for a year and learn," McCarron said. "So it's not like they were true freshmen. That's hard to do. It's still hard, and I'm not taking anything away from those guys because they're unbelievable players. But I think they'd tell you it helped they got to sit for a year and learn the ropes. It helped me."
As Manziel discovered, though, nothing can prepare a freshman for the level of fame thrust upon them after winning the trophy. Even at last year's ceremony, Manziel said he could walk through Times Square without being bothered. Shortly after, everywhere he went was a mob scene – and not every 19- or 20-year old is equipped to handle it.
"Life's going to change," Manziel said. "This is an extremely big deal. Look around right now. There's a lot of fame coming from all this, so live it up, enjoy it, continue to be yourself and don't let anybody change you from that. You're going to have to adapt to how life is going to be after this. If you're coming back to school, you're going to get the questions next year: Hey, can you do it again, what does this mean? There's a lot coming from that, so stay focused, stay true to yourself and continue to be the person you are."