There is no better season than 2020 — a pandemic season that saw shortened and staggered schedules affect the Heisman résumés of many top players — to hand the trophy to a wide receiver. Alabama star DeVonta Smith just won’t be the one to say it.
Fresh off seven receptions for 130 yards and three touchdowns against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, Smith remained focused on Ohio State and the national championship game when asked about his plans for Tuesday’s Heisman ceremony (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
“Get in and get out,” said Smith, who is just the ninth receiver to be a finalist.
If Smith becomes the third wide receiver to take home the Heisman — and the first since Desmond Howard in 1991 — he won’t have self-promotion to thank.
“The Slim Reaper” was the most productive wide receiver in the FBS during the regular season. Even with defenses focusing more closely on him after Jaylen Waddle suffered a right ankle injury against Tennessee on Oct. 24, Smith finished first in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641), all-purpose yards (1,912) and receiving touchdowns (20).
And he’s not done. With Alabama playing Ohio State for a national championship on Jan. 11 (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), Smith could very well break the Alabama career receptions record held by Amari Cooper (228), the SEC single-season touchdown receptions record (he’s tied at 20 with Ja’Marr Chase) and the SEC career receiving yards record held by Jordan Matthews (3,759). He could also become the first player in FBS to have more than 20 receiving touchdowns in a season since Davante Adams had 24 in 2013 for Fresno State.
All of this on an SEC-only schedule, plus a Rose Bowl and national championship game, and without any of the softballs Alabama usually has on its schedule.
Because all votes were cast by the Dec. 21 deadline, Smith’s production in neither the Rose Bowl nor title game will contribute to his Heisman campaign. But he doesn’t need those games on his résumé. He has already made what should be a bulletproof case even in a non-pandemic season, including Twitter-breaking plays (traditionally known as Heisman moments) like a stunning one-handed touchdown catch against LSU on Dec. 5 and an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas on Dec. 12.
Despite how impressive Smith’s season has been, his case is still up in the air because it wouldn’t be considered a lock even in a normal year, although the criteria aren’t exactly fair.
The Heisman Trophy is meant to honor the country’s most outstanding player, but it has historically mostly gone to quarterbacks and running backs. From 1973 to 1983, only running backs won. From 1984 to 2000, the winners were nearly split with eight quarterbacks and six running backs (as well as Charles Woodson in 1997). In that span, Tim Brown (1987) and Howard (1991) became the only two wide receivers to win the award. (Johnny Rodgers, a multiposition player who is listed as a receiver, also won in 1972.) Since 2001, signal-callers have dominated: There have been 16 quarterbacks, three running backs and one obvious receiver snub (Larry Fitzgerald in 2003).
The previous winners largely reflect how the game was played in different eras — which is why wide receivers should now be getting more consideration for the award. The spread is the current default offense in the game, so more quarterbacks are winning the Heisman and fewer running backs are being considered.
But a wide receiver has yet to win the award in this new era. If quarterbacks are going to benefit in Heisman conversation from the way football is played today, the pass-catchers should too.
Receivers have a different precedent to meet. In both previous instances of a receiver winning, Brown and Howard relied on circumstances that went beyond being the most outstanding player in the country at their position.
“Unfortunately for [today’s wide receivers], the first wide receiver to win the Heisman returned punts, kicks, played in the backfield, did it all,” Brown said, referring to himself. “And then Desmond came behind me a couple years later pretty much doing the same thing.”
When Amari Cooper, one of the most recent wide receivers to be a finalist when he had 124 receptions for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014, was up for a Heisman, Brown knew he needed to show he could do more than catch passes.
“I was on Amari tough that year,” Brown said. “I was on him in a positive way because I knew this kid was going to be great, and I also knew that he was going to have a good year. I knew that if he wasn’t back there [returning punts], then it was going to be difficult for him to win the Heisman.”
And it’s not just about doing it all. Howard also pointed out that receivers “have to contend with the fact that their quarterbacks are really the initial source of the conversation,” and said he believes some will hold the fact that Smith had Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones at quarterback against him.
“Some people may know Elvis [Grbac] because you know, he had a popular name because of Elvis Presley, you know what I’m saying? But no one ever confused Elvis as the Heisman candidate, though,” Howard said of the quarterback he caught passes from during his Heisman year. “Like, ‘Aw man, this guy at Michigan, he’s slinging the ball all over the field.’ No. And that’s a huge difference when you’re dealing with DeVonta Smith.”
Brown said he also didn’t need to worry about a quarterback overshadowing him at Notre Dame.
“When Lou Holtz got there because of our quarterback situation my senior year, we had to go to wishbone because, you know, Tony Rice couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if you got him 6 feet away from it,” he said.
But even when taking into account his quarterback is a solid Heisman candidate, it’s clear Smith should win the award.
His play speaks for itself. Former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier can’t help but buy stock in Smith, who shattered Chris Doering and Amari Cooper’s SEC record for receiving touchdowns in a career with 40.
“DeVonta, gosh I still remember when he was a true freshman when he caught the touchdown to beat Georgia for the national championship,” Spurrier said. “Nobody knew who he was, he just flew down the sideline and obviously Georgia was in a bad coverage. Some kind of Cover 2 on that side — which doesn’t make sense — but that’s what they were doing.
“And so then we knew who he was, and then he sort of just quietly went a couple more years, and then this year of course he’s right there as one of the best wide receivers of all time in college football.”
But people go with what they know, and quarterbacks and running backs have long dominated the Heisman conversation. Brown acknowledged that familiarity impacts how both former winners and the media vote.
“It’s really in the eye of the voter,” Brown said. “I’ve had plenty of conversations with [1995 Heisman Trophy winner] Eddie George, and what he’s looking for — he’s looking for Eddie George. He’s looking for a big, bruising back that dominates the game, that wants to take the team and put the team on his back and just dominate. … I know in years past, we’ve talked about these kind of things, and we all see them from the way we won the trophy.”
That said, the award really stands for one thing.
“I evaluate the guys on what I’ve seen this year,” Brown said. “You know, the trophy says ‘to the most outstanding player,’ so that’s what I try to go on: who was the most outstanding player this year.”
And in the most bizarre season of college football, Smith has been its most outstanding player with stats and style points that should be recognized as Heisman-worthy even in a non-pandemic year.
This year, history should be put aside. This wide receiver deserves the trophy.