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9 Other Freshman Who Could Have Won the Heisman Trophy (But Didn’t)

by: Esteban On  Monday, December 10, 2012

freshmen heisman trophy

On Saturday night, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in the 78-year history of the award.

Why did it take so long? Well, there are a couple reasons. For one, freshman only became eligible to play varsity NCAA football in 1972, which meant before that there weren’t even any potential candidates. However, even since 1972, there has been an unwritten rule that freshmen simply do not win the Heisman.

Why was that rule in place? Who knows. I guess voters (mostly sports journalists) thought a kid had to “pay his dues” before being named the best college football player in the country. But whatever the reason, the result of this unofficial policy was that, over the years, a lot of great freshman seasons got overlooked for the award.

In short, just because Johnny Football was the first freshman to take home to Heisman, that doesn’t mean he had the best freshman season in the history of college football. It just means that voters have finally decided to ditch their silly “freshmen don’t win the Heisman” rule. So today we’re taking a look at some of the other great freshman seasons in college football history that could have won the Heisman.

Have a look.

9. Marshall Faulk, 1991

marshall falk san diego state (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

In his second game of his college career at San Diego State, Marshall Faulk racked up 386 yards rushing on 37 carries against the University of the Pacific on September 15, 1991. That was a pretty good start—it was an NCAA record at the time. He then went on to gain a total of 1,49 yards and 21 TDs that year—and he even missed three games with an injury in the middle of the season. However, while you would think this kind of prolific, record-setting season (his 158 yards per game led the NCAA) would at least get Faulk into the top 5, it did not. That year he finished 9th in Heisman voting.

Of course, now Faulk is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so things kind of worked out okay for him in the end.

8. Michael Crabtree, 2007

michael crabtree texas tech (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

In 2007, Crabtree had to go up against Tim Tebow, so his chances of winning the Heisman even if he was named a finalist weren’t good. Plus, only three wide receivers ever had been given the old Stiff Arm trophy. Nevertheless, Crabtree’s 2007 season with Texas Tech ought to have been enough to merit some attention. He led the NCAA with 134 catches, 1,962 yards, and 22 touchdowns, and yet he didn’t even make it to the top 10.

7. Clint Castleberry, 1942

<centerClint Castleberry georgia tech (freshmen who didn't win heisman)>

At this point you might be confused. At the outset I said that the NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to even play until 1972. So how could this guy have had a remarkable freshman season back in 1942?

Well, the answer is simple: because the military draft for World War II depleted the ranks of college football teams, during those year the NCAA did temporarily allow freshmen to play. And that brief exception yielder two historic freshman seasons.

The first was Georgia Tech running back Clint Castleberry, and it really is a case of “what might have been.”

You see, Castleberry achieved big-time national notoriety in 1942 thanks to his brilliant performances against college football powerhouses Notre Dame and Navy. The diminutive back (5’9″) even led his Hornets to a 9-0 start. However, he injured his knee in that 9th win, and though he played the final two games, it was at a diminished capacity.

With all the hype surrounding this guy (especially in the east coast papers), if he had finished strong that season he might just have won the Heisman, breaking down that “freshman barrier” before it was even erected. (At the time, the award was only 7 years old.) Instead he lost, and no freshman won the award until now.

Of course, far more tragic than the outcome of the Heisman voting in 1942 was the outcome of Castleberry’s military service: in 1944 he was killed in action in World War II.

6. Buddy Young, 1944

buddy young illinois fighting illini (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

The other great freshmen season prior to 1972 belonged to Illinois running back Buddy Young. Though only 5’5″ and a scrawny 163 pounds, Young was an NCAA track champion, and he used his speed to evade defenders. In 1944 he averaged a whopping 8.9 yards per carry while tying the legendary Red Grange’s college record of 13 touchdowns. However, he only finished 5th in the Heisman voting.

Did I mention that Young was black? Yep. And after serving in the Navy for a year before returning to Illinois, he became the first black man to play pro football.

5. Ron Dayne, 1996

ron dayne wisconsin (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne won the Heisman in a landslide as a senior in 1999 on the strength a 2,034 yard, 20 touchdown season. However, his freshman season in 1996 was even better: 2,109 yards, 21 touchdowns. And that one includes 289 yards against Illinois, 297 yards against Minnesota, and 339 yards against Hawaii.

Unfortunately for Dayne, there was two other non-freshmen who racked up more than 2,000 yards in 1996 (Troy Davis and Byron Hanspard), so he got shut out of the top 5 altogether, while Florida State QB Danny Wuerffel eventually took the award home.

4. Tony Dorsett, 1973


At #4 we have our second Hall of Fame NFL player who didn’t win the Heisman despite a tremendous freshman season. In this case, it’s not as though Dorsett had a slam dunk season, as he was “only” second in the nation in rushing with 1,586 yards, and eventual winner John Cappelltti racked up 1,522 yards for undefeated Penn State. However, Dorsett’s Pitt Panthers were a top program in 1973, and Dorsett’s season was definitely worthy of a top 10 finish. Instead he finished 11th.

Of course, Dorsett would eventually win the Heisman as a senior. So, yes, apparently you just have to pay your dues.

3. Herschel Walker, 1980

herschel walker georgia (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

As a freshman in 1980, Walker led the Georgia Bulldogs to a 12-0 season and a national championship with 1,616 rushing yards. The guy who won the Heisman that year (George Rogers of South Carolina) had about 100 more yards than Walker, but when the two went head-to-head that year, the Bulldogs won 13-10 thanks to Walker’s 219 yards.

But hey, at least Walker finished third in the voting. That’s more than most guys on this list could say of their freshmen campaigns.

2. Michael Vick, 1999

michael vick virginia tech (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

Everybody thought the electrifying Michael Vick was the best player in college football in 1999. He set an NCAA record with a 180.4 pass efficiency rating, throwing for 2,065 yards, and he rushed for 585 yards and 8 touchdowns. He won the ESPY award for college player of the year and the Archie Griffin Award while leading the undefeated Hokies to the BCS championship game. However, he finished third in the voting to two guys you don’t even remember (Joe Hamilton and Ron Dayne, the winner).

However, it should be pointed out that Vick’s numbers in 1999 are nothing compared to Johnny Manziel’s numbers in 2012. Johnny Football accounted for 4,600 yards of total offense (3,419 passing and 1,181 rushing) and he produced 43 touchdowns (24 passing and 19 rushing). That’s kind of incredible.

1. Adrian Peterson, 2004

adrian peterson oklahoma sooners (freshmen who didn't win heisman)

Our #1 freshman season to not win the Heisman is Adrian Peterson’s 2004 season with the Oklahoma Sooners. The guy ran for 1,843 yards that year, which included 225 against Texas, 240 against Baylor, and 249 against Oklahoma State. However, he finished second in the voting to USC’s Matt Leinart.

However, I’m willing to bet that, if you asked Adrian Peterson which he would rather have—Leinart’s Heisman or Leinart’s NFL career—Peterson would probably just laugh…all the way to the bank.