Why They Will/Why They Wont: Evaluating this year’s crop of Heisman Trophy running back contenders

montee-ball-p1We continue “Heisman Week” here at Crystal Ball Run with one of the most important positions in the Heisman Trophy race – Running Back.  In the history of the Heisman Trophy Award the winner has more often than not come down to a running back or quarterback.

In fact running backs have won the award more times, 49, than any other position.  Quarterbacks are a distant 2nd winning it 29 times.  However, the position has taken a backseat to the QB’s over the past decade or so.  Since Ron Dayne’s win in 1999 only one other running back has taken the award, that being Mark Ingram in 2009 (Reggie Bush’s 2005 win was vacated).

So, heading in to the 2012 season, do the running backs have a chance?  If so, who are the guys you should be watching for from the position?  I’ve identified six running backs that could play into the Heisman Trophy race and below you’ll see reasons for and against them being a legit candidate and I’ll give you my thoughts if they are a contender or pretender, so let’s dive in.


Montee Ball (Senior, Wisconsin): He is the highest vote getter from last season’s Heisman voting to return and is coming off of a season that won’t soon be forgotten.  Ball tied Barry Sanders 20 + year old TD record with 39 total TD’s last year.  He also ran for 1,923 yards and threw for another TD in a season that saw the Badgers win the first Big Ten Championship game and make the Rose Bowl for the 2nd straight season.


Why He Will: Ball has the biggest name recognition of any player at the running back position because he was on the national stage for the vast majority of last season and lately name recognition has gone a long way in getting you towards the front of the pack.  Add in the fact that he won’t be splitting the spotlight with another Heisman Candidate (Russell Wilson last year) and will be the focal point of the Badgers offense in 2012 and you have a top contender for the Heisman Award.  He very well could rush for over 1,600 yards and over 20 TD’s once again behind one of the country’s biggest and best offensive lines.

Why He Won’t: 2011 was a season for the ages and if Heisman voters are expecting him to repeat or surpass those numbers he’s in trouble.  I gave the fact that he’ll be a focal point of the Wisconsin offense as a reason he will win, but it could also be a reason he won’t because defenses may end up keying on him and forcing Danny O’Brien to beat them, thus limiting his numbers.  He may also end up sharing carries with a loaded backfield that includes two other running backs that would start just about anywhere in the country in James White and Melvin Gordon.

Verdict: Contender

Marcus Lattimore (Junior, South Carolina): Lattimore is coming off an injury shortened 2011 that saw him rush for 818 yards in his seven games.  He had 10TD’s and averaged 5 yards a carry before his season ended.  Can this once highly touted recruit live up to the hype and deliver a Heisman Trophy like season?

Why He Will: Along with Montee Ball, Lattimore has the name recognition at the position to be on the radar from the very beginning with Heisman Trophy voters. Unlike last season when he was the only steady force in the backfield for the Gamecocks, 2012 will see Lattimore have a steady hand at quarterback and some good weapons for Shaw to pass to, making teams respect all aspects of the game and not just key on him.  If healthy he would’ve been on a pace for around 1,400 yards last year and if healthy he could easily top those numbers in 2012.  It also doesn’t hurt that he plays in the SEC which unquestionably gets the most attention in the media of any league in the country.

Why He Won’t: HE PLAYS IN THE SEC. I mean, have you seen some of those defenses?  I don’t know if pulling off 1,400 yards and going for just 17 TD’s would qualify as Heisman Trophy worthy numbers at the running back position, even from that league.  He also won’t have Alshon Jeffery to play with and that could mean a few more bodies focusing on him early on in the season.  Lastly, let’s not forget that he is coming off a major knee injury and who knows how he’ll respond when the games are for real.

Verdict: Contender

Knile Davis (Junior, Arkansas): 2011 was a lost season for Davis as he had a season ending broken ankle happen in a fall scrimmage.

Why He Will: Davis was all-SEC in 2010 and led the league in rushing that season (1,322 yards & 13TD’s).  He was on a number of preseason watch lists, including the Heisman Trophy until the broken ankle took his season away.  Davis has a lot of talented players around him in 2012 and the Arkansas offensive line has been very good for quite some time now, so he’s perfectly capable of being an explosive player. Arkansas as a team is also a contender on the national level and if they stay around for most of the season his name should be near the front of the players talked about from the Razorbacks.

Why He Won’t: One person: Tyler Wilson.  We saw what happens when there are two very talented players on one team last year with Russell Wilson and Ball from Wisconsin – the votes do get split.  There’s also the matter of his health along with the fact that the offensive line in front of him must break in three new starters.  All of those are good reasons as to why he may have a tough time winning in 2012.

Verdict: Pretender

Ray Graham (Senior, Pittsburgh): 2011 was a topsy-turvy year for the Panthers and Graham who saw his season hampered by an ACL tear against UConn, was done after getting off to a fast start.  Can Graham stay healthy enough to be a contender in 2012?

Why He Will: Quickly, who was 2nd to Montee Ball in yards halfway through the 2011 season? Yep, that’s Ray Graham.  He rushed for 958 yards (5.8ypc) in just 8 games last season with 9 TD’s.  Those are pretty good numbers, but the addition of Paul Chryst as their head coach means a lot for the running backs at Pitt.  He’s a pro-style coordinator coming from Wisconsin where running backs have had a history of being very successful and a back like Graham has all the hallmarks of a successful RB in Chryst’s system.  Having him leading the offense as HC will bode well for one of the most underrated RB’s in the class.

Why He Won’t: The biggest question mark is will people remember what he did last season on the field because of all the turmoil surrounding the coaching situation at Pitt.  You also have to wonder if the Panthers are going to have the kind of national attention to help Graham out.  Lastly, I’d like to see him actually go through a 12 game slate, something that has been a question mark over the past few years. 

Verdict: Pretender

Stepfan Taylor (Senior, Stanford): Taylor has been the mark of consistency for the Cardinal, playing a key role behind Andrew Luck over the past three seasons.  Can 2012 be his breakout season?

Why He Will: Toby Gerhart – remember that name?  Well, Stepfan Taylor has managed to make some forget all about Gerhart, having rushed for 1,000 or more yards in each of the two years he’s been a starter including 1,330 yards last season with 10TD’s.  There’s also this matter of not having to share the spotlight with Andrew Luck, last year’s HT runner up.  On the field it means a chance for more carries and that can only mean more chances to shine.  Of the field that should only help him increase his exposure and frankly at the start of the year, that’s what it’s all about.  Stanford is also a legit contender in the Pac-12 race and that exposure helps as well.

Why He Won’t: Three things are going to possibly stop Taylor from his Heisman hopes.  First is the good ole “East Coast Bias.”  Let’s face it, a lot of voters aren’t staying up till midnight or 1am on the east coast to watch games out west and that can hurt guys like Taylor.  Secondly, no Andrew Luck means teams have a better chance to stop the one known force on the team and that’s Taylor.  Lastly, there’s the matter of having a new starting QB and two very green offensive lineman replacing very talented players in front of him.  Consistency in front of a running back is key to their success.

Verdict: Contender

Eddie Lacy (Junior, Alabama): Lacy spent 2011 behind Heisman Trophy 3rd place finisher and NFL 1st rounder Trent Richardson, the question is can he keep up the plug-and-play tradition they’ve had recently at the running back position.

Why He Will: Lacy had 674 yards on just 95 carries last season behind Richardson, that comes up to a gaudy 7.1 average per carry.  He’s clearly got the skills to be the next great thing at ‘Bama.  He’ll also have a quality QB and one of the nation’s best offensive lines to help his cause.  I’ve also stressed exposure and no team may get more exposure than the defending national champion Crimson Tide.  Now, I don’t expect him to average 7.1 yards a carry this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him run for over 1,400 yards and 18TD’s or more as well.

Why He Won’t: He’s a junior at a position that doesn’t often see them winning the Heisman Trophy in that year.  Not only that, but some question if he can handle a full season’s worth of carries.  95 carries isn’t exactly a huge number to go off of and he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy (turf toe last season).  The problem for him is that there are a lot of talented backs behind him at Bama and he may end up splitting carries and thus the spotlight with a group of talented incoming freshman.
Verdict: Pretender

In the end this is a relatively weak group of running backs, at least in terms of name recognition.  It’s also going to be a hard run for anyone not named Ball or Lattimore to take over the conversation at the position and therefore I only see Montee Ball and Marcus Lattimore as true contenders to make it to New York City.  The bigger question is can either of those two unseat a long list of very capable QB’s and a Honey Badger with all the hype behind him?

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.