The Heisman Trophy is the biggest award for an individual player in college football, each year being given to the “most outstanding player” in division I FBS football.
While the award is given to the “most outstanding player”, recently, the award has become the award for the best quarterback in college football.
In the past 13 seasons, only two non-quarterbacks have won the award. Since the award’s inception in 1935, 21 running backs and 21 halfbacks have won the award, including an incredible run of 11 straight running backs winning the award between 1973 and 1983.
However, only three of those award winners received the award after 2000 (including Reggie Bush’s (wrongly) vacated award from 2005). So why has it become increasingly rare for running backs to win the Heisman?
The first reason for the lack of running back Heisman winners is the increasing importance of the quarterback position, as more and more teams have focused on a passing attack.
According to Seth Emerson of the Athletic, the number of rushing plays per game has gone down over the past 2 decades, from 79 rushes per game in 2002 to 74.6 in 2022 (through part of the season).
The second reason behind the lack of running back Heisman winners has been the decreased focus on “bellcow” backs and the move to running back by committee.
Of the top 100 running backs with the most single season rushing attempts, only 8 have come since 2015. More and more teams are splitting carries to keep backs healthy through the season and maintain fresh legs.
The last time a Penn State Football running back was in the Heisman race throughout the season was 2017, when Saquon Barkley finished 4th in Heisman voting after a season where he totaled 271 touches for 1903 total yards and 21 touchdowns (excluding 1 passing touchdown).
In 2017, Barkley tallied 81.2 percent of Penn State’s rushing attempts by a running back. In the years since, Penn State’s leading backs accounted for 72.4 percent (Miles Sanders, 2018), 40.6 percent (Journey Brown, 2019), 41.6 percent (Keyvone Lee, 2020), 37.4 percent (Keyvone Lee, 2021), and 43.5 percent (Kaytron Allen, 2022).
What does this mean for Penn State Football in 2023?
While Penn State running back Nick Singleton currently is tied for the 24th highest betting odds for the Heisman in 2023, Penn State fans may want to save their money betting on the talented back.
If everything goes according to plan for Penn State in 2023, the Nittany Lions will likely see a healthy mixture of carries between Singleton and Kaytron Allen with carries reserved for presumed third-string running back Trey Potts after his transfer from Minnesota.
Unless an injury occurs to either Singleton or Allen, a Penn State running back will likely not see enough carries to stay in the Heisman conversation.
While an injury could help one Penn State running back out in the Heisman conversation, it would be bad news for Penn State’s team goals in 2023.
With Penn State Football expected to challenge Michigan and Ohio State for the Big Ten championship and make a run at a spot in the College Football Playoff, an injury to either of Penn State’s top two running backs could derail those goals. In 2022, Penn State benefited greatly from having two high-quality running backs with fresh legs taking carries all season.
In three games last season, both Singleton and Allen rushed for touchdowns in the same game.
Impressively, in 11 out of Penn State’s 13 games last season, either Singleton or Allen (or both) rushed for at least one touchdown. Expect both Singleton and Allen to make Heisman-like plays for the Nittany Lions in 2023, but barring injury, don’t expect either to be making the trip to New York City next December for the trophy presentation.
While fans can be disappointed if neither of their talented backs can get enough touches for the individual award, for Penn State’s team to reach its very lofty goals for 2023 and beyond, it is extremely important to have both backs playing at their highest levels all season.