Every year, we lament that the Heisman Trophy has “become a QB award,” and then argue over whether the “Most Valuable Player” can truly go to anyone but a quarterback, when that position singlehandedly touches the ball every play and makes or breaks a team.
The Heisman Trophy is the most talked about award in college football, and is synonymous with the “best” player. Then people will argue over stats and what the words “best,” “most valuable,” and “most outstanding” actually mean. The Heisman Trust, for their part, are quite vague on what their actual criteria is:
The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.
That could mean whatever you want it to mean, to be honest.
Humanity craves logic to back up subjective feeling, though, so we lean on statistics as a measurable, rankable metric, and the nature of stat-keeping in football means that pretty much every QB in the nation is going to have more numbers than any player of any other position. It’s just the nature of it.
Why, then, do the current betting odds have DeVonta Smith as the favorite to take home the hardware, when his own QB, Mac Jones, shares all of his stats, plus the stats of his fellow receivers?
Because people know when they’re watching greatness.
You like stats? Smith leads the entire nation in catches, receiving yards, and yards after catch. QB Mac Jones is having one of the best passing seasons in college football history, and Smith has absolutely commanded nearly half of that production, despite sharing the total possible targets with 6 other regular pass catchers.
In 64% of his games this year, he’s gone over 140 yards. The others were all blowouts where Alabama was subbing in backups after halftime, and even against Arkansas, he added a punt return for a touchdown.
First career punt return TD for DeVonta Smith— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 12, 2020
What can’t this guy do?! pic.twitter.com/W0cAYEtJBA
But, hey, what if stats aren’t enough? Especially when compared to the stats of quarterbacks? What about context?
Smith was part of a quartet of receivers all expected to be drafted in the 1st round for the previous two season, and they all caught passes from a a top-5 draft pick at QB in Tua Tagovailoa.
Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Tagovailoa all left, and Smith had to prepare to play with a new QB... One that was never a highly ranked recruit and had a penchant for getting a bit shellshocked and emotional when things got tough. In the early weeks of the season, Smith was clearly the leader of the offense as he helped keep things moving on 3rd downs over and over, and made multiple interception-saving pass breakups in the Tide’s first big test against Georgia.
At the start of week 5, Alabama’s other receiver and Smith’s running mate, Jaylen Waddle, went down with a broken ankle. With Waddle out for the season, defenses were able to bracket cover Smith without worrying quite so much about other Alabama receivers. Instead of being daunted by the extra attention and pressure to succeed, Smith only stepped up his play. In the following games, Smith went for 203, 144, 171, and 231 yards. On top of that, he added punt returner to his resume, and, without even missing a blink, started averaging an utterly ridiculous 25 yards per return.
The Heisman Trophy is all about the narrative and who’s grabbing the national spotlight, and that’s when Smith emerged into the forefront of that monolith of media attention. Going into the game against LSU, Smith was already being talked about as the dominant engine behind Alabama’s offense. He had the stats. He had the highlight plays. And he had the narrative.
Then this happened:
DeVonta Smith’s first half numbers vs. LSU:— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) December 6, 2020
— Seven catches
— 219 yards
— Three touchdowns
Smith’s one handed catch over the guy that many considered the best defensive back in college football going into 2020 went viral, and vaulted him into the living of room of every fan in America.
He followed up that 231 yard performance against LSU with the aforementioned punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas, and then, in Alabama’s biggest game of the season, came down with a season high 15 catches for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns as well as breaking up another would-be interception, recovering a fumble, and recovering an onside kick to seal a tight victory in the SEC championship.
When you watch DeVonta Smith, the word dominance just keeps coming to mind. He’s skinny for a football player, yet we often see him pushing headfirst through two defenders to pick up a critical first down. He’s faster than anyone else on the field. Cornerbacks can’t keep up with him when he’s pulling off route-running footwork that most pro receivers can’t do.
Throw it deep? He’ll out run you. Throw him a screen? He breaks your tackle and then outruns you. Throw it high? He’ll out jump you. Throw it low? He makes a shoe string catch. When he’s open, he’s calling for the ball. And when he’s single covered? He’s still calling for the ball.
Smith is a quiet guy, but those little displays of confidence exhibit his absolute mastery of the position of wide receiver. That kind of borderline arrogance backed up by dominant play is something only seen in one or two superstars in any given time in any given sport.
But, hey, what about Trevor Lawrence? He obviously didn’t get a whole lot of air time this season, but was a fringe Heisman player in 2018 and 2019, only to be eclipsed by someone else having a historic season. The Heisman trophy is a single-season award, but that doesn’t mean voters can’t look back to sustained elite play as a positive point towards casting a vote.
While Mac Jones and Kyle Trask are more new to the field, Lawrence has the “career achievement” designation to many.
Except, well, DeVonta Smith has him beat there too.
As a true freshman, Smith was out here winning national championships before Lawrence was even out of high school. The stage was never too big for him, even when he was a 165-pound kid fresh out of high school.
He’s been catching game-winning passes in the biggest moments from 3 different quarterbacks for four seasons now.
Smith could have coasted after those moments as a true freshman and gotten drafted into the NFL. Instead, he’s improved each and every year to go from an occasional deep threat to a player who can pick up yards after the catch to a 3rd down possession option to the utterly dominant in all phases player that he is now.
He statistically led Alabama’s receivers in 2019 despite Jeudy and Ruggs both garnering the NFL draft attention, and now has made that season look pedestrian in retrospect.
So, you want the most valuable player in college football? DeVonta Smith has forged the Alabama offense into the best in the nation through sheer force of will, whether he’s catching the ball, breaking tackles, returning punts, breaking up interceptions, or recovering fumbles. Oh, and he’s possibly the best punt returner in the nation, is one of Alabama’s top punt coverage tacklers, and recovers game-sealing onside kicks in championship games. Talk about valuable.
You want the most outstanding player in the nation? Smith is leagues ahead of any other player at his position, both statistically and in terms of sheer highlight value.
You want the best career? How about four years of production through three QBs, three offensive coordinators, multiple SEC Championships, and, oh, how about a overtime game-winner in a National Championship to boot?
And that’s all great. Those are good criteria to judge a Heisman candidate.
But I don’t want the most valuable, most outstanding, or best career. I want the most dominant player in college football, and that’s DeVonta Smith.