Three Running Backs You Can Build an Underdog Heisman Case For

The Heisman is almost exclusively a quarterback award, so let’s have some fun a discuss the case for three running backs no one is talking about

Emmanuel Michel leads Air Force in rushing
Source: Parker Seibold, The Gazette

Like it or not, the Heisman is a quarterback award. Gone are the days when Herschel Walker and George Rogers going head-to-head for the Heisman driver's seat was must-see TV. Since 2001, there have only been three running back Heisman winners and a single receiver. The rest have been quarterbacks.

This year is no different, as quarterbacks have dominated the headlines throughout the season. For the sake of fun, there are two to three running backs who bring intriguing arguments, albeit those with very slim chances.

LeShon Williams

The much-maligned Iowa offense has been the subject of several memes and deserved criticism. The Hawkeyes are 115th in scoring offense with 21 points/game. Without the 41-point "explosion" against Western Michigan, that total drops to 16 points/game. Iowa is dead-last in total offense and third-to-last in pass offense with 117 yards/game. The only teams below them are Air Force and Navy. You read that right. Army has a more prolific passing offense than Iowa.

Despite this, Iowa is 6-1 and in prime position to win the Big Ten West for the second time in three years. The Hawkeyes own the tiebreaker over Wisconsin by their 15-6 win over the Badgers last week. Bursting onto the national scene was LeShon Williams, whose 82-yard touchdown run could have been the only scoring Iowa needed.

Williams was steady in a 25-carry, 174-yard performance that brought recollections of Ronnie Harmon and even Nile Kinnick. Iowa looks primed to return to Indianapolis and claim a spot in the New Year's Six Bowl with a remaining schedule consisting of Minnesota, Northwestern, Rutgers, Illinois, and Nebraska. Wisconsin still has to play Ohio State, which will likely increase their deficit with the Hawkeyes to two games.

All of this begs the question, did LeShon Williams make himself a Heisman dark horse?

Let's begin with the easy part: why he's not a Heisman dark horse. Iowa runs a two-running back system, with Williams' counterpart, Kaleb Johnson, totaling 68 carries. Williams only has seven more carries than Johnson but is more efficient. Still, Williams averages just over ten carries per game, so the 25 carries he got against Wisconsin was an outlier.

Williams has also been inconsistent. After his 174-carry performance and 12-carry, 145-yard outing against Western Michigan, his next-best performance was a 74-yard game against Purdue. Finally, Williams was a non-factor in Iowa's biggest game of the season against Penn State. Williams had six carries for nine yards and a single catch for three yards.

Despite all this, one can still make a case for Williams. If Williams' workload stays on a 20-25 carry pace, and Iowa beats Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, Williams's Heisman argument certainly will have more ground.

Something else that builds LeShon Williams' Heisman case is Iowa's poor quarterback play. Cade McNamara's season-ending injury was devastating for the Hawkeyes' offense. The results confirm this. In Deacon Hill's first start against Purdue, he completed six of his 20 passes, and against Wisconsin, he completed six passes again, but for 37 yards in 14 attempts. A 1000-yard season is not impossible, but takes a breakout final five or six games from Williams.

Williams' ability to perform as he did against Wisconsin performance despite inept quarterback play definitely strengthens his underdog Heisman case. No other running back in relative Heisman contention has less support from the passing game than Williams. His ability to do more with less gives him a stronger case than running back frontrunners like Audric Estime.

John Lee Eldridge/Emmanuel Michel

The 6-0 Air Force Falcons are the talk of the college football world and a refreshing story in a time of turbulence in the sport. Zac Larrier's injury likely derails the best shot at a Heisman dark horse for the Falcons. Larrier has 473 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the year. He was also magnificent passing the ball, completing 20 of his 28 passes for 468 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, if one were to choose a Heisman candidate from the Falcons, John Lee Eldridge and Emmanuel Michel are the most logical choices. Eldridge had as big a Heisman moment as any player in the country. With the American Athletic Conference claiming every Group of Five New Year's Six appearance since 2017, a loss to Wyoming would likely have eliminated the Falcons from contention. Eldridge's electrifying 58-yard touchdown run kept Air Force on the path to the first Service Academy New Year's Bowl appearance since the 1964 Cotton Bowl.

Eldridge is one of the most exciting players in America. Eldridge averaged 7.7 yards/carry on 99 carries last season. Somehow, Eldridge is even more electric this year, averaging 10.1 yards/carry. He does not get the ball enough, with only 34 carries this year, limiting his Heisman candidacy. Zac Larrier's injury could increase Eldridge's workload, but not enough for him to capture the attention of Heisman voters. For now, Air Force's fullbacks run the offense for the Falcons. Brad Roberts had a whopping 345 carries for 1728 yards in 2022 alone.

Replacing Roberts is Emmanuel Michel, with 110 carries for 497 yards and eight touchdowns. After running the ball only 12 times in the first two games, the Falcons have fed Michel the ball lately, including a 33-carry, 148-yard showing against San Jose State. Michel is the Falcons' workhorse, but Roberts' monster 2022 performance works against him. Roberts had 308 carries for 1612 yards and 15 touchdowns, with three games of over 30 touches, and still received no Heisman love despite Air Force's 9-3 record.

Michel could end the regular season shy of 1,000 yards though a potential 13th game in the Mountain West Championship Game will help him eclipse the plateau. These stats are not on par with Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry's Heisman seasons, or even Kenneth Walker's 6th-place stats in 2021, but they are still impressive, especially for a fullback.

Michel has one factor working in his favor: the writers. Oftentimes, fans wish statisticians voted on these awards rather than people like myself who center the award around narratives. Michel has a narrative built on nostalgia and nearly six decades of change in college football.

Navy came close in 2015, 2016, and 2019, and Air Force finished in the top ten in 1985 but settled for the Bluebonnet Bowl. A New Year's Bowl berth has eluded Service Academies since Roger the Dodger won the Heisman. 13-0 Air Force making it to a New Year's Bowl would be the storyline of the college football season. What better way to build nostalgia than making a fullback the poster boy?

Since the Heisman’s evolution into essentially the award for the best quarterback on the best team or a really good one, the Heisman discourse has been boring. Will LeShon Williams, Emmanuel Michel, or John Lee Eldridge win the Heisman? Probably not. Yet, it’s the intrigue and uniqueness of their cases that make them worth talking about.