The Crimson Tide wide receiver has been the star of a landmark season
In the 85-year history of the Heisman Trophy, only two wide receivers have won college football's top individual honor. On Jan. 5, Alabama's DeVonta Smith deserves to join predecessors Tim Brown and Desmond Howard.
Plenty works against Smith. That only two receivers before him won the award is testament enough, but considering some of the noteworthy snubs — hello, 2003 Larry Fitzgerald — the position seems to face an especially uphill climb. Smith even being a finalist is exceptional.
For every Smith, Dede Westbrook and Amari Cooper — the only three receivers to make the cut as finalists in the past 11 years — plenty more deserving stars at the position are excluded. From Marqise Lee in 2012, Mike Evans the following season, and CeeDee Lamb last year, the examples of standout receiver seasons that don't even finish on the Heisman radar suggest simply being a finalist is the glass ceiling.
Smith's personal view on the Heisman may not differ much from his assessment of becoming the first wide receiver ever to win the Associated Press Player of the Year award.
"It's a blessing, just being in that conversation," he said at Alabama's offensive media day ahead of the Rose Bowl Game and College Football Playoff matchup with Notre Dame.
Although votes have been submitted, and the Texas-sized Granddaddy of 'Em All will not factor in the 2020 Heisman race, there's some undeniable poetry in Smith punctuating a historic campaign against the program that produced the first stiff-arm trophy recipient at receiver. Brown won the honor in 1987, just four years before Howard's iconic pose punctuated the last receiver-won Heisman chase.
The man former Alabama assistant coach Billy Napier dubbed Smitty's 2020 isn't a one-to-one comparison to either Brown or Howard before him, but there are strong similarities. First, and perhaps most noticeable, are Smith's 17 touchdown receptions. That's two fewer than Howard produced in 1991, but three more than fellow Alabama Heisman finalist Cooper had at the end of the 2014 regular season.
Both Brown and Howard primarily played receiver, but functioned as Swiss Army knives who arguably owe their special-teams performances for their Heismans as much as their offensive production. Smith has had far fewer opportunities (8 punt returns) to contribute in that phase than Howard (20) or Brown (34) had, but Smitty made the most of it all the same.
The same breakaway explosion that fueled Smith's punt-return touchdown this season also highlights his playmaking on offense.
"The one thing that stands out is he's got another gear," said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. "When he hits his accelerator, he has a chance to separate. And the number of times you see that on film, you understand pretty quickly that every snap there's an opportunity for them to score."
Smith doesn't rely on pure explosiveness, though. Surely speed and athleticism make for a compelling Heisman reel, but the production lies in what Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian lauded as Smith's "high football IQ."
"He recognizes coverages really well," Sarkisian said. "So it's allowed us to move him all over the field, whether it's in the slot, isolation-type plays, in bunches, and the reality of it is he knows why we're calling what we're calling and what we're calling those things for."
Opportunities to carry the ball were significantly less for Smith (3 rushing att.) than Brown (34) or Howard (13), but such is life in an offense with multiple players worthy of Heisman consideration. Running back Najee Harris handled the bulk of ball-carrying duties, rolling up 1,262 yards with a staggering 24 touchdowns. Those numbers certainly warrant consideration.
With Alabama producing finalists in Smith and quarterback Mac Jones, Harris was the unfortunate man out. The same happened to LenDale White at USC when Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were finalists in 2005, three years after Miami sent Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee. Andre Johnson — the wide receiver — was snubbed.
A three-way split of votes from the same team would, by all logic, ensure none won the award. A two-way split is more realistically navigable to the trophy; USC did it twice in 2004 with Leinart and '05 with Bush.
Digging into Jones' Heisman finalist resume furthers Smith's case. The proliferation of passing offenses throughout the 21st century, and especially in the last 10 years, have grown receiving numbers exponentially. Of course, quarterback stats have inflated commensurately, and receivers' production is tied to that of the quarterback. It's why Evans, with more than 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns at the end of the 2013 regular season, failed to gain Heisman traction behind Johnny Manziel's 4,100-plus passing yards and 37 touchdown passes (along with his rushing production) follow-up to his own historic campaign.
In Smith's case, however, he's accounted for more than half of Jones' 32 touchdown passes and 40.4 percent of the quarterback's 3,739 yards. Though not as leaned upon as Elvis Grbac on Howard in 1991, Smith being as central as he is in this era of multiple-receiver sets and well over 30 pass attempts a game is just as remarkable.
And then there's the wow. Shallow at it may be, the kind of plays that go viral are necessary to build a winning Heisman campaign. It was the case long before the first tweet was ever fired off; consider Howard's aforementioned pose, which remains as culturally relevant 30 years later.
Smith's leaping touchdown grab at LSU similarly works as the enduring image of this 2020 season.
The Heisman Trophy is the only fitting conclusion to Smith's historic season, an ultimate validation of his decision to return to Tuscaloosa for one more run.
"I'm so proud of him because I know it was a tough decision for him at the end of last season to come back," Sarkisian said. "But clearly him coming back has been worth his while, and I'm sure it's been very gratifying for him."
Gratifying for Smitty — historic for college football.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.