Nine years ago, Byron Leftwich finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He received fewer than 10 percent of the first-place votes that went to winner Carson Palmer, and he was only one spot ahead of Jason Gesser.
Still, Chris Huston remembers the Marshall quarterback’s season and Heisman campaign fondly every time he thinks about the Leftwich bobblehead doll the Thundering Herd mailed Heisman voters and media members across the country in 2002 to promote Leftwich’s run at college football’s most coveted award.
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For the first time in more than three decades, summer speculation about Heisman campaigns is relevant in Columbia, and that’s thanks to sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore. Huston, a Heisman voter who publishes HeismanPundit.com, has Lattimore on his preseason watch list for the award and believes South Carolina should launch a campaign in support of Lattimore’s candidacy, just as any school with a viable candidate should.
“If you have a player who busts his butt for your school, you should do something creative to make sure that if he has a case, it gets out there,” Huston said.
ESPN analyst Andre Ware, who won the award in 1989, agrees that Lattimore will be a contender entering the 2011 season but disagrees about the campaign.
“Don’t campaign,” Ware said. “We see you. Just go out and handle your business and approach it like you would any other year. There is a lot of pressure on these guys who are put on posters and billboards and things like that before the season even starts, then the third week of the season, you don’t hear from them anymore because the pressure is too enormous.”
None of Steve Spurrier’s players has had a schoolsponsored Heisman campaign, but the Gamecocks’ head coach isn’t against the idea, he said.
“If our guy wants to send something out on Marcus, that would be OK with us, or Alshon (Jeffery),” he said.
South Carolina’s “guy” is Steve Fink, the athletic department’s director of media relations. The school has no plans at this point for a promotional campaign, Fink said.
Lattimore has his own idea for a campaign platform, which is to “do everything I did last year, times 10,” he said.
That would be a feat, considering he had 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman, setting the school’s single-season touchdown and scoring records and notching the third-best rushing season in school history. With those numbers, the Duncan native doesn’t shy away from the Heisman speculation. In fact, he encourages it.
“Oh yeah, definitely, that’s my goal,” he said. “I believe I can do it.”
Earlier this year, Lattimore’s Twitter avatar was a picture of himself and a young cousin striking the Heisman pose.
"I consider it confidence in what I can do and confidence in my team,” he said, “because it’s a team award, really.”
Lattimore can handicap the Heisman race. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is the man to beat “of course,” he believes. His other candidates are Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, Oregon running back LaMichael James, Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Auburn running back Michael Dyer, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
All those players, and 15 more including Lattimore, are on HeismanPundit’s watch list.
“I wouldn’t put him in the upper category (of the list). I’d put him in the middle category,” Huston said. “He had a great freshman year. He built up name recognition during that time. It looks like he’s heading into this year with some momentum in that regard, and South Carolina looks like they could be good again.”
The website sbgglobal.com lists Lattimore at 5-1 odds to win the Heisman, second only to Luck at 5-2.
The Gamecocks will have to be good for Lattimore to have a chance at the trophy. A return trip to the SEC title game and more than 1,700 rushing yards are minimum requirements, Huston believes.
Lattimore has a couple of hurdles to clear because of his running style and his uniform, Huston said. Lattimore’s punishing running style and the fact that he often will carry the ball more than 30 times in a game are great for South Carolina’s offense but not great for producing the type of highlight-reel runs or gaudy yards-per-carry average that catch Heisman voters’ attention.
Lattimore averaged 4.81 yards per carry last year, the second-lowest total among the nation’s top 35 rushers.
“We’d have to have a big year and another big season,” Spurrier said. “I think he would certainly be one of the guys mentionedhere this year or next year. Certainly, we would hope so.”
Lattimore faces an uphill climb from Columbia to New York. No Gamecock has received a Heisman vote since December of 1980, when running back George Rogers won the school’s only Heisman Trophy.
“There’s kind a bit of class-status warfare when it comes to the Heisman,” Huston said. “If you play for certain schools, you have more weight behind your candidacy in general.”
The top schools for carrying a Heisman campaign are the Alabamas, Notre Dames, Southern Cals, Texases and Ohio States of the world, Huston said. Schools such as Tennesseeand LSU fall into the second tier. South Carolina is a third-tier school in that ranking, Huston believes.
"If you switched Lattimore and put him on Alabama, people would probably be going crazy about him,” Huston said. “Look at Trent Richardson. Trent Richardson didn’t have nearly the yearMarcus Lattimore did as a freshman, but he’s considered a candidate just like Marcus Lattimore.”
Heisman class status can change quickly, Huston said, pointing out that formerly third-tier Stanford has produced the runner-up for the award in each of the last two seasons.
“All you need is a compelling story line and one player to do it,” he said.
Ware believes Lattimore can be that player.
“I think he’s one of the better backs in the entire country,” Ware said. “He’s certainly going to get showcased. I think he’s going to be the bell cow again for the South Carolina offense and everything will run through Marcus Lattimore, which will give him a lot of opportunities to impress, especially early.”
There is an off-field factor that could offset some of Lattimore’s inherent disadvantages. If there’s a close race, Lattimore’s impeccable reputation away from football could give him a boost, Hustonsaid. Lattimore’s regular speaking engagements and visits to hospitals could have the same impact that Tim Tebow’s mission trips or Toby Gerhardt’s monster academic load did by giving the national media a human-interest story that will be endearing to voters.
“I don’t think he’s going to get any votes for being a good guy, but I think it helps reaffirm people’s commitment to a player,” Huston said. “It’s less about being a good guy and more about not being a bad guy, but if you do have a special story, that can help.”
In his final analysis, Huston believes Lattimore’s 2011 season is more likely to be the launching pad for a 2012 run, and that belief is shared by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
“I think it might be another year before he’s in that race, but who knows?” Swinney said. “He may blow it out this year. He’s definitely capable.”
And he’s capable without help from a campaign, Ware said.
“If I’m a sports information guy, I wouldn’t put that pressure on a young man; just allow the process to take care of itself,” Ware said. “With the way media is structured right now, weknow everybody who is a legitimate Heisman candidate. We won’t miss you.”
Huston, who worked in Southern Cal’s sports information office during the successful Heisman campaigns of Palmer and Matt Leinart, has heard that logic but doesn’t believe it.
“It’s just like political advertising,” he said. “Everybody says that they hate negative advertising, but there’s a reason they do it, and that’s because it works. If you have a player’s pictureand bio on a notepad, every time you open up that notepad you are seeing that player. Over time, you internalize the notion that this player is a candidate. I think schools try to be coy and say it doesn’t work so they won’t do it. I think it’s a cop-out. I think they’re worried they’re going to have a bunch of bobbleheads sitting around in October that they can’t use.”
It’s worth that risk, he said.
“I liked my Byron Leftwich bobblehead,” he said.