The great debate: Can a freshman win the Heisman?

Voters divided in how they cast their ballot

09:17 PM CDT on Monday, October 25, 2004

By CHUCK CARLTON / The Dallas Morning News

Think of Herschel Walker as Adrian Peterson minus Jason White, Internet buzz and wall-to-wall TV coverage.Think of Herschel Walker as Adrian Peterson minus Jason White, Internet buzz and wall-to-wall TV coverage.

As a freshman in 1980, Walker propelled Georgia from a mediocre 6-5 record to undefeated national champions. Walker rushed for more than 1,600 yards as a precocious combination of power, size and speed.

He still didn't win the Heisman that season, finishing behind two seniors, South Carolina running back George Rogers and Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green.Walker's bid illustrates the problem facing Peterson as the Oklahoma running back tries to become the first freshman to win the award.

Heisman voter Tony Barnhart of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned current attitudes.

"I don't know that times have changed because still you have 900 voters who range from sports writers to former Heisman winners," Barnhart said. "I just think it's hard for a non-traditional candidate to win when you have that many people even though I believe that Peterson is that kind of player."

Peterson joins Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk as the only Division I-A freshmen to achieve 1,000 yards in his first seven games.

The Cowboys' Eddie George, who won the Heisman at Ohio State, called Peterson "the real deal."

New York Daily News sports writer Dick Weiss, a voter, said Peterson might be a once-in-a-decade talent.

Heisman winner Andre Ware of ESPN characterized Peterson as "a fabulous player" for whom he would have "no problem" voting.

Former Oklahoma star Steve Owens, another Heisman winner, praised Peterson's physical tools. But Owens and Ware said they would be surprised if Peterson wins.

Roger Staubach, a Heisman winner as a Navy junior, said familiarity sometimes leads voters to judge players on a career. He usually waits until the final game to vote.

"I'm of the ilk if I really thought he was the best player, whether he's a freshman, I can easily vote for him if he has the kind of year that you would associate to a Heisman winner," Staubach said. "That's not an easy decision, period."

Dave Campbell of the Waco Herald-Tribune, a Heisman voter since the 1950s, offered a couple theories.

First, he said, few freshmen have equaled Peterson's impact.

Plus, voters want to be certain that a player is not "a one-year flash in the pan," Cambpell said. "When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate and I underscore legitimate juniors and seniors to consider."

Much depends on how Peterson and Oklahoma finishes.

Peterson has been targeted recently by opposing defenses, and needed strong second halves to reach 100 yards.

An advantage for Peterson could be Oklahoma's undefeated record and TV exposure.

"He's on a great team, and he's making a great team last year a better team this year," George said.

Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman as a senior at Miami.

He understands the Heisman tradition.

He also trusts his eyes.

"It goes to the best collegiate player that year, whoever that is," Testaverde said, echoing Staubach's view. "I know most of the time it's built up over the years of knowing who they are, but if this kid keeps up those numbers, I don't see why not."