With Marcus Mariota declaring for the NFL draft today, he continues a recent trend of non-senior Heisman trophy winners forgoing their remaining eligibility and moving to the next level. What do the numbers say about his decision?
Since 1970, 20 non-seniors (15 Juniors, 3 sophomores, 2 freshmen) have won the Heisman Trophy. Of those winners, 8 returned to play in college the following year and 12 left for the pros. Let’s see how things turned out for all of them.
Players returning to college:
- Archie Griffin – RB, Ohio State (1974 and 1975 winner) Drafted 24th overall in 1976 by the Cincinnati Bengals
- Griffin returned to Columbus in 1975 and followed up his Heisman campaign with another, becoming the only two-time Heisman winner, falling short of a National Championship when the Buckeyes suffered their only loss of the year to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
- Ty Detmer – QB, BYU (1990 winner) Drafted 230th overall in 1992 by the Green Bay Packers
- Despite leading the nation in passing yards for a second straight year and finishing 3rd in Heisman voting in 1991, Detmer and the Cougars had a disappointing 8-3-2 season following his Heisman win.
- Jason White QB, Oklahoma (2003 winner) Undrafted
- White had a solid follow-up to his Heisman campaign, finishing 3rd in Heisman voting and leading the Sooners through an undefeated regular season, only to be blown out by USC in the Orange Bowl.
- Matt Leinart – QB, USC (2004 winner) Drafted 10th overall in 2006 by the Arizona Cardinals
- Leinart returned to USC looking to solidify the Trojans as a dynasty in 2005. He finished 3rd in Heisman voting, extended USC’s winning streak to 34 games and led them to the National Championship game, only to be upset in one of the greatest games ever by 2005 Heisman runner-up Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns.
- Tim Tebow – QB, Florida (2007 winner) Drafted 24th overall in 2010 by the Denver Broncos
- Tebow played two more seasons for the Gators after winning the Heisman, the only player to do so; in 2008 he led them to a National Championship (becoming the only player to do so after winning a Heisman) and finished 3rd in Heisman voting; in 2009 he finished 5th in Heisman voting and had hopes of another National Championship derailed after a loss to Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Alabama in the SEC Championship game
- Sam Bradford – QB, Oklahoma (2008 winner) Drafted 1st overall in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams
- Bradford’s follow-up to his Heisman campaign was cut short by a shoulder injury, limiting him to action in only three games and saw him fail to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting
- Mark Ingram – RB, Alabama (2009 winner) Drafted 28th overall in 2011 by the New Orleans Saints
- Due to a knee injury and splitting carries with Trent Richardson, Ingram’s production dropped significantly in 2010 and he failed to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting
- Johnny Manziel – QB, Texas A&M (2012 winner) Drafted 22nd overall in 2013 by the Cleveland Browns
- Manziel’s passing numbers actually improved a season after he became the first freshman to win the Heisman, but off the field issues and less Aggie success on the field hurt Manziel’s hopes for a repeat; he finished 5th in Heisman voting
- Jameis Winston – QB, Florida State (2013 winner)
- Jameis led the Seminoles to an undefeated regular season, extended the Seminoles winning streak to 29 games, and finished 6th in Heisman voting. Hopes for a second straight FSU National Championship came to an end with a loss to 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and Oregon in the College Football Playoff Semifinal Game (Rose Bowl).
Players leaving for the pros:
- Billy Sims – RB, Oklahoma (1980 winner) Drafted 1st overall in 1981 by the Detroit Lions
- Herschel Walker – RB, Georgia (1982 winner) Drafted 114th overall in 1985 by the Dallas Cowboys*
- Walker actually played in the USFL from 1983 through 1985 prior to being drafted by the Cowboys
- Barry Sanders – RB, Oklahoma State (1988 winner) Drafted 3rd overall in 1989 by the Detroit Lions
- Andre Ware – QB, Houston (1989 winner) Drafted 7th overall in 1990 by the Detroit Lions
- Desmond Howard – WR/KR (1991 winner) Drafted 4th overall in 1992 by the Green Bay Packers
- Rashaan Salaam – RB, Colorado (1994 winner) Drafted 21st overall in 1995 by the Chicago Bears
- Charles Woodson – DB, Michigan (1997 winner) Drafted 4th overall in 1998 by the Oakland Raiders
- Reggie Bush – RB, USC (2005 winner) Drafted 2nd overall in 2006 by the New Orleans Saints
- Cam Newton – QB, Auburn (2010 winner) Drafted 1st overall in 2011 by the Carolina Panthers
- Robert Griffin III – QB, Baylor (2011 winner) Drafted 2nd overall in 2012 by the Washington Redskins
- Marcus Mariota – QB, Oregon (2014 winner)
The production for underclassmen returning to college is a bit of a mixed bag. Likely motives for returning to campus, namely a National Champion and another Heisman wins, have only occurred once each for players coming back.
In terms of draft position, underclassmen Heisman winners who leave for the NFL have a (statistically) significant advantage over those who return to college. The average draft position for those who leave for the pros is 15.9 (that number drops to 5 excluding Walker’s unusual circumstance) compared to 48.4 for players who elected to return to college, plus Jason White going undrafted.
There are some additional circumstances to consider, namely eligibility rules preventing Tebow, Bradford, Ingram, Manziel and Winston from going to the NFL the year after winning the Heisman. Similar rules led to Herschel Walker to leave for the USFL after his junior year at UGA. Nonetheless, the numbers suggest Mariota is making the right decision.