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Wait, Can Justice Hill Win a Heisman Trophy?

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Oklahoma State’s offense is eyeing something between a retool and a rebuild in 2018, with whomever takes over for Mason Rudolph at QB — and how quickly and effectively they handle that transition — probably spelling the difference between the two.

But there is a known commodity in Mike Yurcich’s tool chest, and he’s versatile, durable and has a chance to shine this fall.

Justice Hill was the best player on the field for good chunks of OSU’s 2017 campaign and arguably for the entirety of an all-time Bedlam showdown that featured a No. 1 draft pick and two (or three) of the best to ever lace them up at OSU.

What more can he do with all eyes on him in 2018?

A few months ago, Kyle Boone kick-started the #Hei5man campaign citing that Hill was probably worthy of being in the conversation a year ago and is now facing a season in which he will be the focal point of OSU’s offense.

So let’s take a look at recent history, what it tells us about the validity of Hill’s Heisman case and what changes could affect it in 2018.

It’s become a QB’s award

Of 83 Heisman trophy winners, 40 have been running backs and 35 have been quarterbacks. The rest include three fullbacks, two wide receivers, two cornerbacks and two “ends” (back when there weren’t separate offensive and defensive units).

But recently things have changed. Since 2000, 15 of the last 18 winners have been quarterbacks with Derrick Henry (Alabama), Mark Ingram (Alabama) and Reggie Bush (USC) the only RBs to win the prestigious trophy during the 21st Century. Only seven tailbacks have won it since Barry Sanders earned the school’s lone Heisman in 1988. 

That’s partly shaped by the style of offense that is being played and the fact that teams like to divide touches between a committee of at least two running backs for the sake of durability. You can also point to the star power at QB that is able to shine in these more pass-happy offenses.

So what did those three winning backs have that others haven’t? Let’s take a look at their numbers.

Heisman RBs School Year Rushing Yards TDs YPC Record
Derrick Henry Alabama 2015 2,219 28 5.6 14-1
Mark Ingram Alabama 2009 1,658 17 6.1 14-0
Reggie Bush USC 2005 1,740 16 8.7 12-1

A few things jump out to about these three.

1. They all played for blue-blood programs. Hill will not have that luxury.
2. They all were the focal point of their team’s offense and put up the numbers to prove it. Check.
3. Lastly, all three of these tailbacks played in the national championship game with both Ingram and Henry bringing home the trophy.

It’s conceivable that Hill might get into the same stat-osphere as those listed above if OSU leans heavily on the running game (and heavily on Hill), while it breaks in a new QB.

But it’s unlikely that Oklahoma State even makes it into the playoff. If it did, it would undoubtedly be the best coaching of Mike Gundy’s career based on what the Cowboys lost and summer expectations.

Does that mean Justice can’t win it? No, but he would likely have to put up some insane numbers to be in the conversation at year’s end. If OSU exceeds expectations thanks to that production, it wouldn’t hurt his case.

How Hill’s Workload might change

Then comes the question of usage. Gundy and Co. rode Justice down-Hill last season and he’s proven to be a durable as they come (stops to run outside and bang fervently on all five oak trees in my backyard).

Hill’s sophomore campaign amounted to a Big 12-leading 1,467 rushing yards and 15 TDs while toting the rock for 5.5 yards per carry.

But with backs like J.D. King and LD Brown another year older and Gundy finally read to unleash Chuba, could Justice be in for a smaller piece of the pie?

“We’ve got four running backs right now, and we’re going to use them,” Gundy said following OSU’s spring game. “We would like to limit Justice Hill’s carries in a game to 15 or so. I think we’ll be able to do that. I feel good about where we’re at from a depth standpoint.”

Do I believe Gundy will be successful in limiting Justice to 15 carries per game? Not at all. Do I believe Gundy believes that he will? Even less so.

Somewhere between having more mouths to feed and the fact that OSU will be breaking in a new QB — and being without James Washington and Marcell Ateman — I think his average sits at right about 20, where it was last year.

But OSU is apparently looking to increase Hill’s role in the passing game. During spring practice, Hill stated that he had been working on improving his skills as a receiver.

“The main thing is route running and being a receiver,” Hill said. “I want to contribute any way I can, so that’s one way they say I could is catching the ball more. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Last year, Hill boasted a catch rate of 70.5 percent, behind only Jalen McCleskey’s and Dillon Stoner’s and is the third-leading returning Cowboy in catches behind those same two receivers.

If he can keep up a similar clip from an efficiency standpoint and become a bit of a safety valve for OSU’s new quarterback, he could see his value to OSU’s offense increase even more.

Odds aren’t in his favor

Hill seems to be flying into 2018 under the national radar despite two seasons of impressive play and production.

When some early 2018 betting odds were released earlier this month, Hill was not even given odds to win the Heisman. Sam Ehlinger and Jalen Hurts — both who are not currently slated to be starting QBs — and 27 others were given Heisman odds in that list.

Bryce Love was given 5/1 odds to win it following his 2,118-yard, 19-score junior season where he averaged over eight years per carry. To have a realistic chance to fight his brand recognition and even be in the conversation, Hill will have to at least keep pace with the Stanford back.

I’m not ready to count Hill out for a shot at winning the award but it will probably take the combination of a surprisingly good finish from the Cowboys and a Barryesque season to make the Heisman even a possibility for Hill in 2018.

Follow Kyle Cox on Twitter @KyleCoxPFB