Moments before the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner was announced Saturday night, the dual threat Robert Griffin III was seated next to Andrew Luck, who’s widely considered the perfect NFL prospect.
History said it would be either Luck or Griffin who heard his name called, as 10 of the last 12 winners had been quarterbacks.
Somewhere, Denard Robinson was watching.
Griffin looked cool and calm. He was the odds-on favorite, though Luck’s team won more games and made a BCS bowl.
Earlier, the Baylor quarterback’s stats flashed across the screen. Half of his 36 touchdown passes were 36 yards or longer. His 11 yards per pass attempt were third-best in Division-I history. And his 192.31 passer efficiency rating — if maintained in his bowl game — would be the best of all time.
“A quarterback first, (but) fast and agile enough to also be a world-class hurdler,” said ESPN announcer Chris Fowler, as a montage of Griffin’s highlights rolled. “Attacking obstacles full-speed is innate.
“Magnetic, always positive, Griffin lifted the Bears through their low points. With toughness, he took more hits and provided heroics. Dynamic — and confusing for defenders who had no answer for Griffin’s arsenal. Mistake-free precision to slice with screen passes, then deliver daggers deep with stunning unmatched marksmanship.”
Across the board, Griffin’s numbers were more impressive than Luck’s. His story was better too. Taking a mediocre Big 12 team to the brink of a BCS game while beating Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech in November built Heisman momentum.
Signature moments built Griffin’s legend. He downed Oklahoma on a beautiful touchdown pass with eight seconds left, and for the first month of the season everyone loved to talk about how he had more touchdowns than incompletions. The All-American hurdler became known as a lethal quarterback who could run, instead of a lethal runner who could throw.
His nickname “RGIII” became part of the college football lexicon.
Then he declared, “I think Baylor just won it’s first Heisman,” after he accounted for four touchdowns in the Bears’ season-ending win over Texas. Stories emerged about the 6-foot-2, 220-pound signal caller. Everyone formed an opinion. And everyone liked RGIII, the congenial and electrifying Baylor Bear.
Griffin’s 3,998 passing yards, 72-percent completion rate and 36 total touchdowns may have been enough to win the Heisman, but he added more than 600 rushing yards and nine more rushing touchdowns for good measure. Luck’s stats couldn’t compare.
Luck was the first to start applauding before the Heisman trustee could even finish announcing Griffin’s name as the winner. When she did finish, she shouted, “RGIII!”
She, too, had fallen for his allure.
A SUPERSTAR OFF THE FIELD
Michigan quarterback Denard “Shoelace” Robinson said Friday he planned on watching the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He may have witnessed Griffin, a speedster who’s two inches taller and a more prolific passer, hoist the Heisman.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he thought Shoelace deserved to be considered for the award.
“I can’t sit here and rattle off statistics, but in the Big Ten conference he took a team to 10-2,” Hoke said. “I’m not a big stats guy — but what he did (for this team).”
To be clear, Robinson’s statistics didn’t sing. He threw 14 interceptions — just a handful of quarterbacks threw more. He topped 200 yards passing twice. Griffin passed that mark in all but one of his games.
But Hoke saw Heisman-like intangibles and talent in Robinson.
“I knew he would say that,” Robinson responded. “He knows what kind of player I am. And I think I should be there, one day. Hopefully. We’ll see.”
He already has a Heisman-worthy smile and a personality that the nation is begging to fall in love with. Plus, his nickname, “Shoelace,” is ready-made for the spotlights.
“I bring an energy every time you see me,” Robinson said Friday, when asked to describe what kind of player he is. “I bring a smile and I want to bright up everybody I see.”
WHAT MUST ROBINSON DO TO BECOME A 2012 HEISMAN CANDIDATE
How much more improving does Robinson need to do?
He needs to become a lethal quarterback who can run, instead of a lethal runner who can throw.
For Robinson to win, he better have watched Griffin closely this season.
Robinson’s team is going to have to win at least nine games, beating a few rivals along the way. Robinson must be the star.
Griffin was Superman for the Bears, and so losing three games became acceptable because everyone assumed Griffin had no help.
Robinson must continue to create those signature moments he has already authored — like the comeback wins over Notre Dame and Northwestern this season. He must limit the disastrous shake-your-head moments, like when he couldn’t figure out Michigan State’s cornerback blitzes or when he couldn’t produce one last touchdown in Iowa City. If Michigan slips, it can’t be his fault.
Remember the first four games of his breakout 2010 season? Remember when his Heisman stiff-arm pose was captured by Daily photographer Sam Wolson? Robinson played out of his mind for those four weeks. For four weeks he was the Heisman favorite. To win the Heisman, he has to play that way all season.
He doesn’t have to be perfect. Griffin wasn’t. But he was close.
Somewhere along the way, Griffin learned that his athleticism was best suited as a complement to his arm. He followed the lead of Auburn’s Cam Newton, Ohio State’s Troy Smith and Florida’s Tim Tebow as dual-threat quarterbacks who ran and threw their way to the Heisman.
Robinson could do the same, only if he continues to flourish — as he did down the stretch against Nebraska and Ohio State — in Al Borges’s offense.
The coaches say Robinson’s starting to get “it.” He’s starting to go through his progressions. He’s starting to read defenses better. He’s starting to make better decisions.
At first, Robinson admitted he was confused about the right time to take off and run. Now, it’s becoming second nature, once he first stays true to his progression.
“Don’t force the ball — that’s the biggest thing,” Robinson said. “I’ve been forcing it. I got good legs and I’ve got to use them when I need to. … Sometimes, I forced it and I’d run it when I didn’t have to run it. So I learned how to progress, go through everything, and do what I have to do.”
After the bye week, fifth-year senior wide receiver Junior Hemingway saw a different quarterback emerge the last five weeks of the season. Borges said there would be growing pains and Robinson had endured the worst of them.
“I wasn’t really worried about it,” Hemingway said. “Like everybody else, I knew: Denard’s still learning. Coming from the spread to actually dropping back and reading — one read, two read — and then coming back.
“And I knew he was still learning. It just came down to a point where he was going to go where he needed to go with the ball — what he thought was best.”
Next year, it’ll be time to make plays, not strides.
TIME IS PRECIOUS
Robinson has only his senior year left to realize his dream.
Of the last (now) 11 quarterbacks to win the Heisman, only Eric Crouch had less-than-stellar passing numbers. Minus Crouch, the dual-threat winners have averaged 3,200 passing yards, a 68-percent completion rate, 803 rushing yards and 45 total touchdowns. All four — Griffin, Newton, Smith and Tebow — were talented rushers, yet averaged just six interceptions in their Heisman seasons.
The statistical expectation is daunting, and it may have cost Luck the trophy.
Robinson’s 2010 season, his first under Borges: 2,056 passing yards, a 56-percent completion rate, 1,163 rushing yards, 34 total touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Robinson’s trek to improve will be all uphill, opening the season against Alabama at Cowboys Stadium before playing on the road at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State — all of which have an axe to grind with Michigan. The schedule could swallow him whole or provide the spotlight his Heisman campaign needs.
He’ll have to put it all together like Griffin did. The Baylor quarterback posted similar numbers the year prior to his Heisman year, but in 2010 he threw fewer touchdowns (22 compared to 36), more interceptions (8 to 6) and the Bears had a worse record (7-5 compared to 9-3), losing their final three regular season games.
His coaches raved how he then took his proficiency and accuracy to heights previously reserved only for Luck.
Griffin seems to have been further along than Robinson at that point, but it’s possible Robinson follows Griffin’s path.
Then their stories will sound the same: a dual-threat quarterback with one-of-a-kind speed that decided to throw first, run second. Both withstood their program’s doldrums to carry their teams to national prominence.
If we get ahead of ourselves for a second, imagine Fowler reading off a similar description during Robinson’s montage in 2012.
Griffin’s personality and legs bought him attention. His arm won him the Heisman.
Robinson will have to do the same.
—Rohan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TimRohan.