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Trent Richardson's Heisman shot

10/4/2011
Trent Richardson leaped to the forefront of the Heisman discussion with his performance vs. Florida. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Three weeks ago I was on "The Experts" on ESPNU, and our roundtable had the mandatory Heisman candidate discussion. After two weeks of games we were talking about Robert Griffin III, Denard Robinson, and Andrew Luck with some Landry Jones and Marcus Lattimore thrown in for good measure. As the producer jumped in our collective ears and told us to wrap it up, someone on set blurted out, "Hey, we haven't even mentioned Trent Richardson. When is he going to get it going?"

Three weeks later, we have the answer to that question.

That'd be right now.

On Saturday night, on Alabama's biggest stage of the season, the Crimson Tide running back rifled around, over and through the Florida Gators' defense for a career-high 181 yards, adding a pair of touchdowns and 27 yards receiving. It was Richardson's fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game. Anyone still looking for an "announced his presence with authority" moment got one in his bruising 36-yard TD run that pile-drove the final nail into Florida's coffin.

"This was very sweet, because it was against Florida," the Pensacola native said after the game. "I really wanted to play well in this game and help us get a win."

It also might have helped him win something else -- the Heisman. Let's power through his chances, shall we?

Why he'll win

Playing for Alabama provides all the mandatory (yet unofficial) requirements that a modern Heisman hopeful must have. He is on a team and in a conference that will provide him with a national spotlight on a weekly basis. It is also a team with a second-to-none history and tradition that always seems to attract Heisman voters in a way that, say, Baylor and Boise State do not. (He's also the best offensive player on a team that isn't all that settled at the QB position.)

All of the above add up to the most jaw-dropping aspect of former teammate Mark Ingram's 2009 Heisman victory. In 120 years of football, the Crimson Tide have produced nearly 100 All-Americans and 23 College Football Hall of Famers, and this season alone they have 26 alumni on NFL rosters.

And Ingram was the school's first Heisman winner?!

Ingram, just a sophomore, was able to undo all that futility (Bama had never had a player finish higher than third) by posting numbers that couldn't be ignored, particularly in big games. A head-to-head comparison shows us that his protégé is on a very similar track.

Richardson has added 11 catches for 148 yards, including a 61-yard TD catch against Arkansas. After five games in 2009, Ingram had hauled in 14 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns. In Richardson's first five, he has played three ranked teams. Ingram had played one against 10th-ranked Virginia Tech in the season opener.

Ingram's breakout stretch started in Week 5 against Kentucky, then rolled on over the next six weeks with five 100-plus-yard games, including a 246-yarder versus South Carolina. His only double-digit performance was a 99-yard effort versus Tennessee. The momentum of that stretch allowed him to win the Heisman despite a so-so showing in the Iron Bowl.

Richardson is already off to a better start against a tougher schedule. If he can duplicate Ingram's second half, he'll also be too hard to ignore.

Why he won't

1. It's a quarterbacks' year. As we've already said with LaMichael James and Lattimore, it feels like a tough year for a running back to break through. Why? Certain seasons lean toward certain positions, and this year, from preseason hype all the way into October, the Heisman chatter has revolved almost exclusively around quarterbacks, from Luck, Jones and Kellen Moore to now Robinson, Griffin and Russell Wilson.

2. It's too soon. History says it's all but impossible to win the big bronze trophy if someone from your school has just won it, particularly if that winner was also a teammate. Since they started handing out Heismans in 1935, there have only been seven instances when players from the same school won the trophy within a three-year span, and one of those was the same guy -- Archie Griffin's back-to-back wins in 1974-75. Since then, the only school to pull it off has been USC, with Charles White and Marcus Allen in 1979 and 1981 and the three-winner run of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush (an award that has since been vacated) in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In other words, it's hard to do.

Scouting take

"Buddy, this isn't even a discussion."

That's what an NFL scouting director told me when I called this past weekend and started our conversation with the question: Hey, if he comes out of school, would Trent Richardson be the best available running back in April's NFL draft?

"The first time he showed up on my radar was the [2010] national championship game," the scouting director said. "Everybody settled in to watch Ingram do his thing, but all of the sudden my phone is ringing and it's my GM asking, "Wait a damn minute, who is this freshman they keep giving the ball to?"

A 5-foot-11, he is a tad shorter than most pro scouts would like, but his 225-pound frame makes up for it. That muscular build, which reportedly squats more than 500 pounds, also gives him a pass when it comes to speed.

"He's not slow by any means, but he isn't a rocket like the kid from Oregon [LaMichael James] or the kid at Virginia Tech [David Wilson]. But that little bit of difference is made up by his strength. A safety or a linebacker might catch him, but tackling him is a whole other problem."

When asked for a pro comparison, scouts most frequently point to Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, but all say that although Richardson's build and running style may be similar, he has the potential for more explosiveness once he grinds through the largest line of defenders. Mel Kiper Jr. views him as an elite talent who could go among the first few picks.

"There are things he needs to work on. His pass-blocking is a bit raw," the scouting director said. "So are his receiving skills. But already this year we've seen improvement in those areas. And we all know someone on [Bama coach Nick] Saban's staff. It's full of NFL guys. We know he's getting coached up."

Intangibles

Some -- OK, a lot -- of running backs with God-gifted abilities have a tendency to just ride those talents and not do much off the field to improve them. Richardson doesn't have that problem. His willingness to attack the weight room has become legendary in Tuscaloosa: He's eager to sculpt his body in an iron machine that can make up for early whispers of "too thin," "not fast enough" and "needs more lateral movement."

And Richardson's coaches routinely point to his maturity, as evidenced by the patience he showed in his first two seasons. Coming out of high school as a can't-miss, five-star recruit (he was No. 6 in the ESPNU 150 and the top running back), he didn't fight Ingram for the starting job. He instead respected Ingram's already-established role as team leader. Even when he showed streaks of brilliance during Ingram's injuries, runs that sparked endless debate over who should be the starter, he took a step back when Ingram returned.

"We asked Trent to do a lot," Saban said. "A lot of guys in his shoes would have really raised a stink and caused issues. He never did. The stability of the team and his respect for Mark Ingram meant too much to him. That's maturity you can't coach."

Odds of Richardson winning: 7-1

Before the Florida game, I would have had Richardson in that increasingly crowded, second-tier 10-1/15-1 group. But now that he's finally meeting his preseason hype, he's graduated up to the lead pack, perhaps just a hair behind the quarterbacks group of Luck, Moore, Robinson and Wilson. (And a good showing by Jones versus Texas this weekend could push him back into that mix.) But there's no doubt that Richardson has separated himself from the other running backs and has the signal-callers in his sights.