Rex Burkhead was Nebraska’s most important offensive player—and will be the unquestioned leader of the Cornhuskers in 2012.
But to say that he is a legitimate Heisman contender is a pipe dream.
I take no joy in reaching that conclusion. Burkhead is everything you want from a player on the field, and the most prominent member of “Team Jack” is an even better human being off the field.
Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald said it is “hogwash” to think Burkhead isn’t in the Heisman mix. Barfknecht calls Burkhead “the most valuable offensive weapon at Nebraska since quarterback Eric Crouch did it all in 2001 while winning the Heisman.”
That’s a pretty strong statement in favor of Burkhead. I’m not sure I would agree with Barfknecht’s analysis. (Just the year before, Taylor Martinez ran for 1,195 yards and 12 touchdowns and threw for 1,631 yards and 10 touchdowns, dwarfing Burkhead’s 1,357 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns.)
But even if Burkhead was NU’s “most valuable offensive weapon since quarterback Eric Crouch,” that’s probably more of an indictment of Nebraska’s offense from 2001-2011 than a campaign for a Heisman trophy.
One of the primary knocks on Burkhead’s game is his lack of breakaway speed. While he has an amazing talent for making the first tackler miss and for getting extra yardage, the fact of the matter is that Burkhead is not going to break through the first line of a defense and run away from defenders to score.
And without that home run speed, for Burkhead to be considered a Heisman candidate he would need to accumulate monstrous statistics.
Take a look at the two running backs that were Heisman finalists last year, Trent Richardson and Montee Ball. Both backs are at least similar to Burkhead in terms of their style. But their numbers were very different. Let’s compare the statistics head-to-head:
Ball and Richardson had vastly superior statistical seasons to Burkhead in 2011. Ball was third nationally in rushing, and Richardson was fifth.
Burkhead was 19th, sandwiched between Miami’s Lamar Miller and Auburn’s Michael Dyer. He was third in the B1G in rushing, behind Ball and Iowa’s Marcus Coker. And don't forget, Ball will be a senior for Wisconsin in 2012, looking to improve his numbers just like Burkhead will be.
And, for Heisman consideration, Ball played for the B1G champions, who played in the Rose Bowl and were legitimate national title contenders for much of the season. Richardson was the primary offensive engine for the team that won the national title.
Could Burkhead’s numbers take a spike upwards in 2011?
Sure, it’s possible. But remember, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator Tim Beck has talked about taking some of the offensive load away from Burkhead, who had over 60 percent of Nebraska’s carries in 2011.
While that decision may help Burkhead stay fresher and to be more productive towards the end of the season, it will also make it harder for Burkhead to accumulate the kind of eye-popping statistics he would need to be a serious Heisman contender.
Consider that both Ball and Richardson had more carries and more receptions than Burkhead did in 2011. If Burkhead is going to reach the numbers it took to get Ball and Richardson to New York, he’s going to have to produce more yardage with fewer touches. That seems like an awfully big ask.
Barfknecht also acknowledges that Burkhead won’t be a Heisman contender if Nebraska has another four-loss season. An absolute condition precedent for Burkhead to have any shot at a trip to New York in December is for Nebraska to win B1G Conference.
While one particularly smart and handsome analyst has said that’s a reasonable goal for NU in 2012, remember that it took that level of team success plus accumulating monstrous statistics for Ball and Richardson to become Heisman finalists.
Barfknecht argues that one of the knocks against Burkhead’s Heisman candidacy is that he is a grinder and is less likely to have a “Heisman moment” type of play that would captivate the nation’s attention.
Ironically enough, I disagree with the one point in Barfknecht’s column that agrees with my premise. Heisman moments come when big players make a big play in a big game. Burkhead’s problem is that Nebraska’s lack of success at the highest level on the field means he is simply not getting the stage to have such a Heisman moment.
If Nebraska would have won the B1G last year, does anyone think his amazing touchdown catch against Ohio State wouldn’t have been a Heisman moment?
Rest assured, if Burkhead piles up the numbers—and Nebraska piles up the wins—Superman will have a Heisman moment somewhere in there.
Unfortunately, that’s a lot of ifs.
For Burkhead to become a serious Heisman contender, he would have to add 500 to 600 total yards and eight to 10 touchdowns to his 2011 totals, while getting fewer touches than he did in 2011.
He would also need Nebraska to get over the hump and win the B1G Conference.
I think having both of those things happen in 2012 is just too unlikely of an occurrence to say with confidence that Burkhead should be considered as a serious Heisman candidate next year.
Sorry, Lee, I guess that makes me one of the “ill-informed.”
Could it happen? Sure. I’d love to see Burkhead put himself on that stage. It would be great for Nebraska and Burkhead is the type of kid that you can’t help but root for.
But likeability doesn’t win Heisman Trophies—statistics and victories do.
And I don’t see enough of those coming together in 2012 to say definitively that Burkhead should be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate before the season starts.
If you would like to contact me directly to schedule an interview, ask a question or to get my recipe for a killer peach cobbler, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Disclaimer: Peach cobbler recipe might not be all that killer.)