Where Does Zeke Stack Up Among Other Heisman Trophy Candidate Running Backs?

By Michael Citro on November 17, 2015 at 10:10 am
Ezekiel Elliott's numbers quietly stack up against Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry.

Through much of this season, Leonard Fournette was far and away the Heisman Trophy front runner. LSU has dropped its last two games, however, and that is largely because the big man has been bottled up. Alabama held Fournette to just 31 rushing yards on 19 carries (1.63 YPA) and Arkansas followed by holding him to 91.

Much of the attention that was on Fournette has now fallen on Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who, like Fournette, is exceedingly hard to tackle once he gets going downhill. Fournette still leads the nation in average rushing yards per game, at 163.78. However, Henry is catching up, now at 145.8 yards per contest. Rushing for 200+ yards per game in three of the last three outings has closed the gap considerably.

Two other backs who are gaining momentum are Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (nationally) and Indiana’s Jordan Howard (regionally, at least). Although Fournette and Henry seem to still be the favorites to take home the Heisman (among running backs, anyway), where does Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott fit into the conversation among this group?

Rank Player school rush yards
1 Leonard Fournette LSU 1,474
2 Derrick Henry Alabama 1,458
3 Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State 1,425
6 Dalvin Cook Florida State 1,369
14 Jordan Howard Indiana 1,199

When solely looking at yards per game, Elliott is last of this group, carrying for 142.5 yards per contest. That’s still sixth best in the nation. Cook (152.11) is second only to Fournette, with Howard (149.88) third, Henry, and Larry Rose III (143.33) of New Mexico State just ahead of Zeke.

In total rushing yards, Fournette’s 1,474 leads the country, with Henry second at 1,458. Elliott is third (1,425), with Cook sixth (1,369) — in one fewer game — and Howard is a distant 14th (1,199). This would still put Fournette and Henry as the favorites, but with comparatively little fanfare, Elliott is right there among the two big boys.

It’s important to look at yards per attempt when talking about overall yards and yards per game, to get a sense of whether some guys just get the ball more. Henry is third in the country in attempts (240). Elliott is 10th (220), followed by Fournette (214) in 13th, Howard (193) in 20th and Cook (170) in 36th.  As you can surmise from these numbers, Cook has the best average yards per carry (8.05), sitting sixth in the nation in that category. Fournette (6.89) is 24th, with Elliott (6.48) 39th, Howard (6.21) 52nd and Henry (6.08) a distant 62nd.

Clearly, Dalvin Cook is winning the battle in terms of what he does per rushing attempt, while Henry does less per chance than the others.

Rank Player School Rushing TD
1 Derrick Henry Alabama 19
T-2 Leonard Fournette LSU 17
T-6 Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State 16
T-10 Dalvin Cook Florida State 14
T-38 Jordan Howard Indiana 9

Scoring is obviously important, so let’s look at this vital statistic. Henry excels here, scoring 19 rushing touchdowns this season to lead all players in FBS. Fournette (17) is tied for second, with Elliott (16) in a sixth-place tie, Cook (14) tenth — again, with one fewer game — and Howard (9) 38th.

Zeke is clearly hurt by play calling, as Ohio State loves to run the quarterback in the red zone. Alabama has only three rushing touchdowns by guys not named Derrick Henry. LSU has nine touchdowns on the ground not scored by Fournette. Buckeyes other than Zeke have scored 13 rushing touchdowns, which doesn’t include pop pass scores, which are basically just running plays. J.T. Barrett has eight of those scores. Because Ohio State has more options, Elliott is three off the national lead rather than running away with this statistic.

With the above numbers, it’s probably a stretch to suggest that Jordan Howard is a legitimate Heisman candidate, when considering only running backs. He’s too far down several of these lists, especially in rushing yards and touchdowns, which are two of the gaudiest statistics for a running back.

Rank Player School Rush Yds/G
1 Leonard Fournette LSU 163.78
2 Dalvin Cook Florida State 152.11
3 Jordan Howard Indiana 149.88
4 Derrick Henry Alabama 145.8
6 Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State 142.5

Personally, I think it would take a lot for Dalvin Cook to overcome the off-the-field issues of this past off-season to win the award. The Tallahassee justice system is an exercise in Theatre of the Absurd. You can’t objectively try a Seminole football player with a jury stocked with Florida State fans and one university employee. It’s an uphill battle for Cook, and with two losses, the Seminoles aren’t likely to make the College Football Playoff without some significant help, which would also hurt Cook’s chances.

This puts only Elliott in position to battle Fournette and Henry (and non-running backs like Trevone Boykin — who was injured this past week against Kansas and embarrassed by Oklahoma State the week before.

So, what else might help in making Elliott’s case?

Zeke is widely regarded as the most devastating blockers in college football from the running back position. In fact, that’s what has caused him from scoring more touchdowns. Because Elliott is so good at leading the way in short yardage, Ohio State likes to run the quarterback (especially J.T. Barrett) on third downs and in the red zone.

What about as a receiver? Elliott has caught 24 passes this season for 169 yards (7.04 yards per reception). Henry (9) and Fournette (10) have combined for only 19 receptions. Alabama’s running back has 69 receiving yards and LSU’s has 94. I’m not a math major, but that’s a combined 165, so the duo has four fewer receiving yards combined than Zeke.

Of the three, Elliott’s 1,594 yards from scrimmage is the best mark, followed by Fournette (1,568) and Henry (1,527). Elliott is also the only one of the three to return kicks this year, with two punt returns for 13 yards. Those aren’t great numbers, but who else trusts their bell cow running back to run back punts, even if it was only for a game?

The other edge for Zeke — for now, at least — is that Ohio State is undefeated, while Alabama and LSU are not.

There’s a lot of football left to be played, and any of the players discussed above — except Howard, probably — could find themselves lifting the trophy in New York City, depending on what happens over the next few weeks. But for what he’s accomplished this season, Elliott is getting surprisingly little play in the national media when you compare what he’s done statistically with the other front runners.

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