Sam Darnold Hype Takes Pressure Off Lamar Jackson

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Three times in the past decade, the previous season’s Heisman Trophy winner returned with the possibility of making history. All three — Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston — embarked on their encore seasons in a flurry of hype.

2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson need not worry about the madness that follows an underclass Heisman winner. The national spotlight moved to another quarterback since last December, USC’s Sam Darnold, taking the pressure off Louisville’s standout.

An informal survey asked The Open Man readers which quarterback they were most excited to watch in 2017. Darnold was a runaway No. 1 with 57 percent of the vote, beating out 2016 Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield, and winner Lamar Jackson. Jackson actually came in last behind all options, with write-in nominees garnering 18 percent to his 11 percent.

Now, this poll was hardly scientific. As a Southern California-based journalist who has covered USC each of the last three seasons, my audience skews Western. To wit, write-in nominees were mostly Pac-12 names: Jake Browning of Washington, Luke Falk of Washington State, Khalil Tate of Arizona.

But examining national publications, Sam Darnold has clearly unseated Lamar Jackson as the It-QB of 2017. Lindy’s named Darnold 1st Team All-America and Jackson 2nd, for example. In tracking spring Heisman hype, Darnold was generating more buzz than Jackson.

Incidentally, the shift began during Jackson’s Heisman season. His win deviated from the script typical of Heisman recipients. Voters tend to invest more heavily in late-season performance, hence the surge Manziel gained in 2012.

Had his iconic performance at Alabama been in October, for example, and his sluggish play against LSU fallen in November, Johnny Football would have likely lost to K-State’s Collin Klein. Klein arguably had the stronger all-around season, but a November injury allowed Manziel to become the talk of college football.

Likewise, Manziel was arguably better all-around in the 2013 season. He again carved up a stellar Alabama defense, but did so in mid-September. His slump that season fell in November, coinciding with a shoulder injury. Manziel slipped to fifth in Heisman balloting.

Jackson’s road to the podium in New York exploded out of the gate in September, with many of this best performances coming before the autumnal equinox.

Jackson put so much distance between himself and the rest of the field by the time of balloting, a few clunkers late in the season couldn’t bridge the gap. Those games against Houston and LSU, which exposed deficiencies in Louisville’s offensive line, served to leave the lasting impression of Jackson’s otherwise stellar campaign.

In contrast, Sam Darnold opened 2016 on the sidelines and gradually worked his way into the national consciousness. His star began ascending as Jackson’s plateaued, culminate in a historic performance at January’s Rose Bowl Game.

Much the same way Heisman voting typically reflects how a player finishes, offseason hype’s often a byproduct of a strong close to the previous campaign. While Lamar Jackson made clear what he’s capable of, Sam Darnold is on the rise because his ending felt as though it only scratched the surface.

And, since we’ve seen Jackson’s ceiling, there’s less intrigue than the unknown with Darnold. Never mind that Jackson’s ceiling indeed proved historically excellent, college football media and fans alike love the excitement of the unknown.

Ultimately, however, Jackson’s incredible 2016 play fading somewhat from the public conversation is a good thing for his repeat Heisman chances. He’s not overexposed, which predecessors like Manziel, Winston and Tebow could not claim at this same juncture.

Lamar Jackson’s succeeded in avoiding off-field attention during the offseason. While Darnold’s avoided this trap, too — a noteworthy feat, given USC’s proximity to the Three-Mile Zone — the same can’t be said of previous returning Heisman winners.

Manziel became a permanent fixture on tabloid websites in the 2013 offseason. The Texas A&M quarterback lived the Ric Flair gimmick, jetting around the nation to sit front row at major events; hobnobbed with A-list musicians; and partied with models.

At 2013 SEC media days, Manziel famously quipped, “I feel like Justin Bieber or something.”

At that same event, his off-field exploits began bleeding into his football. He appeared on an awkward ESPN segment in which Paul Finebaum seemingly admonished Manziel for sleeping through a session at the prestigious Manning Camp.

Tim Tebow, who in 2007 became the first sophomore ever to win the award, wasn’t yet the one-man media circus he became in the NFL. However, he was one of the first true celebrities of college football’s internet age. The SEC-hysteria that’s now a staple of national college football coverage began to erupt coinciding with Tebow’s rise.

Like Manziel, he was arguably better in 2008 than he was in 2007, and without the tiresome off-field drama that plagued John F. Football. Still, even in its infancy, Tebowmania produced some fatigue. Lamar Jackson hasn’t been in the spotlight enough for that to be the case.

Joining Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner will take a season with as many, if not more breathtaking moments than Jackson produced in 2016. Louisville must also contend with defending national champion Clemson and a contender for preseason No. 1, Florida State.

It’s certainly not an easy path back to NYC, but Jackson’s is less free from distraction than previous returning Heisman winners.