Past Heisman WR winners think Cal's Jackson could join them
By Jonathan Okanes
BERKELEY — Cal wide receiver DeSean Jackson may be the most explosive player in college football. Maybe even the best player. He is a consensus preseason first-team All-American after catching 59 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns last year as a sophomore. He also was a first-team All-American last season as a punt returner. He's arguably the best player in the country at two positions. So it's no surprise that Jackson has emerged as a leading candidate for this year's Heisman Trophy. But history is not on his side. The Heisman has been awarded 77 times, and only twice has it gone to a wide receiver — Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987 and Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991. Only five times has the winner played a position other than quarterback or running back.
So while Jackson appears on most lists of Heisman favorites, it may take something extraordinary for him to remain on those lists in December. "He's going to have to show up for the big games," said Howard, now an analyst for ESPN. "That's when he's going to have to really shine. If he's serious aboutcontending for it, that can thrust him to the forefront." Brown and Howard also were accomplished kick returners and likely wouldn't have won the award without that part of their games. It seems clear that Jackson's return exploits also will be vital to his candidacy. Jackson may return kickoffs this season as well as punts. "The reality is he's the most electrifying player in college football," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "If there's one guy, when the ball is in his hands that you hold your breath on, it's DeSean Jackson. He's the greatest playmaker in college football." While players other than quarterbacks and running backs rarely win the Heisman, what could be encouraging for Jackson is that three of the five winners who played other positions have come in the past 20 years. Along with Brown and Howard, Michigan defensive back/kick returner Charles Woodson grabbed the honor in 1997. As recently as 2003, Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald finished second in the voting. "As the game has opened up, people are willing to consider guys who play on the edge," said ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel, who has been a Heisman voter for the past 21 years. "The game is played more in space than it ever has. If you're paying attention to the evolution of offense, you have to consider those guys."
If Jackson doesn't win the Heisman, it won't be because the voters don't know about him. Jackson has received an onslaught of attention. He's appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine as well as numerous preseason publications, and was featured in USA Today. He's receiving so many media requests that Cal's sports information department is making him available just once a week. The university also launched a Web site called "The1towatch.com" to promote his Heisman candidacy. "I'm not trying to do anything different. I'm just trying to do everything the same as always and work hard. That's the main thing," Jackson said. "I read some of the stuff, but it's a lot of the same things."
It's been awhile since a Cal player has received such notoriety. Running back Chuck Muncie finished second in the Heisman voting in 1975, and quarterback Joe Roth was a first-team All-American in 1976. Last year, Cal launched a Web site to promote running back Marshawn Lynch, and although he ended up being named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, he didn't create as much buzz nationally. Running back Russell White is perhaps the last Cal player to generate as much hype going into a season. He was a first-team All-American in 1991 and entered the 1992 season firmly on the Heisman radar. But White's production dropped off. Jackson could be Cal's most publicized player ever in the preseason, partly because there are more avenues of information than ever before. "This thing is so massive," said radio announcer Joe Starkey, who has been calling Cal games for 32 years. "Nothing even comes close. The others got some favorable publicity, but DeSean Jackson is a whole different story." Whether the publicity and attention are warranted remains to be seen, and answers will start being provided Saturday when the No.12 Bears open the season against No.15 Tennessee in prime-time on national television.
Jackson likely will need to do well in games seen across the country, and he will get a chance immediately to establish himself as a legitimate candidate. "It doesn't hurt his cause that he gets a rare prime-time audience early in the year, a chance for the country to see him," Herbstreit said. "If he can showcase his abilities — and Cal has to win the game — that will enhance his chances of staying right in there. I think he's definitely in a position to be considered one of the front-runners going into the year." Cal has only one other game on national TV — Nov.10 against USC. The Bears will be on regional television several other times, but two of those games already are slotted as night games, which voters on the East Coast may not hear too much about. "He's established himself enough that he's got to the starting line," Maisel said. "DeSean has done enough in his first two seasons that I think people are aware of him. Now he has to perform." Six of the top 10 vote-getters last season return this year, but none seems to have established himself as an overwhelming favorite. That's probably because Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith won in such a landslide. That also makes for some stiff competition. Running backs Darren McFadden (Arkansas), Steve Slaton (West Virginia) and Mike Hart (Michigan) all finished in the top five of last year's Heisman tally. "I think he's a legitimate contender at this point," Howard said. "When I watch him play, his approach is that he feels like nobody out there can stop him. When I was on the field, I had the same mentality. He just needs to show up for the big games to separate himself from the rest of the pack."