John McGrath

John McGrath: UW’s Shaq Thompson should be in the Heisman hunt

With only four games remaining on the Washington Huskies’ schedule, nothing short of a miracle will earn Shaq Thompson the 2014 Heisman Trophy.

The standout linebacker, whose conversion into a full-time running back became all but official Saturday, didn’t appear on any mid-season watch lists for America’s most prestigious individual award.

Think about that: Despite scoring four touchdowns as a linebacker — more than any defensive player in the nation, more than any defensive player has scored in the past 10 years — Thompson wasn’t even part of the Heisman Trophy discussion.

But that was before the Huskies coach Chris Petersen, desperate for somebody to revive a ground attack so dormant it had bogged down the rest of the offense, decided a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year was more valuable on the other side of the ball.

Emerging from the pack to complete a late-stretch drive for the Heisman would not be unprecedented — Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders did it in 1988, thanks to a Sports Illustrated cover story and 34 NCAA records — but emerging out of nowhere, while reinventing himself at the major-college level, that would be historic.

Then again, Thompson’s transformation already is historic. On Saturday, as he was the tearing up the Colorado Buffaloes for 174 yards on 15 carries, and catching two passes for another 41 yards, I wondered if there were any other examples of a dominant football player switching positions during the season, and proving to be even more dominant.

I’m still wondering.

Because Heisman Trophy voters are prone to rely on gaudy offensive numbers when filling out their ballots, Thompson will need to run silly over the likes of UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, Thompson will be “penalized” — it’s similar to the concept of original sin — by the Huskies’ absence from the national-championship chase.

On the other hand, as a Heisman Trophy voter since 2000, I sense my colleagues are anxious to make the competition for the award more inclusive. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished second to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2012. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh took fourth in 2009, ahead of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a former Heisman winner.

Heisman Trophy voters also are yearning to breathe free after the controversial selections of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton (who won in 2010 despite allegations he was illegally recruited) and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (who won last year amid an investigation for sexual assault).

Put simply, Heisman voters are tired of Heisman winners making the wrong kind of news. The only news Thompson has made this season is his willingness to shelve long-term aspirations as an NFL safety in order to solve his team’s short-term void at running back.

“Wherever I’m needed,” Thompson told Petersen.

It’s a laudable attitude, and if college football recognized a Most Valuable Player, Shaq Thompson would lap the field. In lieu of an MVP, there’s the Heisman Trophy, which requires voters to consider only a single, maddeningly vague parameter: “Outstanding player.”

How outstanding is Thompson?

Charles Woodson, the Michigan cornerback who dabbled just enough on offense and as a punt-returner to beat out Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997, scored four touchdowns during his Heisman season. Thompson already has scored six, and it’s not inconceivable he can double that total before ballots are due in December.

“I think he could play four or five positions,” Petersen told UW play-by-play broadcaster Bob Rondeau after the Huskies’ 38-23 victory. “If we can just keep him healthy, he’s going to continue to do special things for us all year long, there’s no doubt about that.”

Petersen’s job is to win games. Showcasing the versatility of transcendent talents — giving them a platform for the chance to win an individual award — is not a priority, nor should it be.

This explains why Thompson participated on only one snap on defense last week against Arizona State, and was exclusively used on offense Saturday.

At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Thompson is a textbook football hybrid: a college linebacker with a natural-born disposition to make tackles, and a ball carrier who’s strong enough to break them, and quick enough to elude them.

Before last week, he deserved to be part of the Heisman Trophy discussion. After he took the ball and ran (and ran, and ran) with it Saturday, I can’t fathom the possibility Heisman voters won’t recognize him among their Top 10 finalists.

Yes, it will take a miracle for Thompson to win an award steeped in a premise — “college football’s most outstanding player” — seemingly scripted with a linebacker-turned-running back in mind.

But don’t underestimate Shaq Thompson’s Heisman Trophy candidacy. On the forefront of a mid-season transition that’s never been accomplished by an elite player, he goes with a flow that regards miracles as part of the deal.

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