John McGrath

John McGrath: Thin Heisman ballot starves a showcase

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) rushes the ball for a touchdown past SMU linebacker Jackson Mitchell in during Navy’s 55-14 win in November.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) rushes the ball for a touchdown past SMU linebacker Jackson Mitchell in during Navy’s 55-14 win in November. AP

An accounting firm’s preliminary count of Heisman Trophy ballots deprived sports fans of an inspiring moment Saturday.

Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, the NCAA’s career leader in rushing touchdowns and the embodiment of whatever ideal college football aspires to keep these days, put together a plausible Heisman candidacy. Imagine the senior arriving for the trophy presentation show in New York resplendent in his dress blues, minutes after a helicopter ride necessitated by the scheduling of Navy’s game Saturday against Army in Philadelphia.

Regardless of Reynolds’ finish in the voting — the case for him considers accomplishments achieved over four years — the quarterback’s presence at the trophy ceremony figured to be electric.

But Reynolds wasn’t invited. Neither was Oklahoma walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech walk-on whose guile and leadership — not to mention a 35-5 touchdown/interception ratio — single-handedly rebooted the Sooners into a national powerhouse in 2015.

“I feel like I’ve had a pretty good season,” Mayfield told ESPN on Thursday. “I feel like I deserved an invite to New York, but my goal is the national championship, so that’s what I’m focused on.”

Some may be put off by Mayfield’s candid assessment of his skills, but here’s the thing: He’s right. He absolutely deserved to be invited, as did LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Regarded as the Heisman favorite before Alabama’s superior rushing defense reduced him to a nonfactor in November, Fournette finished with 1,741 yards in 11 games, averaging 6.4 yards a carry.

As a voter, I am prohibited from revealing the names I returned on my ballot. What I can tell you is that I was limited to only three choices, and the guys I selected had sterling résumés.

Which makes me wonder: Why confine the ballot to three candidates? Why not expand it to five, say, or seven, or, better yet, 10?

Even though thousands of more athletes compete in college football than play Major League Baseball, the writers who vote for such awards as MVP and Cy Young are required to submit 10 names. Hall of Fame voters, meanwhile, have the option of choosing between zero and 10.

I always mark 10 boxes, and still find myself wishing I could mark more. For instance, on the most recent ballot — it’s due Dec. 21, and remains a work in progress — I am voting for the newly eligible Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman, along with the previously nominated Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines and Curt Schilling.

That leaves room for two more. I could vote for Fred McGriff, Lee Smith, Larry Walker and Alan Trammell, as I have in the past, but somebody worthy on my ballot is going to get squeezed out. (It likely won’t be Trammell, who is in his 15th and final year of eligibility and ranks among a dozen of the greatest all-around shortstops in history.)

The ballot, in any event, confines me to 10 selections. It’s not enough, although I’ll concede that most voters probably disagree with me. They’ll argue an expansive Hall is at odds with an exclusive Hall. (I’ll argue any Hall of Fame that reduces Alan Trammell and Edgar Martinez to borderline candidates — neither received more than 27 percent support last year, when 75 percent was required for election — is nothing if not exclusive.)

As for the crop of 2015 Heisman Trophy hopefuls, it was so bountiful that Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty didn’t even get into the discussion. Doughty threw for 4,594 yards and 45 touchdowns, passing numbers similar to the 4,700 yards and 43 touchdowns Matt Johnson posted at Bowling Green.

The knock on the Heisman Trophy is over how long it’s been a two-horse race between running backs and quarterbacks. Not since 1997, when Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won, has the award gone to anybody but a running back or quarterback. And even then, the candidacy of the versatile Woodson was steeped in his ability to contribute as a punt returner and occasional receiver.

A solution? Expand the ballot to 10 blank spaces, with the caveat that voters select at least three defensive players. The tradition of giving the award either to a quarterback or a running back would be threatened, perhaps even broken. Besides, a crowded Heisman field makes for a more intriguing Heisman field.

And if the Heisman Trust really wants to go funky town, it could require voters to select at least one senior from a service academy because, well, because.

Keenan Reynolds, appearing in New York as a Heisman candidate, wearing his dress blues after the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, won’t silence cynics who’ve come to believe college football has sold its soul to TV networks determined to showcase the power programs from the power conferences.

But it would have been a scene to remember, culminating a Heisman Trophy race we’re destined to forget.

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