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December 10, 2011

HURT: UA will stay in Heisman race

Even though Trent Richardson didn't win the second Heisman Trophy in three years for the University of Alabama, his trip to New York - and UA's recent run of Heisman publicity - has been nothing but positive for the Alabama program.

Like Mark Ingram before him, Richardson represented UA well in the media glare of New York. Had the schedule been different, the results might have been different.

We'll never know how much Alabama's idleness in the final weekend hurt Richardson (or Stanford's Andrew Luck), but playing certainly seemed to help Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the winner, and LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, the surprise invitee. We'll also never know how different things might have been had the balloting been held (as I have always wanted it to be) after the bowl games. (The Heisman people probably would have had a few more deserving winners - Marshall Faulk over Gino Torretta, or Vince Young over Reggie Bush - had that been the case in the past.)

For a time, Alabama fans were more or less dismissive of the Heisman Trophy, but the fact is, it has been good for Alabama over the past couple of years. And the question is worth asking: When will Alabama have another player heading to New York?

The answer isn't as obvious as it appeared two years ago. Even as Mark Ingram was standing at the podium, it wasn't far-fetched to think he might return as a junior (he didn't) or that Julio Jones might make it in his junior year (he didn't either) or that, someday, Trent Richardson, then a freshman, might follow in Ingram's footsteps.

So is there another potential winner - or finalist - in Alabama's future?

It's possible, for a couple of reasons.

First, the current process tends to reward teams in championship contention. And it's likely that, as long as Nick Saban is coaching at Alabama, the Crimson Tide will have a strong chance at winning 10 to 12 games per season. That's important. Second, players grow into opportunities. Ingram didn't come out of his freshman season as a sure-fire candidate for the next year. He blossomed. It probably will have to be a player that touches the ball a great deal, a quarterback or a running back. Yes, Mathieu went as a defensive player this year, but he wasn't entirely defined by his defensive skills. (In fact, that's why I omitted him from my three-person ballot.) Yes, he had special-teams charisma and a catchy nickname, but there was a better defensive back (Morris Claiborne) on his own team.

Is it impossible that a healthy Eddie Lacy could get in the conversation? Not at all. Alabama's offensive preferences, its style of play and Lacy's ability all make it within the realm of reason. Is he in the same category right now as Richardson was as a freshman? No, he isn't. But in a season, or two, who's to say? Who's to say AJ McCarron won't came as far in his last two years as Jay Barker, who was a finalist as a senior? It would take a lot of improvement, and perhaps a change of offensive emphasis, but winning quarterbacks are sometimes recognized beyond their statistical achievements.

Beyond that, if you are talking about freshmen, or players still in high school, who knows?

So it may be soon, or it may be a few years, or it may be more than a decade, as it was between Barker and Ingram. But that sort of long absence probably won't happen as long as Alabama keeps winning - and recruiting - at its current level. That will keep Heisman possibilities, and Heisman interest, at the forefront in Tuscaloosa for some time.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0225.


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