Opinion: Jim Kleinpeter: This year’s Heisman chase is a two-horse race that LSU’s Jayden Daniels can win

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) has emerged as a frontrunner for Saturday's Heisman Trophy. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

On one hand, LSU’s incapacity to play defense hurt Tiger quarterback Jayden Daniels’ chance at winning the Heisman Trophy.

On the other hand, it’s exactly the reason he should win it. He has my first, second and third place vote for Saturday’s Heisman Trophy announcement.

While the talk is that the Heisman should lean toward the best player on a high-achieving team, it makes more sense to consider that Daniels won games for LSU in spite of the Tiger defense.

LSU is a 9-3 team with a chance to win a 10th at bowl time against Wisconsin the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 1.

If you put Oregon quarterback Bo Nix on this LSU team, LSU would be lucky to have a winning record. If LSU’s defense could have “held” every opponent to 35 points, LSU would also be 10-1, like Oregon. Put Daniels in yellow and green and the Ducks are unbeaten.

Daniels is doing the work of two players. If his 3,812 yards passing aren’t enough to settle the conversation, try his 1,134 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns with an 8.4 per carry average should separate him from the pack, no matter who is in that pack. Daniels became only the 11th player in NCAA history with 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing in the same season. That’s better than most past Heisman winners.

While Daniels has a 72.2 completion percentage and 40 TD throws, Nix, the closest contender, has a crazy 77.2 percentage with 4,145 yards and 40 scores. Daniels has four interceptions in 327 attempts and Nix only three in 435, the statistical significance is nil.

When it comes to running, it’s time to nix Bo. He’s got a helpful five TDs rushing, which sounds like a lot of quarterback sneaking when you see it comes with 53 attempts and 228 yards.

When the smoke cleared after LSU’s wipeout of Georgia State, it looked like a two-player race between Daniels and Nix, who threw for 404 yards and six TD passes against Daniels’ old team Arizona State. Georgia State isn’t Arizona State, but Daniels did a lot worse to Florida and others.

Masochistic LSU fans are wondering if Daniels is better than Joe Burrow, who may have had better receivers but clearly had a better overall team around him. Burrow was a good runner but not nearly in Daniels’ class. Burrow has a much smaller edge as a passer and it could be microscopic at this point.

The bottom line is that the Heisman Trophy often is like a chameleon: it depends on its surrounding, the competition and the year. Paul Hornung was the best player in the nation for a 2-8 Notre Dame team where he played quarterback. He got to the NFL and they stuck him in the backfield, where he excelled and helped a loaded Packer organization to multiple NFL titles.

Like LSU coach Brian Kelly said, no one has stopped him. Even Alabama. It’s not just his arm and/or his legs. He’s playing quarterback at the highest level. He’s getting the ball out quickly and making snap decisions in the fray, few of which are the wrong ones.

“There’s this sense of whatever you call, it’s going to be executed,” Kelly said. “And it’s not, when the call comes in, you’re thinking, ‘OK, what’s the defense going to do?’ Because they have no chance unless they come up with something new. And that’s a quarterback that has complete control over what’s going on out there, and that’s kind of fun.”

The most interesting part of Daniels’ future will be to see what happens at the next level. He’s a lot like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who was passed over by several NFL teams who seem to think running quarterbacks can’t play or have some kind of flaw in their game.

Jackson was the 32nd pick and wouldn’t have even been a first-rounder had the Ravens not traded up to get him. Four quarterbacks – Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen – were picked before him. None of them would be a clearcut choice now, meaning Jackson is at least as good as the best of that group, probably better.

I guess we’ll see how much the NFL has learned next April.

About Jim Kleinpeter 32 Articles
Jim Kleinpeter is a graduate of the LSU School of Journalism. He sportswriter for 37 years, including 33 years at the Times-Picyaune.

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