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Daniel Wilco | | September 12, 2018

We looked at how hard it is to replace a Heisman winner. Kyler Murray could set the new standard

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It’s not an easy task to step in and take over a team in a Heisman winner’s absence. Since the turn of the century, eight quarterbacks have replaced the previous year's Heisman winner. Seven of them performed markedly worse than their predecessor.

This year, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is trying to write the book on how to succeed a Heisman winner. Or at least a rough draft. His start to the season made us ask: how do players do after they replace a Heisman-winning quarterback?

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After Baker Mayfield graduated following a Heisman campaign in 2017, Murray took over the starting role for the Sooners this season.

In two games as a starter, Murray has 515 yards passing, five touchdowns, and a rating of 194.9, along with 92 yards and two touchdowns rushing. 

Let’s get hypothetical. If we extrapolated that to a 14-game season like Mayfield had last year, here’s his stat line:

Player Rush yds Y/R Rush TDs Comp. % Yds Y/A TD INT Rate
Kyler Murray 644 6.6 14 63.6 3605 11.7 35 7 194.9

OK, we know this isn’t scientific at all. These were two games against unranked opponents, and Murray didn’t even play in the second half against Florida Atlantic. But it’s fun, and those numbers are certainly eye-raising.

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But would they lead to the best performance for a Heisman replacement this century?

Of the 16 Heisman winners since 2000 (not including Mayfield), seven returned for a follow-up season, and nine were replaced the next year. Eight of those replacements were quarterbacks.

We looked at the stat lines for the Heisman-winning quarterbacks and their successors to see who performed the best. 

That included four rushing stats (attempts, yards, Y/A, touchdowns), and eight passing stats (completions, attempts, PCT, yards, Y/A, touchdowns, interceptions, and rating).

MORE: Alabama's new record, Miami's efficient offense lead AP Top 25 breakdown

The average replacement fared better in just 2.6 of the 12 categories. Two — Ohio State’s Todd Boeckman (replacing Troy Smith in 2007), and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones (replacing the injured Sam Bradford in 2009) — failed to outperform their predecessor in any category.

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If Murray’s final line looks exactly like our earlier extrapolation (spoiler: it won’t), he’d outperform Mayfield in four of the 12 categories. 

That would be up there with Nebraska’s Jammal Lord (replacing Eric Crouch in 2002), and Florida State’s Chris Rix (replacing Chris Weinke in 2001) — solid seasons that are somewhat obscured from their predecessor’s unreasonable shadow.

Only one player performed better in a majority seven of the 12: Matt Leinart, who took over at USC as a sophomore for 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer. 

Here’s how the two compared:

Year Player Rush yds Y/R Rush TDs Comp. % Yds Y/A TD INT Rate
2002 Carson Palmer -122 -2.4 4 63.2 3942 8.1 33 10 149.1
2003 Matt Leinart -62 -1.9 0 63.4 3556 8.8 38 9 164.5

Leinart threw five more touchdowns and one fewer interception and had a better rating. 

Leinart would go on to rack up 3,000+ yards and 30+ touchdowns in 2004 and 2005, winning the Heisman himself as a sophomore in 2004, two years after Palmer.

If there’s a mold to follow for a Heisman successor, that’s it. But Murray may be crafting his own this year in Norman.

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