In all of sport, there may be no individual award more storied than the Heisman trophy.
The bronze ball carrier with his outstretched stiff arm has embedded itself in the social imagination as the pinnacle of personal excellence.
Since 1935, the award has been the crowning achievement for football’s biggest star. The elite club includes nine Pro Football Hall of Famers and 22 first overall NFL draft picks. Nine recipients have taken their talents north of the border, including CFL legend Doug Flutie, the “Ordinary Superstar” Johnny Rodgers and recent league outcast Johnny Manziel, bringing with them the hype and glamour associated with the award.
Despite being equally recognizable on this side of the 49th, the Heisman trophy has never been awarded to a foreign-born player. This season, that could change thanks to an elusive runner born and raised in Sherwood Park, Alberta.
Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard has been the most electrifying player in college football through three weeks of play. The six-foot-one, 207-pound redshirt sophomore took over the Cowboys’ starting running back job in Week 1, seizing his opportunity with a 26-carry performance against Oregon State that saw him amass 221 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
After being used sparingly in Week 2 against FCS opponent McNeese State, getting just eight attempts for 44 yards and a touchdown in a blowout win by OSU, Hubbard exceeded already lofty expectations by setting a new career-high in rushing last week. Hubbard sliced through Tulsa for 256 yards on 32 attempts and added another hat trick of touchdowns.
Perhaps for the first time ever, a Canadian sits atop the NCAA rushing leaderboard a quarter of the way through the college football season, leading the nation with 521 yards and ranked second with seven touchdowns. Advanced stats show that Hubbard has forced 14 missed tackles and has churned out an incredible 297 yards after contact. It’s a stat line that has put a Heisman trophy campaign firmly in the realm of possibility.
ESPN.com’s weekly Heisman rankings had the Cowboys’ bell cow in the eighth spot going into Week 4, with 30-to-1 odds to win the award. ProFootballFocus, which grades every college player on every snap, has him ranked in their 10th spot. It’s a candidacy that is all the more surprising given the admirable road-less-traveled that Hubbard took to NCAA stardom.
There have never been more Canadians playing in the NCAA, with well over 100 suiting up for programs at all levels south of the border. Despite that, in recent years the majority of top recruits with Power 5 offers have chosen to spend their last years of high school at US prep schools in order to maximize recruiting opportunities.
Of CanadaFootballChat.com’s top 40 ranked Canadian recruiting prospects, 26 are playing for American schools and another eight play for Clarkson Football North, a Canadian-based prep school that plays an entire US schedule. That leaves just six top prospects playing for their local programs and has led to a significant top-tier talent drain for high school football nationwide.
Notably, two recent top prospects have foregone the prep school route in favour of staying home and have still cashed in on massive NCAA scholarships: Notre Dame’s top wideout Chase Claypool and Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard elected to play out his high school career for one of the local public schools in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park, Bev Facey Community High School, standing out from most other NCAA recruits by playing exclusively Canadian rules.
The old adage of “if you’re good, they’ll find you” proved true for Hubbard. The speedster dominated Alberta with 6,880 career yards, 80 touchdowns and a whopping 15.0 yards per carry. He added to his allure by competing as a World Championship sprinter, with his dual sport potential elevating him to four-star recruit status. Hubbard became one of the most heavily recruited Canadians in history without ever leaving home, bringing everyone from Alabama to Georgia and Oklahoma through YEG to see him.
Though he redshirted his first season in Stillwater, Hubbard was instantly impactful once on the field. Buried behind Baltimore Ravens’ fourth-round pick Justice Hill in 2018, Hubbard still managed to contribute 1,479 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns on his way to being named Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung Award winner for most outstanding newcomer.
His freshman performance got Hubbard firmly on the national radar, being named to the Doak Walker Award preseason watchlist for college football’s top runner, but the recent Heisman attention has come largely out of left field. The Canadian is currently on pace for 2,084 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns if he continues his torrid production, without even scratching the surface of his potential as a receiver out of the backfield. Oklahoma State’s lone Heisman trophy winner, legendary Detroit Lions’ back Barry Sanders, won his award after an incredible 2,628-yard season with 37 touchdowns.
Hubbard has been the driving force behind what has become college football’s most potent offence, alongside nation leading receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sander, putting the unranked Cowboys into the national conversation. With the team exceeding expectation as their quality of schedule improves, voters will be looking for the quintessential “Heisman moment” to cement Hubbard’s candidacy.
That primetime performance could come as early as this week when Oklahoma State attempts to upset No. 12 Texas on the road. A big game could rocket him up the Heisman rankings, especially if it comes at the cost of Texas’ own candidate, quarterback Sam Ehlinger. If he keeps up the pace, all eyes will also be on Hubbard in Week 12 when he’ll have a chance to play spoiler to CFB playoff favourite Oklahoma and their Heisman favourite, quarterback Jalen Hurts. Those two games could make or break his candidacy regardless of the rest of his season.
Even if Hubbard outclasses the field with continued excellence, etching his name in the Heisman trophy will still be an uphill battle. While running backs used to bring home the award annually, the new pass-happy era of football has changed that dynamic. Only four rushers have been named college football’s top athlete in the last two decades, with Reggie Bush’s 2005 victory being vacated due to recruiting violations. Fans and voters are attracted to the value of passers and could ignore a dynamic campaign by Hubbard in favour of top signal callers like LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Oklahoma’s Hurts.
Regardless of how his Heisman hopes pan out, Hubbard will be active during award season. The Cornish Award, the brainchild of Football Canada president Jim Mullin, has been awarded to Canada’s top NCAA player for the past two seasons and is currently housed in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton.
Hubbard was one of the five finalists for the award last season and now looks poised to knock off two-time winner Ohio University quarterback Nathan Rourke. Hubbard’s Oklahoma State teammate, Calgary-born Amen Ogbongbemiga, is also a likely finalist for the award, with 25 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks so far from his starting linebacker spot.
Lots of football remains to be played before any awards are handed out and the ever-changing world of college football is rarely predictable, but a truly special season could have the top player in the NCAA also be its top Canadian. Wouldn’t that be something.