It’s time for Canadians to begin Chase Brown’s grassroots Heisman campaign

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

It has been three years since Canadians last typed the hashtag “Hubbard for Heisman” and felt the thrill of a homegrown candidate for American college football’s greatest award.

That magical 2,000-yard 2019 season for the Sherwood Park, Alberta native — now with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — crystalized interest in the NCAA north of the border in a way rarely seen before. Ultimately, the Oklahoma State back fell short in his Heisman quest, finishing eighth in voting and also losing the Doak Walker to Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, but hearing him mentioned in the conversation electrified the country.

Now, Canada has another native son plowing his way into the Heisman conversation — whether or not anyone on either side of the border wants to acknowledge it.

Six weeks into the 2022 NCAA season, University of Illinois running back Chase Brown sits atop the national rushing charts. The London, Ontario native has been the busiest ball carrier in college football with 879 yards on the ground and 163 combined touches, yet you’ll have to dig deep to find his name mentioned by any Heisman odds makers.

For the most part, the disparity in attention seems to be due to a lack of scoring opportunities. While Brown boasts more yardage than elite backs like Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda, Michigan’s Blake Corum, and Texas’ Bijan Robinson, each of those players has double-digit touchdowns. Their Canadian counterpart has five total, denying him any claim to an early season “Heisman moment.”

In reality, who gets the call in a scoring opportunity is outside of any one player’s control and each of those uber-talented rushers has a much stronger supporting cast around them than Brown does at Illinois. At this point, no running back in the country means more to their team than he does to the Fighting Illini.

The numbers are startling. As of right now, Brown is accounting for 38.2 percent of the total offensive output in Champaign. Despite his heavy workload on the ground, he is still averaging 5.8 yards per carry — higher than Illinois’ 5.4 yards per play average and fourth highest among players with over 100 carries.

Those yards are not coming easily either, as Brown is leading college football in yardage gained after contact with 515 and sits third with 40 forced missed tackles. That hasn’t stopped the five-foot-11, 205-pounder from amassing 28 runs of over 10 yards — six more than the next-best back stateside.

As a result, Illinois is on pace for their best season in more than a decade. At 5-1, they are leading the Big Ten West and came in at number 24 on this week’s AP poll, their first appearance on the rankings since 2011. Part of that is their top-ranked defence — anchored by strong safety Sydney Brown, Chase’s identical twin brother — allowing just eight points per game but on offence, it is all about Brown grinding out six consecutive hundred-yard performances.

The 22-year-old cannot afford to slow down as the Illini’s Cinderella season enters a difficult back half. He should begin to get more national attention if he can continue to shine against marquee programs like Michigan. At this stage, he is already the favourite for the Jon Cornish Trophy — though Ohio’s Kurtis Rourke is closing fast — as well as the top-ranked prospect in the 2023 CFL Draft and a legitimate NFL hopeful. All that’s missing is the conversation around his candidacy for college football’s highest honour.

When Chuba Hubbard was tearing across the NCAA landscape, it galvanized a country behind him. It’s about time that Canadians rallied around Chase Brown the same way.

The Heisman odds will be long, there is no doubt. A running back hasn’t taken home the award since 2015 and others will finish the year with flashier highlight reels. None will have done more with less than Brown has at his disposal.

That should be a feel-good story from coast to coast.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.