Dalvin Cook won’t take the bait, won’t make his own case for being the nation’s best running back. He loves watching Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry pound through defenders, and he’s impressed by Ezekiel Elliott’s fluid runs, and while he’s eager to be lumped into the same category with those backs, he’s not out to sell himself as the best.
But the Heisman Trophy? Yeah, he’d like that.
“It definitely matters,” Cook said. “It would mean a lot.”
The thing is, Cook has a strong case for the Heisman, and he could point to myriad numbers to support his cause. Check in with Las Vegas, however, and Cook’s off the board.
Among a host of tailbacks and a handful of running backs, Cook's name barely cracks the list.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked why his name isn’t mentioned among the top candidates. “That’s a good question.”
His case is easy enough to make.
Fall back on traditional metrics, and the Florida State tailback is in fine position. He has more scrimmage yards than Elliott or Henry, more touchdowns than McCaffrey, a higher yards-per-carry rate than anyone.
Dig a little deeper though, and Cook’s candidacy looks even better.
Compared with his competition’s averages, Cook has been far more impressive than the other Heisman hopefuls. In his eight full games against FBS competition, Cook has rushed for 57 percent more yardage per carry than the teams he’s faced have surrendered to other FBS running backs. That’s more than double Henry’s relative production (28 percent increase) and well ahead of Fournette (23.5 percent) and McCaffrey (19 percent). Elliott is the next closest (32 percent), and yet he doesn’t approach Cook’s success.
Or consider Cook’s offensive line. He’s been a dynamo downfield, but getting there has been tough. Just 13.7 percent of runs by Elliott, Fournette, Henry and McCaffrey have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, but Cook has encountered defenders before gaining yardage a whopping 24 percent of the time. Get past the line of scrimmage though, and no one in the country comes close to Cook’s production. He’s averaging better than 11 yards per carry on any positive run.
No tailback in the nation has more runs of at least 20 yards (18), 30 yards (12), 40 yards (6) or 50 yards (6) than Cook, and yet more than 45 percent of his yardage has come after contact -- a markedly higher rate than any of his Heisman competitors.
Or check out his work against quality opponents. Cook is averaging 8.4 yards per carry, 8.8 yards per play and has 11 touchdowns and no turnovers in five games against teams with a winning record. None of his Heisman competitors are within 2 yards of his per-play average against winning teams.
“I don’t know who’s the best back in the country,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said, “but I wouldn’t trade [Cook] for anybody in America.”
Perhaps the reason so few Heisman voters seem to agree is the two games Cook missed.
He didn’t actually sit out against Wake Forest. He had two carries, one going for a 94-yard touchdown. Four weeks later, with a matchup against No. 1 Clemson looming and Cook nursing both a strained hamstring and a sore ankle, he sat out Florida State’s game against Syracuse.
“I thought I needed to be out there every week, but the coaches and trainers did a good job of monitoring that,” Cook said. “But with my competitiveness, I wanted to be out there.”
It was two games against two of the ACC’s bottom feeders, games that certainly may have padded his stats and games Florida State still won. Still, Cook missed them, and absences count in the minds of voters. Cook understands this.
“People will have their own opinion,” Cook said. “If I’d played, maybe it would’ve been different, and you never know what might have happened.”
Yet when Cook has been on the field, he’s been as crucial to Florida State’s success as any player in the country. For the season, he’s accounted for 35 percent of Florida State’s scrimmage yards, the same rate as Henry at Alabama and more than Elliott at Ohio State. Limit it to only the games in which he played, however, and Cook’s rate shoots up to 41 percent, better than Fournette or McCaffrey too.
Still, Cook’s candidacy is on life support, and his only solution is to put his cleats on and keep running.
“I feel like if I keep working, it’ll pay off,” Cook said. “I just need to finish the season out strong.”
Perhaps that will be enough to finally turn some heads. Cook wraps up the year against 10-1 Florida, a team allowing just 4 yards per carry to opposing running backs, 14th-best in the nation. It would be a chance for Cook to knock off an SEC heavyweight, to shake up the playoff picture, to prove himself on a big stage against a stout defense.
And yes, he’s thought about that.
“Florida’s a tough defense,” Cook said. “It’ll be a good game, and a good defense to run against.”
Maybe another big day will earn Cook his ticket to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Maybe it could rocket him to the top of the pack.
It matters, he said. He wants it. But there’s not much sense in politicking at this point. He just wants his play to do the talking.
“I just want to go out there and make plays,” Cook said. “However they want to call it, they can call it.”