Hype and hope build for Sean Tucker’s place in the Heisman Trophy race

Hype builds for Sean Tucker's Heisman bid

Orange wins and prime TV opportunities are needed to boost the record-setting running back's chances.
Published: September 2, 2022
Syracuse Football vs Boston College
Syracuse has launched a campaign to tout RB Sean Tucker, shown here stiff-arming a Boston College defender in 2021, as an early Heisman Trophy candidate.

When Sean Tucker answers a question, his response is usually only a sentence or two. He talks with a straight face, his gaze focused on the middle distance.

Even with the start of a formal Heisman Trophy campaign at the start of only his sophomore season, Tucker doesn’t seem swept up in the hype. He isn’t worrying about how his chances might depend on the Syracuse University football team’s performance.

Just being part of the conversation is unusual enough. Syracuse hasn’t actively pushed for one of its players to win college football’s most prestigious player award since the days of Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney two decades ago. The school’s lone Heisman winner, Ernie Davis, won in 1963.

Yet the athletics department has rolled out a website, established a hashtag and distributed two videos to tout Tucker. A shorter, one-minute sizzle reel was posted by the Syracuse University football Twitter account to announce the campaign July 25.

Tucker, who broke the Syracuse University record for rushing yards in a single season by gaining 1,496 yards last year, still faces long odds to win the Heisman Trophy.

Caesars Sportsbook puts the Tucker for Heisman line at +20000, which translates to a less than 1% expected chance of success.

Tucker rushed for the sixth-most yards in the NCAA in 2021, finishing ahead of the primary running backs for powerhouses like Ohio State and Alabama. Three backs ahead of him played in more games than Syracuse.

Two other running backs had stats that eclipsed Tucker in as many games last year. Like him, they don’t play for teams who are often vying for national trophies.

“The Heisman voters are looking at star players on winning teams,” said John Affleck, Knight Chair of sports journalism at Penn State. “For [Tucker] to have any chance, Syracuse has to win nine games, minimum.”

Over the last 10 seasons, Syracuse football has finished with a winning record only three times. The last time Syracuse earned a spot in the AP’s Top 10 rankings was 1996.

When asked directly, Affleck said he thought Tucker’s chances of winning the Heisman were “zero.” But it’s not because he doesn’t think Tucker is a great player.

“If the playing field was even, he’d probably be going to New York,” Affleck said.

Dennis Deninger, who teaches sports communication classes at SU, said the game against Notre Dame in October is a must-win for Tucker’s Heisman chances.

Deninger said success in prime-time games and earning national media attention is key to Heisman voters taking note of Tucker’s accomplishments.

“There’s no replacement for national recognition of what you do week in and week out,” Deninger said.

Syracuse’s game against Virginia holds a prime-time slot on ESPN, but the rest of the season’s game times will be decided later as networks gauge what teams will attract the most viewers.

Tucker has his own marketing power, with nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter. After each game, Tucker tweets his stats starting off with his trademark line, “I’m pleased with my performance.”

“That started back in high school when I was on varsity,” Tucker said, which he played for starting as a sophomore. “I’ve basically just kept it going ever since.”

Caroline Dunn, an SU football superfan behind the Twitter account @IMissEricDungey said she loves the buzz around Tucker, particularly the memes made about him.

“The fans are always looking forward to the post-game tweets, any tweet from Sean Tucker actually,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s profile picture is an image of Sean Tucker’s face on a painting of Jesus. She has posted memes praising Tucker’s consistency as energizing for fans.

During Syracuse football’s preseason camp in August, Coach Dino Babers said Tucker still has a chance to win, even if no one expects it now.

He recalled Robert Griffin III’s Heisman moment in a win against Oklahoma when Babers was an assistant coach at Baylor.

“All those [Heisman winners] have got to have one of those moments,” Babers said. “I hope Tucker has a whole bunch of them to choose from.”

Tucker’s fans aren’t letting the odds get them down either.

“I think his odds are great,” SU graduate and football fan Lorna Rose said. “I think the fact that he’s already in the conversation is phenomenal.”

Syracuse has a history of great running backs. Jim Brown, Davis, Larry Csonka, Joe Morris and Floyd Little earned national attention for their performance.

Brown, considered by many to be one of the greatest football players of all time, finished fifth in the voting for the 1956 Heisman. Davis became the first Black player to win the award.

Many Orange fans believe Don McPherson, who led Syracuse on an undefeated season, was snubbed for the Heisman in 1987. Tim Brown, a wide receiver for an 8-4 Notre Dame team, won instead.

Syracuse’s 2022 Heisman candidate isn’t a dynamic figure who performs in interviews. He talks in short, matter-of-fact lines that contain a lot of football media cliches.

But his apparent humility is part of the appeal.

“He’s a quiet dude, he’s very serious about what he does,” Dunn said. “He’s a very hard worker. I’ve seen his training tapes. I can tell he puts 100% into what he does, and it’s something I respect.”

Tucker, who trains with his dad in the offseason, said he’s learned that humility from him.

“My dad instilled that in me at a young age, staying focused and staying true to myself,” he said.

Tucker didn’t list winning the Heisman as one of his main goals for the 2022 season.

Those goals are simpler — break his own SU single-season rushing yards record that he set last year; get more touchdowns; make all the stats go up.

His specific ambitions for the Heisman seem muted, but that fits with what many Syracuse fans have come to love about Tucker.

Ask him how he feels about the race, and his answer is short and simple, as usual.

“I’m just trying to work hard, do my part and get as deep in the Heisman race as I can.”