Growing up, I was a huge Michigan fan. Before attending UCLA, I woke up early on Saturday morning to watch Michigan play, well, early for a high school teenager. I loved the Michigan helmets, I loved the fight song and the way the band played it in front of 100,000 screaming fans, and I loved the season ending battle against Ohio State. every year. One of my favorite football seasons of all time was Michigan's 1997 year, when Charles Woodson captured the entire nation and stole the Heisman trophy out of Peyton Manning's grasp. Somebody said something to me that really caught my attention; Is Ishmael Adams having a Charles Woodson type season? Although we're only four games into the season, I think the answer is a resounding "yes". In fact, Ishmael Adams may be well on his way towards eclipsing Woodson's magnificent season in terms of numbers.
Based purely on a numbers analysis, Adams has essentially already matched Woodson's output from 1997 through just 4 games. Charles Woodson had 4 touchdowns his Heisman year. One rushing, two receiving, and one punt return. He had 259 yards of total offense and 301 yards on punt returns. He was also a great cover corner, and had 8 picks- but he didn't do anything with the ball after he got it, totaling just 7 yards in INT returns. The numbers are impressive enough, but as I'll get into below, the impact is where Woodson really stood out.
Adams numbers at this point are roughly equal to Woodson's total season output from 1997 for the most part. Adams already has nearly matched Woodson's TD's with 3- one kick return and two INT returns. He also had a punt return called back because one of players had his helmet knocked off during the return. He's scored once every seven times he's touched the ball. He has 339 yards on kickoff returns, 108 yards in punt returns, and 115 yards on INT returns. If you project those numbers out to a full season, the numbers are insane. And probably not realistic. Adams will slide some, but he's off to such a fast start that it would be hard to imagine Adams not at least doubling Woodson's numbers. Despite the fact that Adams does not play offense, he's making enough of an impact to warrant some Heisman discussion.
Numbers aside, Adams is not at the level defensively as Woodson was in '97 in terms of being a true shut down cornerback. The '97 Michigan defense allowed about 105 yards passing per game and 9.5 ppg. They were phenomenal, and a big part of that was the fact that Woodson virtually shut down half of the field.
One thing about Woodson's 1997 year was that he made huge plays in marquee games. Woodson's lone punt return came against Ohio State. and truly was a thing of beauty. He also added an interception, and a couple of key receptions on offense. A few weeks before the Ohio State. game, Woodson helped Michigan defeat then 5-1 Michigan State with a one handed interception that was one of the best plays that I've ever seen.
Adams has not been light on impact this season either. Adams scored a defensive touchdown against Virginia (and a punt return which was called back) which was a key to victory, had a huge punt return against Texas that put our offense in position to score the winning touchdown, and scored twice in a span of 6 minutes to help put Arizona State away. UCLA's defense, however, is nowhere near the caliber of that Michigan defense, and any Heisman discussion has to account for the fact that Adams is playing for a pretty pedestrian unit at this point.
Of course, Heisman winners require Heisman stages, and that is where Adams and the Bruins have a ways to go. In 1997, Michigan won the Rose Bowl. In fact, the most vivid memory that I have from that season is not Woodson's punt return against Ohio St., or the one handed interception against the Spartans, but rather Woodson with the rose in his mouth after he intercepted Ryan Leaf in the end zone and defeated Washington State in the Rose Bowl. But Michigan's grand stage that season was the Ohio State game, and his punt return was the season's climactic moment. Scoring touchdowns against Virginia and a backup led Arizona State team probably will not gather the needed attention for a Heisman award, but it is a good start. UCLA needs to continue to win, and Adams will need to show up big all season long.
Ishmael Adams is not the first defensive back to challenge Charles Woodson's 1997 season. In 2011, Tyrann Mathieu matched Woodson's 4 touchdowns, gained 428 yards on punt returns, and tallied 8 forced turnovers (2 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles). Although he fell short to Robert Griffin III in the final ballot, the fact that Mathieu received the invite to New York as a Heisman finalist is promising. In order for Adams to receive an invite, UCLA's level of play, especially on defense, needs improvement, but it's hard to deny the numbers that Adams has put up through four games. Is he a Heisman candidate? Time will tell, but he's off to a hell of a start.