On the very long list of college football awards finalists released Tuesday, Max Duggan just might have been the most unlikely candidate for national honors.
The TCU senior quarterback began the season as the backup under new coach Sonny Dykes but decided against transferring. Despite some impressive individual performances, his record as a starter in his first three seasons was an underwhelming 14-15. And there was the nine-hour heart procedure discovered in routine COVID testing back in 2020 that had Duggan wondering about his football career and his life.
No wonder Duggan described his TCU career as “eventful” in one TV interview this year.
Now he’s a finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the nation’s best quarterback. He just picked up his first award on Wednesday, winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given to the top upperclassmen quarterback. He was also named Big 12 offensive player of the year, and he stands a good chance of being TCU’s first Heisman finalist since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000.
“Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me one bit. I’d do anything for that guy,” senior offensive lineman Wes Harris said. “He’s got the heart of a warrior and he’s just a leader. … At the end of the day, he’s a winner and that shows.”
Duggan has yet to deviate from his low-key, team-first philosophy to the season or his award quest.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to make any bigger deal than we need to,” Duggan said of the rematch with K-State. “It’s another football game. We prepare the same. We’ll go into it with the same mindset.
“Yeah, we’ve played them before. Don’t make it bigger than it needs to be. The lights aren’t going to be brighter.”
The spotlight might, given the limited number of FBS championship games.
While Duggan already has a Heisman moment to his credit — orchestrating the last-second win over Baylor — another standout performance couldn’t hurt, especially if USC’s Caleb Williams should stumble in the Pac-12 title game.
Asked what a trip to New York as a finalist would represent, Duggan spread the credit across the team.
“It would just mean I’m playing with a lot of great people and playing under a great coaching staff,” Duggan said. “If it were to happen, it would show more to those guys than to me.”
Duggan has a couple of prerequisites already. He’s playing on a playoff contender and he has enviable numbers, ranking fourth nationally in passing efficiency. He leads the Big 12 in touchdown passes (29), passing yards (3,070 yards) and yards per attempt (9.3). Sixteen of his touchdown passes have covered 20 yards or more.
“His best plays, in my opinion, aren’t even in the statistics,” Dykes said. “There are things that will never show up in the stat line. It’s the decisions that he makes. It’s leadership that he provides — crucial plays in critical situations that people never notice. It’s all these little things that he does for us.”
Amazingly, Duggan wasn’t Dykes’ choice at QB1.
Chandler Morris started the opener against Colorado then injured his knee. Even before TCU and Duggan got into the teeth of the Big 12 schedule, Dykes paid tribute to him after a win over SMU for staying with the program and not transferring.
“Incredibly indebted. Incredibly proud,” Dykes said. “Kind of emotional about it honestly just because [it’s] the way you want your son to handle that situation. That’s about as good a compliment as you can give somebody.”
Duggan has repeatedly said he never considered transferring, citing loyalty to TCU that sounds almost quaint in the transfer portal era. His father, Jim, a former high school coach in Council Bluffs, Iowa, told Fox Sports that he and his son discussed the starter decision.
“He was disappointed. He didn’t cry about it,” Jim Duggan said. “He didn’t complain about it. He just went to practice and took care of business because he was all about the team.”
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who recruited Duggan out of high school, pointed to Duggan’s consistency. Duggan is completing a career-high 66.7% of his passes and has just three interceptions. His mechanics have improved. In the 62-14 win over Iowa State, he was fitting the ball into very tight windows.
While he’s thrived in Garrett Riley’s offense, he’s also been the key to the offense.
And there’s the intangibles.
“He is as tough as they come,” Campbell said. “I think that just says you have perseverance, you have character and when things got really hard, Max just kept playing.”
Charles Baggarly in Fort Worth contributed to this report.