Let’s get this straight first: A pure defensive player will never win the Heisman. It’s just the nature of the award. The one defender who did win–Michigan’s Charles Woodson–did so because he also played wide receiver and returned punts. Take away the gimmick of Woodson being a two-way player and Peyton Manning would’ve had a Heisman to add to his wonderful NFL accomplishments.
That all said, there is nothing to prevent defensive players from getting Heisman votes and, on occasion, catching fire and making it to New York as a finalist. Tyrann Mathieu’s fifth-place finish last year is a great example of that. The closest a pure defensive player has come to winning was 1980, when Hugh Green of Pittsburgh placed second, just 267 points behind George Rogers of South Carolina.
While they can’t win, defensive players can sway close races, as one did in 2009 when Ndamukong Suh cost Colt McCoy the Heisman by topping the Longhorn quarterback in the Southwest region. Give McCoy half of Suh’s 161 first-place votes and he–not Mark Ingram– is probably that year’s Heisman winner.
So who are the defensive players with the best chance of making an impact on this year’s Heisman race? Who might actually make it to New York as a finalist in 2012?
Here’s my list:
1. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia – To make hay in the Heisman race as a defender, you must make plays. Jones does just that. He was all over the place for the Bulldogs last year, making 70 tackles, with 19.5 of them for loss, plus 13.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups. He’s on the short list for all the defensive awards, so the spotlight will be on him. If he has another big year, Heisman voters might be inclined to take notice.
2. Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame – Te’o has put together a fine career for the Irish and his return for a fourth season was somewhat of a surprise. The face of the Notre Dame defense, he’ll be counted on to help make up for the loss of talented defensive end Aaron Lynch. Te’o had 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2011. Playing for Notre Dame always helps when it comes to the Heisman race, so it’s possible he’ll get some votes.
3. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, LSU – Mathieu is No. 3 on this list despite finishing fifth in last year’s Heisman vote. That’s because he is likely to be the victim of his own remarkable success. The expectations are high for 2012, but it might be really hard to duplicate the magic of 2011, when he had 76 tackles, with 6 forced fumbles (all of them seemingly coming at crucial points in games), 2 interceptions and 7.5 tackles for loss (not to mention 2 amazing punt return touchdowns). A dropoff of sorts is to be expected, but The Honey Badger still has a good chance to make some noise in the Heisman race.
4. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina – The freakish sophomore end should come into his own in 2012 after a good freshman season in which he had 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 8 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation in 2011, so great things are expected of him. If he lives up to the hype, Heisman voters will reward him accordingly.
5. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas – Jeffcoat had a fine sophomore season with 63 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 8 sacks. Despite those stellar numbers, one gets the sense he still hasn’t come close to fulfilling his potential. He might get there as a junior, which could result in some Heisman attention.
6. Tony Jefferson, S/LB, Oklahoma – Jefferson is a versatile and explosive defender in the mold of past Sooner hybrid-type defensive backs like Roy Williams and Donte Nicholson. He had 74 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 4 interceptions as a 2011 sophomore. If he improves on those numbers and helps the Sooners to the Big 12 title, he might make some noise in the Heisman race.
7. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State – Brown really came into his own as a 2011 junior, as the former highly-touted recruit made 101 tackles with 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and an interception (of Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, no less). Brown is the latest in a stellar line of fast and tough K-State linebackers, so look for a ton of honors to flow his way if he comes through with a special senior season.
8. David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State – As with Mathieu, Amerson will be hard-pressed to match what he did last season, when he led the nation with 13 interceptions. But if he comes close to that number, he’ll probably win the Thorpe Award and get some mention in the Heisman race.
9. William Gholston, DE/LB, Michigan State – The pterodactyl-like Gholston had 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 5 sacks as a true sophomore. He’s a superior athlete despite checking in at 6-7, 280 and he’ll be the big star on a tough Spartan defense in 2012. He could be an intriguing option for Heisman voters.
10. Shariff Floyd, DT, Florida — Floyd is a major talent who has yet to put it all together for the Gators. He had 46 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss last season, though he did miss the first two games of the year. If any interior lineman is destined to explode onto the national spotlight and makes noise in the Heisman race, I think it’ll be Floyd.