By now you’ve probably heard that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is a Heisman candidate. The mantra going out in support of his Heisman campaign is that we need to vote for the most outstanding player, regardless of whether he plays offense or defense.
This is a valid argument and one that doesn’t contradict my long-held view that pure defenders can’t win the Heisman. Certainly, every player on a roster who plays college football is technically eligible to win the trophy, but it is up to the 925 Heisman voters to decide who is most deserving. And it is up to me to figure why they vote they way they do.
History shows us that defensive players are at a stark disadvantage in the Heisman race. There are a number of reasons why this is so, mostly to do with the nature of statistics in football. However, I’ve recently been fed arguments for why it is possible for Te’o to win and I’ve been given all kinds of scenarios to justify it.
I understand that, in life, a lot of things are possible. Mitt Romney could, after a series of unforeseen circumstances, win California’s 55 electoral votes in next week’s election. The Chicago Cubs could win next year’s World Series. Canada could invade her southern neighbor.
But we have to look at things in terms of probability. And the fact is, it is highly improbable that Te’o will win the Heisman.
For starters, if a defender were going to defy history and win, I believe he’d have to be considered hands down the best defensive player in the country. It couldn’t even be a question. Personally, I’m not sure that we can say that about Te’o with authority right now. He may not even be the best defender on his own team.
Once we get beyond admirable though ephemeral and unquantifiable notions like “leadership,” what are Te’o's credentials for being considered the nation’s best defender?
Is he among the nation’s leaders in tackles? No. His 10 tackles per game put him in a tie for 20th nationally.
Where does he stand in tackles for loss and sacks, two of the most important defensive stats? Well, he just recorded his first sack of the year against Oklahoma, and he has a mere 4.5 tackles for loss on the season.
Has he forced any fumbles? Nope. Has he recovered many fumbles? Just one.
The one stat where Te’o sticks out is with interceptions. He is excellent in pass coverage and is fourth nationally in picks per game. But two of his interceptions came against Denard Robinson (who hasn’t picked that guy off this year?) and another came against pass-averse Navy.
So are Te’o's accomplishments any more impressive than what Jadeveon Clowney, Jarvis Jones, Jordan Poyer orDamontre Moore has done this year? I don’t really see a clear case to be made. Heck, what about Irish defensive tackleStephon Tuitt, who has 8.5 sacks, a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown, a forced fumble and a blocked kick to his credit? Shouldn’t he be in the Heisman conversation?
The point of this exercise is not to denigrate Te’o. It is to point out a little bit of the hypocrisy of those touting Te’o as a Heisman candidate.
Every year we hear critics of the Heisman advance the (mistaken) idea that the trophy always gets awarded to someone merely because he’s “the best offensive player on the best team.” Because of this, we are told, other more-deserving players are given short shrift. Furthermore, this line of reasoning goes, those voters who fall into that trap of not voting for a defender are somehow not enlightened enough about football to make the right choice.
So, what has happened this year? People are now advocating on behalf of a defensive player widely considered the best player on an undefeated team … that just so happens to be Notre Dame. If Te’o played for Northwestern, no one would be talking about him for the Heisman. If he played for Kansas State, he’d be Arthur Brown.
It’s great that a defensive player is getting recognition and I’m all for that, but I would argue that trading an (arguably) undeserving offensive player for an (arguably) undeserving defensive player does not constitute progress.