It’s August and that means Heisman chatter can now begin in earnest.
One of the names being circulated as a candidate is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
The junior All-American had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last season on his way to finishing sixth in the Heisman vote. He is everyone’s pick to be the first overall selection in the next NFL draft. Expectations for his performance this season are through the roof.
But can Clowney win?
History says no. A pure defender has never won the Heisman. Manti Te’o came relatively close last year, but it remains to be seen whether his runner-up finish represents the apex of defensive Heisman prowess or a new floor.
The presence of Johnny Manziel — who is looking to become just the second two-time winner — and Clowney — perhaps the most celebrated defender ever heading into a season — makes this year’s race a remarkable test case for those of us who closely study the Heisman.
In this post, I’m going to delve into every possible angle on Clowney’s Heisman candidacy. By the end, his odds at winning should be clear.
Few players came to college with as much fanfare as Clowney, who was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the class of 2011. In this internet age, he was already a known quantity by the time he strapped on his South Carolina helmet for the first time. His freshman year did not quite live up to expectations, but he was very good, notching eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss. His cultural cache made a big jump during last year’s bowl season, when his oft-played blow up of Michigan running back Vince Smith capped a stellar sophomore campaign. While his Q rating does not quite match Manziel’s, it is about as good as it gets for a pure defender heading into his third season.
The NFL Angle
The arrogance of the NFL so permeates football culture that many fans and media are convinced the junior version of the game serves as the ultimate validator of a player’s worth. And so, to many, a player projected to be the first pick in the NFL draft should prima facie be the Heisman winner. To be sure, one can rarely go wrong with picking someone whose talent is coveted by so many knowledgeable football people. And it’s not often that hard-core and casual observers of the game come to the kind of consensus they have arrived at with Clowney. Regardless of what Clowney does this season statistically, his status as the future No. 1 pick will serve as a flotation device for his candidacy.
For some reason, no player gets more out-sized hype than the non-skill position player in college football. And by that I mean that the media, in an effort to ‘balance’ the discussion and showcase its understanding of the game, tends to over-inflate the contributions of those who rarely touch the ball. As a result, we occasionally see odd banter about why a left tackle or linebacker should win the Heisman. Rarely is any kind of hard metric used to justify such an opinion. Instead, anecdotal evidence about nebulous qualities like ‘leadership’ and ‘heart’ are offered. This has the affect of inoculating defenders from the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for ball handlers. Because Clowney has great name recognition and NFL hype, the temptation to overinflate his impact in games will be almost irresistible to the people covering him. This will especially be true since the perception exists that he has a legit shot at winning the Heisman. In pursuit of that unique story, extra allowances for his play — and any lack of production that arises — will be made. Get ready for breathless commentary about how he is being double, or even triple-teamed on every play even though it’s something that rarely happens. Recent defenders have benefitted from this, too, but look for Clowney to take it to the next level.
Clowney has extraordinary physical ability at 6-6, 275 pounds. Even if his reported 4.6 40-yard dash time is bogus — and it most certainly is — one can’t ignore his superior athleticism, flexibility, change of direction, strength and speed. These attributes combined with his production make him the surefire No. 1 pick in next spring’s draft. He is allowed to freelance in South Carolina’s scheme and is at his best when unblocked and pursuing away from the play side or when an offensive assignment breaks down, allowing him to quickly gobble up any space between himself and the ball carrier. Because people aren’t used to seeing someone with his size moving the way he does, he is rightfully considered a physical freak. This can only help him in the Heisman race.
When the media grabs hold of a meme, it can take on a life of its own. It remains to be seen just how much the “it’s time for a defender to win the Heisman” narrative lasts. It could snowball into something meaningful and permanent or it could fade into the ether after Braxton Miller’s first five-touchdown game. But there will, without a doubt, be a portion of the media that will insist that a defender should win the Heisman and that Clowney is that defender. How much will this matter to the Heisman electorate? Will the be convinced?
So Clowney’s name recognition, his hype, his NFL future, his talent and the prevailing media winds are all drivers of his candidacy. But what are the downsides?
Can a defensive end from South Carolina win the Heisman? It’s a dubious proposition. After all, a Notre Dame linebacker with a compelling personal story couldn’t beat out a freshman for the Heisman last year despite the Irish going 12-0 and the freshman not speaking to the media all season. South Carolina is not a traditional Heisman power and does not have the kind of cache that will provide a natural base of support for Clowney.
One of the downsides to Clowney’s hype is that he will be expected to have superhuman production and make highlight-reel plays on a regular basis. Duplicating his numbers from last season will not be enough to win the Heisman. He has to do something special in at least one category, much like how Te’o stood out with his interceptions. The problem with this challenge is that defensive players do not control the flow of a game. They are dependent upon what the offense does. Meanwhile, viewers who tune in out of curiosity to watch him blow up next year’s Vince Smith may come away disappointed when that doesn’t happen.
We still don’t have a reliable way of quantifying what impact Clowney has on his team’s success from play to play and from game to game. This is perhaps the No. 1 obstacle faced by him and every other defender trying to win the Heisman. Simply put, we know exactly what it means to a team when its quarterback throws a touchdown pass or finds a closely-covered receiver for a first down. It is less clear what it means to South Carolina when Clowney collects 2 solo tackles in a 49-10 win over East Carolina. If the Gamecocks beat Georgia early in the season, the game story and the highlights are likely to lead with the stat line for Connor Shaw or SC’s leading rusher. A perusal of the box score won’t indicate Clowney’s contribution to the win, unless he happens to touch the ball at some point.
The (Over) Hype
There is such a thing as too much of it and it’s possible that people will get sick of hearing about Clowney in a few weeks. What’s more, there could potentially be a huge disconnect between his hype and his production. If someone has been told all offseason how great a player is, that person expects to see that talent jump off the screen. When it doesn’t happen — and, face it, all defenders have games where circumstances dictate minimal production — people will be disappointed.
Being a defender
No matter how many articles are written saying otherwise, a great defensive end just doesn’t have the same impact on a football game as a great quarterback, especially in the current era of the Super Quarterback. If Cameron Newton had signed with Auburn as a premiere pass rusher, he’d have been the first pick in the draft while helping the Tigers to an 8-4 season. But Newton was a quarterback and the difference his talent made at that position enabled him to win the Heisman and lead Auburn to the national title. Despite his immense physical ability, there’s only so much that Clowney can do to change the course of a game while playing defensive end. Meanwhile, quarterbacks touch the ball on every play, providing more opportunities to showcase their skills and more opportunities to impress Heisman voters.
How he can win
Clowney won’t win the Heisman if there is a viable quarterback or running back option in the race come late November. But in the off chance that, say, Manziel implodes, Braxton Miller disappoints, Marcus Mariota has a sophomore slump, AJ McCarron gets hurt and Aaron Murray gets a case of the pick-sixes, then Clowney is well-positioned to fill the vacuum. He’ll need very good production and at least two or three more highlight-reel plays at key moments in key games to make his mark. It would also help if South Carolina wins the SEC, he piles up around 20 sacks along the way and scores a few touchdowns on offense (but then he wouldn’t be a pure defender, would he?). Another wildcard is if South Carolina runs an effective campaign on his behalf that makes a good case for why he should be considered for the Heisman. Perhaps this is the moment when a new metric will finally be invented to gauge a defender’s true impact on a game (attention: Math nerds). Barring that happening, however, it’s an uphill climb for Clowney. Don’t feel too bad for him, though, since he’ll be a very rich man in about five months or so.
Why he won’t win
Clowney won’t win for the same reasons pure defenders have never won: He just won’t be able to have the kind of season needed to make a credible enough case to enough Heisman voters to convince them to spurn the options available to them on the offensive side of the ball. There’s a good chance that Miller at Ohio State could be 24-0 as a starter by the time the Heisman vote is due. How can Clowney be expected to trump that? AJ McCarron could have Alabama on the verge of its third-straight national title. Marcus Mariota could lead Oregon to its first. Aaron Murray might lead Georgia to the BCS title game while setting a boatload of SEC passing marks. Because voters can better quantify what these players mean to their teams, these players stand a better chance of winning.
Is Clowney a good shot to get to New York as a finalist? I’d bet on it. It’s his most likely reward for gracing college football with his crazy talent these past three seasons. Oh, he’ll win all those other defensive awards, too.
But he won’t win the Heisman unless everything falls perfectly into place. It’s a hard-enough proposition for the rest of the field but even harder for a defender, no matter how gifted.