Doug Robinson: Why Manti Te'o should win the Heisman — but won't

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13 2012 3:44 p.m. MST

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o urges the fans to get louder as BYU and Notre Dame play Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 in South Bend. Notre Dame won 17-14.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Why not a defensive player for the Heisman?

Why not a guy who tackles, intercepts, sacks and causes fumbles and mayhem on the other side of the line?

Instead of a player who scores touchdowns, why not a player who stops touchdowns?

Instead of a player who throws passes, why not a guy who intercepts passes?

Why not Manti Te'o?

Notre Dame's superstar linebacker has been a tour de force this season and has placed himself in the Heisman Trophy conversation. But if history is any indication, he won't win it.

Know how many players who played strictly on defense have previously won the award? ZERO.

Which is just plain wrong. Where is it written that the Heisman Trophy — supposedly presented to the best college football player in the country — can't be awarded to defensive players? Aren't they football players, too? Fifty percent of college football players are eliminated from contention every season.

Of the 77 players who have been awarded the Heisman, 71 have been quarterbacks or running backs and five have been receivers.

But what about Charles Woodson, you're thinking? He's the only Heisman winner who played primarily on defense, but he earned much of his notoriety for his versatility as a punt returner and wide receiver. If not for his offensive and special teams exploits, and the publicity it engendered, he probably wouldn't have won the award. It might have gone instead to the player who was second — a quarterback named Peyton Manning.

"Defensive players can now go out and play their games; this has opened doors," Woodson said after winning the award.

It was wishful thinking.

Check the list that accompanies this column and you'll see that defensive players have gotten little consideration for the Heisman. If you're wondering why great defensive players such as Chuck Bednarik, Donn Moomaw, Kurt Burris, Alex Karras, Lee Roy Jordan and Dick Butkus aren't listed ?— all of them finished in the top five — it's because they also played offense. It wasn't until the rules were changed in 1965 to allow unlimited substitution that players began specializing in offense or defense.

Another note: Syracuse's Ernie Davis, like others of his era, played both ways because of the limited substitution rules, but he won the award because of his exploits at running back, not linebacker. The closest a defensive specialist has come to winning the Heisman was when Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green finished second to running back George Rogers in 1980

"It's strange," says Lance Reynolds, an assistant coach at BYU for three decades. "The reason it happens is because the press that offensive players get far outweighs the press defensive players get. It's going to be tough for defensive players to compete. The stats can verify the performance of a receiver, quarterback and running back. They can back up people's opinions."

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, a former all-conference linebacker and defensive coordinator, says it would be "awesome" if Te'o won the award, but he's realistic.

"The Heisman is, unofficially, the award for the best offensive player on one of the best teams in the country," Whittingham says. "That's who wins it. The description of the Heisman doesn't say that, but for all intents and purposes that's what it is. The rationale is that it's easier for the public to identify with offensive skill positions, the glamour players."

And, no, he doesn't think it's fair. Whittingham offers a solution: "What they should do is admit that the Heisman goes to the best offensive player, then have a separate award, another Heisman, for the defensive player — some way to recognize defensive players. I know there are some awards for defensive players, like the Butkus Award, but nothing that is the equivalent of the Heisman."

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