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."
Last time we checked, tackling, shedding blocks and covering the field are part of the game, too, and no one does it better than Te'o. He is arguably the best football player in the country and certainly the best player on unbeaten, No. 3-ranked Notre Dame, which boasts a defense that allows an average of only 11 points per game.
In 10 games, Te'o, a senior from Hawaii, has collected 46 solo tackles, 46 assisted tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 6 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery and 10 pass deflections. He is a game-changer. He made a leaping interception with four minutes left to secure a 13-6 win over Michigan — his second pick of the day — to go with 8 tackles. In a 17-14 win over BYU, he had 10 tackles and an interception. In a 30-13 win over Oklahoma, he had 11 tackles, two tackles for losses, one sack and a game-clinching interception.
"The guy is all over the field, pass coverage, breaking on the ball, setting our defense off," says Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
In recent polls Te'o trails Kansas State's Collin Klein and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in the Heisman race. Klein and Manziel are — surprise — quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have won 10 of the last 12 Heismans.
But Te'o is becoming a national sensation and recently landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. All of which must be bittersweet for BYU. Te'o is a devout Mormon whose cousin once played for the Cougars. BYU was one of his five official recruiting visits. He eventually narrowed his choices to USC and Notre Dame.
At least BYU officials can be happy that Te'o has represented his church well at the famed Catholic school and engendered much goodwill along the way. He is a popular player who has won over fans with his play on the field and his behavior off the field. After Te'o's girlfriend and mother died within days of each other, thousands of leis were passed out to fans at the Michigan game in his honor. After the game, the crowd serenaded Te'o.
"He's a great player," says Reynolds, who high-fived Te'o in the tunnel before their teams met each other in South Bend. "And I like the kid besides. I was in his home recruiting him. The guy is a stud and a great kid. I'd want him to win the Heisman because I know him and because he's one of our guys and because of the way he conducts himself."
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