Morris: Defensive players face uphill battle in Heisman race

rmorris@ thestate.comSeptember 18, 2013 

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is a long shot to win the Heisman Trophy.


JADEVEON CLOWNEY’S chances of winning the Heisman Trophy probably were slim from the outset, and have been reduced over the first three weeks of the college football season.

Those reduced odds have nothing to do with Clowney’s on-field performance and everything to do with him being a player on the defensive side of the football. Steve Spurrier, himself a quarterback when he won the 1966 Heisman Trophy at Florida, recognizes the dicey situation for defensive players.

“Oh yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard for a defensive end,” Spurrier said. “Ball tips and he picks a few off, and runs 100 yards for a touchdown, and has about five sacks a game. Then he’d be in the Heisman hunt. As we know, that’s difficult to do.”

Virtually impossible, just like winning the Heisman Trophy.

Michigan’s Charles Woodson is the lone defensive player to win the Heisman, edging out Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997. Even Woodson probably would not have won the award without also catching a few passes and having been an outstanding punt and kickoff returner.

One of the bigger problems with a defensive player winning the Heisman is that opponents can scheme against that player, as Clowney has found out this season. He often faces double teams, and seldom do opponents run the ball to his side of the field.

As a result, Clowney’s statistics are not grabbing the attention of Heisman Trophy voters across the country. His eight solo tackles and two sacks through three games are solid, particularly considering that he is not involved in most plays, but not spectacular enough to merit Heisman consideration.

Again, that is no fault of Clowney’s. Even a couple of the most dominant defensive players in college football history failed to win the Heisman recently.

A season ago, linebacker Manti Te’o appeared to have a legitimate shot at winning the trophy that goes to the nation’s most outstanding player. Te’o not only was a stellar player on a team that played in the BCS National Championship Game, but that team also happened to be Notre Dame.

Despite all the attention that goes with playing for the Fighting Irish, Te’o finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Like Te’o, there was no greater player in college football in 2009 than Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, yet he finished fourth in the voting.

There long has been a built-in bias for offensive players, particularly quarterbacks, among Heisman voters. Sixteen of the past 23 winners were quarterbacks, including 11 of the past 12. The lone exception was Alabama’s Mark Ingram. Of course, he was a running back.

“I guess the Heisman has typically been more tilted toward offensive guys, for whatever reason,” said Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. “I don’t know the whole history of the Heisman, but I think that’s kind of where it starts, the perception.

“The quarterbacks, they get a ton of credit and a ton of blame as well. So it just kind of comes with the position, the most visible position, they get the most notoriety.”

The uphill battle faced by defensive players in garnering Heisman Trophy votes is not too dissimilar to MVP voting in Major League Baseball. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw appears to be the MVP in the National League this season, but his odds of winning the award are long.

Those awards almost always go to non-pitchers in both leagues. Once the Cy Young Award was established in 1956 to reward the best pitcher in each league, eight pitchers have won MVP awards. Los Angeles pitcher Sandy Koufax was the last to win in the National League, in 1963, and Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander was the last American League pitcher honored, in 2011.

Verlander won MVP honors because he was such a dominant pitcher that year. The same kind of dominance would be needed for a defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, and it does not appear to be happening this season.

Eight quarterbacks were among the top 11 vote-getters in The State’s latest weekly survey of 13 Heisman Trophy voters. Two others were running backs, one a wide receiver and Clowney. USA Today ranked the top 10 Heisman Trophy contenders Wednesday. Eight were quarterbacks, and two others were running backs.

So, once again, a quarterback or running back will win the Heisman Trophy this year. That is the way the award works, and there is little to nothing Clowney or any other defensive standout can do about it.

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