The Heisman Trophy is the prize at the bottom of the statistical cereal box.
Stack touchdowns without regard for record. Hoard yards and hoist the trophy. One no longer needs a signature Heisman moment, a timeless, captivating performance against a daunting foe.
It is not a reward for versatility. It is a recognition of popularity. However, Clemson University’s brightest star may not pop up on many preseason Heisman watch lists.
Junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins will affect the game each time he lines up, regardless of where he lines up. He will be disruptive on the interior front, even before the snap. Opposing offensive coordinators will attempt to avoid him as much as possible (although the remainder of Clemson’s defensive line leaves no viable secondary option).
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Wilkins will clear rushing lanes in the Tigers’ jumbo short-yardage package. He will quarterback special teams units. He may even catch a pass on a trick play, and, if Clemson’s coaches dialed a handoff, Wilkins would be the Tigers’ best third-down back.
Junior receiver Deon Cain will be Clemson’s most explosive offensive weapon. Running backs C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster may lead the team in highlight runs. Nevertheless, Wilkins is Clemson’s most promising Heisman hopeful.
Considering his candidacy requires a voter to think outside the cereal box. Outside the backfield.
Each season supplies weeks of entertaining speculation, during which receivers, corners, return specialists and even linebackers are considered. Yet, at the end of year, the award returns to the default setting. For 19 consecutive years, the Heisman has been presented to a quarterback or a running back.
Former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson was the last defensive player to win the award. That was in 1997, and, even then, he dazzled as a returner and dabbled at receiver.
During the past 10 seasons, only one defensive player finished higher than fifth in Heisman voting. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was second behind Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2012.
Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers finished fifth last year. Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen was seventh. They did not outshine the winner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, or the runner-up, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, but Peppers and Allen had much more productive seasons and impressive highlights than the other three offensive players in the Top 6 — Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook and Washington quarterback Jake Browning.
Unfortunately, Wilkins must combat the backfield bias as well to build his Heisman campaign this fall. In a fair and just world, dominating the line of scrimmage would be impressive enough. But in the realm of the stacked stats, Wilkins will need a stockpile of sacks. He will need a stripped fumble and a tipped interception coupled with long returns. He will need a pair of fake punts, and a few goal-line touchdown plunges would not hurt.
Wilkins is a physical marvel and an intelligent technician. He is equipped to change the course of a game on any down. He should be able to change the minds and tendencies of Heisman voters without changing positions.