The Defensive Heisman: 10 Players on the Other Side of the Ball Who Deserve Consideration
The three preseason Heisman favorites have, whether through injury or unfeasible expectation, or just growing irritation, not lived up to the hype.
The good news is, it's not out of the question that 2009 is finally the year when another defensive player wins the Heisman award for the most outstanding player in college football.
Of course, it all comes down to on-the-field results. So I've arranged a top ten list of defensive standouts. I've favored statistical producers on major teams. Players on losing teams suffered, but not dramatically.
I've also tried to emphasize contenders who have big games remaining, opportunities to showcase their abilities to voters on a big stage at a crucial moment.
Remember, Woodson doesn't win without the punt return against Ohio State at the end of the season. Timeliness counts.
Without further ado, I present my top ten defensive Heisman candidates for 2009.
No. 10: Brandon Graham, DE, Michigan
One of the few bright spots on another abysmal Wolverine defense is end Brandon Graham, a former five-star talent out of Detroit and probably the most dynamic pass rusher in the conference.
Graham's sack statistics (3, for 25 yards) are not gaudy, but I can tell you as a Wolverine fan that he's had to battle a lot of O-line double teams and max-protection schemes, and he's hurried a lot of throws (that, granted, connected to wide open receivers, since our safety play is awful).
He's still notched 10 TFLs for fourth-best in the conference, is fourth on the team in tackles (27), and forced a huge fumble against the Spartans. I guarantee he's a high first-round pick in April in spite of the perceived senior-year dropoff.
And if he comes up big in upcoming games against the Nittany Lions and the season finale against the Buckeyes—well, that would be awesome.
Here's a trippy, unembeddable video on the Brandon Graham X-Perience, if you're curious for more.
#9: Tyler Sash, DB, Iowa
If Iowa wins the Big Ten and, God forbid, goes undefeated, it will be because sophomore DB Tyler Sash is always in the right place on the field.
Sash's pick of Darryl Clark to set up the winning drive in last year's upset of the Nittany Lions showcased his ability to track down passes in the air. He already has five picks on the year, including three against Iowa State.
He's third on the team in tackles (47), third in TFLs (4), and has a forced fumble. All in all, Sash plays extremely disciplined in pass coverage in Norm Parker's system.
I could see Sash's Heisman campaign get a huge lift with a few picks off Terrelle Pryor in the November 14th game at the Shoe.
The few knocks on Sash are his youth (he's a sophomore), and that Iowa is probably one of the nation's best overall units, but lacks one standout player.
I went with precedent in selecting Sash, since Woodson was a DB, but I would also understand arguments for LB Pat Angerer (first in tackles, with three PBUs). DL Karl Klug (first in TFLs, two forced fumbles), or DL Broderick Binns (2.5 sacks and 1.5 TFLs against Penn State, 5 PBUs total).
No. 8: Jerry Hughes, DL, TCU
If TCU ends up in a BCS bowl, it will be because of their defense, and specifically, because of Jerry Hughes.
Hughes is second in the MWC in sacks with six, and fourth in TFLs (6.5). He has the third most tackles on the team with 27, and is part of TCU's consistently effective pass rushing team.
Like Iowa's Tyler Sash, however, Hughes is, at best, a good player on a great unit. I felt he deserved mention as the Horned Frogs' and the MWC's Heisman representative, but I can't feign hope in his chances for taking home the stiff-armed man.
Unless he can rev up his numbers or start taking back some picks, he should be content with shooting for the Bronco Nagurski.
No. 7: Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech
Derrick Morgan is definitely a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech (whether he is a hell of an engineer remains unknown).
Yellow Jacket fans hoped the fallout wouldn't be too big from All-ACC DE Michael Johnson's departure to the NFL. What they got from junior DE Derrick Morgan was an improvement.
Morgan is third in the conference in sacks (6.5) and second in TFLs (10).
His breakout game was against Clemson a few Thursday nights ago, when he posted three of his sacks and four of his TFLs in the Yellow Jackets big win over Clemson.
He was pretty well bottled up by Miami's line, but resumed his stellar play against Florida State, posting a sack, two TFLs, and four solo tackles in the Yellow Jackets 49-44 win.
Morgan will have one more shot at distinguishing his Heisman chances when Georgia Tech welcomes the Hokies for the presumed coastal division title game.
If Morgan can get enough pressure on the elusive Tyrod Taylor and force some big plays to bring down the fourth-ranked Hokies, Heisman hype for either this year or next should be de rigueur.
#6: Kyle McCarthy, S, Notre Dame
Notre Dame's defensive numbers aren't earth-shatteringly great, but they've been good enough to assist the Irish to a 4-1 start (and a play or two away from undefeated, if not for Tate Forcier).
Kyle McCarthy is an excellent safety whom Tenuta relies on immensely in coverage, filling in spaces vacated by the aggressive, blitz-heavy D.
He leads the team in tackles (49), and two of his three interceptions have each come at crucial junctures in games, including the late pick of Forcier to set up Notre Dame's go-ahead score in the fourth, and the last-minute pick of Kirk Cousins to beat MSU.
He was inches away from having a fourth interception that would have sealed the win against Washington without requiring overtime.
If he can pick Matt Barkley a few times in this weekend's game against the Trojans, McCarthy could find himself in Heisman consideration as the Irish roll to a BCS game.
No. 5: Taylor Mays, S, USC
Mays is another player who quixotically decided to stick around for another year despite high draft pick guarantees. A knee injury against Ohio State kept him out of the second quarter, and has also affected his statistical credibility (he has only one interception, 28 tackles, and no TFLs).
That said, he is an extremely physical safety and has requested more action in the box. He's launched a campaign on his own behalf that generated the preseason buzz crucial to consideration.
And it's USC—those people win Heismans.
The Trojans' big game against the Irish this weekend will be the premier opportunity for Mays to step up. No defense has truly been able to defend Jimmy Clausen or Golden Tate downfield, so Mays will have plenty of opportunities to boost his Heisman cred.
If his return can revive the sometimes-iffy play of USC's 2009 defense, there's a chance his Heisman campaign gets serious traction down the stretch.
#4: Eric Berry, DB, Tennessee
Berry is this year's version of the "no one's talking about him, thus everyone is talking about him" Heisman candidate on defense.
His stellar play last year on the fifth-best defense in the country despite the abysmal play of the offense propelled Berry to the national consciousness, with a little help from the Volunteers PR Department.
He's a hard-hitting safety who Monte Kiffin occasionally plays as a hybridized linebacker, assisting hugely in run support with the speed to drop back into coverage if the read is pass. Think Polamalu. At the snap, Berry can be anywhere from deep coverage to the line of scrimmage.
He's second on the team in tackles with 50 (!), third in TFL's (4.5), and has one pick, which was off a Tebow pass early in the game. It was a terrific interception, if you didn't see it.
Unfortunately, Berry's campaign still suffers from the lackluster fate of his team. The Florida game was the one chance Berry's Heisman chances had. Had the Volunteers come away with the W, had they punched it in off Berry's pick, or had he taken a fumble to the house, his campaign would have risen to legit status.
As it is, his team has underwhelmed in losses to Auburn and UCLA, and despite the win over Georgia, the hype machine may have passed him by.
His last chance is the Alabama game coming up Oct. 24th. If Berry steps up, harasses McElroy and gives Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch butterfingers, there's still a chance Berry's name gets called in December.
#3: Javier Arenas, DB, Tide
If the Heisman were to always be a defensive trophy, you can bet there'd be more than a few winners in the next few years for Nick Saban's team.
Saban's defensive units are always outstanding, and the zone-blitz master has continued to improve with this year. The country's eighth best defense is anchored by strong play from LB Rolando McClain Javier Arenas and Eryk Anders.
But Javier Areans is the name voters will recognize. Arenas is a dynamic kick and punt returner (crucial for a defensive player, whose statistics often appear one-dimensional) and has good-to-great defensive numbers: 31 tackles, two sacks, four TFLS, and a pick in the Ole Miss win, as well as four pass breakups.
If Arenas can generate more buzz in the kickoff return game, and the Tide can win out, a huge return against Florida and a pick off Tebow might be enough to swoon Heisman voters that Arenas is the second coming in the secondary.
#2: Brandon Spikes, ILB, Florida
If middle linebackers are the quarterbacks of a defense, Florida ILB Brandon Spikes is the nation's Tim Tebow.
Spikes leads the team in tackles (32), TFLs (4), sacks (4.5), and has a PBU and a forced fumble. He's beastly in run-stopping and never caught out of position in coverage.
He should be in the NFL, but decided to play out his senior year, and rather than looking like a foolish decision, Spikes stellar play against premier competition (2.5 of his TFLs, 2.5 of his sacks, and his forced fumble came against LSU, Florida's best win) has him hovering around the top ten projected picks.
Plus, he's just frickin' scary-looking.
He's the best player on the nation's #1 defense. If Florida wins out and the Heisman voters are thinking defense, Spikes' name will be in the mix.
No. 1: Ndamukong Suh, DL, Nebraska
The performance Suh put on against Missouri was nothing short of incredible. Granted, the rainy conditions set the stage for a chaotic game. But Suh, not a pure bull rusher, played the tackle position as intelligently as I've seen it played.
Suh reads runs at the line better than most linebackers, and has the ability to drop back into coverage when he senses that the pass protection is not conducive to pressure.
His size and speed help spread him across several passing lanes. Nebraska's defensive coaches deserve commendation for utilizing these talents tremendously.
He leads his team in tackles (32, 15 solo), TFL's (5.5) and sacks (3.5), and has broken up a whopping seven passes at the line. He also has one forced fumble. He's basically rewriting the expectations for a defensive tackle as the season progresses.
If Nebraska challenges for the Big 12 North title and faces Texas in the championship, Suh could have the kind of game that convinces voters it is the year of the defensive Heisman.
Also Receiving Votes
So there's your top ten. But who else deserves mention?
UCLA's Rahim Moore: the sophomore free safety leads the PAC-10 in interceptions with five, and has four pass break ups. Unfortunately, he has more picks than UCLA has passing touchdowns. If UCLA can improve, and Moore can keep his numbers up, the Bruins have a chance of fielding a legit defensive contender in a few years.
Texas A&M's Von Miller: Who? That's right, defensive end Von Miller. The Big 12's statistical leader in sacks (9!) and TFLs (11!), Miller's output has been mostly consistent across all five of the Aggies games. The competition hasn't been great, however. But Miller's hustle demands attention, and if he can keep the pace against the Big 12 schedule (the Oklahoma State game was a minor setback statistically), Miller might turn heads either this year or next.
Jonathon Freeny, DL, Rutgers: The Big East is not known for its suffocating defense, but Freeny, who is second in conference in sacks and TFLs, has been a pest for opposing offenses and provides good run support for the Scarlet Knights. His output has dipped in big games, but he's still got another year of eligibility, and if Rutgers can start next year off challenging Cincinnati instead of letting them score in droves, Freeny's name might become more commonplace on defensive Heisman lists.