If you believe the legend, coach “Doc” Spears was on a recruiting trip near International Falls, Minnesota, when he got lost. In need of directions, he was startled to find a young man plowing a nearby field, without a horse.
His name was Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski. He went on to play for the University of Minnesota from 1927-29, and spent nine years with the Chicago Bears. He was a versatile player, but was known mostly for his competitiveness and toughness.
When the Football Writers Association of America decided, in 1993, to create an award for the best defensive player in college football, it was the perfect opportunity to recognize the legendary Nagurski by naming the trophy in his honor.
The watch list for the 2008 Bronko Nagurski Trophy started with 88 players back in May, but, as of last week, has been trimmed to five finalists.
Jerry Hughes, Defensive End, TCU (6'2", 248, Junior)
He leads the nation with 14 sacks. He also has 17.5 tackles for loss (seventh in the nation) and five forced fumbles (tied for fifth). He anchors the TCU defense that is tops in the nation in rushing defense, total defense, and sacks, and is second in the nation in scoring defense.
What Others Say: TCU coach Gary Patterson says, "He’s had a season of a lifetime. He just makes plays."
Rey Maualuga, Linebacker, USC (6'3", 260, Senior)
Although he missed the fourth game of the season with an injury, he leads the Trojans with 66 tackles. He is the linchpin of a USC defense that is number one nationally in passing defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense, and second in total defense.
What Others Say: Steve Dilbeck, Los Angeles Daily News says, “He is powerful and aggressive and uncommonly fast. More than all that, he is also amazingly athletic. He can be a sledgehammer or a ballerina. Dazzle with power or agility. Play with fury and control."
Brian Orakpo, Defensive End, Texas (6'4", 260, Senior)
Although he has missed the better part of two and a half games due to a knee injury, he has still accumulated 31 tackles (25 unassisted), including 13.5 tackles for loss. He also has a team-high nine sacks, and has forced three fumbles.
What Others Say: Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News says, “In big-time college football, just about everybody is strong. Or fast. Or gifted. Few are all three. All those hours in Texas' weight room, just about every day, has produced an imposing athletic specimen.”
Alphonso Smith, Cornerback, Wake Forest (5'9", 160, Senior)
Smith leads the nation with 18 passes defended. His five interceptions so far this year leave him one short of tying the ACC record for career interceptions (20) held by Dre Bly. He has also seen time as a kick returner.
What Others Say: Commenting on Smith’s gambler mentality and knack for being in the right place at the right time, teammate tailback Brandon Pendergrass says, "Once you see him in the game, you know a play's about to be made."
Brandon Spikes, Linebacker, Florida (6'3", 243, Junior)
Despite missing the first game of the season with a foot injury, he leads the resurgent Gator defense with 74 tackles, including 8 tackles for loss. He also has three interceptions, and has returned two of them for touchdowns.
What Others Say: After Florida’s much improved defense dominated Georgia, teammate cornerback Joe Haden says, “We play the way No. 51 (Spikes) plays.”
My Pick: Brandon Spikes.
Maualuga, Hughes and Orakpo may not even be the best defensive players on their own teams. Smith may be out of luck because the award has only once been given to a player on a team with more than three losses, and Wake Forest currently sits at 6-5.
Spikes has emerged as leader on a Florida defense that has turned from last year’s liability into this year’s strength.
The award will be presented on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, NC.