Dwight Freeney amassed an absolutely insane 17.5 sacks in his senior season en route to a 10-3 season for the Syracuse Orangemen and a 14th place finish in the AP Poll. Today, such an effort would at least get him invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony. In 2001, it only got him two first place votes and an 8th place finish. And, I mean, Eric Crouch won it that year.
But the Heisman voters' feelings about defensive players have clearly begun to change. In 2009, Ndamukong Suh placed fourth and this past Saturday Manti Te'o finished in second place. Te'o's strong Heisman showing came despite neither being regarded as the best defensive player on Notre Dame nor putting up the kind of eye-popping statistical performance that others at the position have produced in the past several years.
Jadeveon Clowney will certainly be the best defensive player for the Gamecocks in 2013 and has a chance to putup the kind of insane Freeney-esque statistics that would play very well in today's more defense-friendly Heisman voting climate.
Here are some things that Jadeveon will have going for him in 2013:
Name recognition: Jadeveon finished 6th in the Heisman voting (including 4 first place votes) in 2012 and might be an even bigger household name than former Gamecock Heisman candidate Marcus Lattimore (who actually never received a single Heisman vote during his star-crossed career). Even on a national level, he's regarded as a freak of an athlete who, health permitting, is a lock to go 1:1 in the 2014 draft.
National exposure: Depending on how the Gamecocks fare in the Outback Bowl, they figure to be ranked in the top 10 once again entering the 2013 season. This should set up a series of high-profile early season matchups against North Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt that could allow him to carve out a spot in the Heisman voting electorate's consciousness early in the process.
But there are also some factors working against Clowney:
Position: Not only is there an institutional bias against defensive players, but it's much easier to employ a scheme that mitigates a single defender's impact on the game than it is to do the same to a quarterback. It's not inconceivable that the depleted back 7 could result in fewer opportunities for coverage sacks. I recently heard Chris Huston (aka @HesimanPundit) speculate that Devin Taylor's departure could hinder JD's production in 2013, but I think that thought process represents a significant underestimation of Chaz Sutton.
Team: As much as I would like for South Carolina to be held in the same regard as Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame, it just isn't. South Carolina football is certainly much more of a nationally recognized brand than it was ten years ago, but it's not to the point where being the best Gamecock during any given season automatically puts you in the conversation. But this point could be rendered somewhat moot if...
The Gamecocks are national title contenders in 2013:
The schedule sets up nicely for South Carolina next year. If USC can survive that tough stretch to open the season that I mentioned above, they'll likely make it to November 16th against Florida before they meet an opponent against whom they won't be favored. And the Gamecocks get the Gators in WIlliams-Brice.
If Jadeveon Clowney wins the Heisman in 2013, it would be absolutely huge for Steve Spurrier's football program. And, really, whether he wins it or not, getting JD to stay instate has been an amazing public relations coup, as many high-profile prospects have South Carolina on their radars just because Clowney decided to go to USC.
But after seeing what RGIII's success has done for Baylor, it's hard not to get excited thinking about the possibility.