If a picture tells a thousand words then what on earth does this video say? Jadeveon Clowney enters his junior year with many saying that had he been eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft, he would have been the number one overall pick. A bold statement that has led many, including myself, to question the NFL's rule requiring three years of eligibility before entering the league (I might add that there are equally compelling arguments to maintain the status quo, including here). After flirting with the idea of sitting out 2013 to avoid injury, Clowney will take the field next season as the defensive frontrunner for the Heisman, albeit with a $5 million insurance policy against loss of earnings due to injury.
So what chance does Clowney have of winning an award that's practically unattainable for anyone on the defensive side of the ball? Each year, and rightly so, commentators reference the fact that the Heisman Trophy has become somewhat of a quarterbacks award, that the only position that has a hope of winning the award outside of a quarterback, is a running back. Commentators normally go on to say that the last player to win the Heisman on the defensive side of the ball was Charles Woodson in 1997, which for me, is somewhat of a misnomer.
Yes, Woodson did play cornerback and yes, Woodson did win the award in 1997 but he didn’t win it because of what he did on defense. In his Heisman year, Woodson made 44 tackles - including 5 for a loss - broke up 9 passes and caught 8 interceptions, none of which were returned for touchdowns. As far as I can tell – and I must say, it’s very difficult to find comprehensive stats of Woodson’s Heisman year – he forced no fumbles and recovered no fumbles. It should be noted that Michigan went undefeated that season on the way to winning a share of the national championship. Don’t get me wrong, those are good numbers but they’re not Heisman numbers; to put them into perspective, in 2009 when the Texas Longhorns made the BCS National Championship, Earl Thomas made 65 tackles – including 4.5 for a loss – broke up 9 passes and caught 8 interceptions of which 2 were returned for touchdowns. Thomas’s numbers are practically identical to Woodson’s, if not better, and Texas also had a successful season, yet I don’t remember anyone screaming that Thomas was worthy of a Heisman vote. The reason that Charles Woodson won the Heisman was because he played in all three phases of the game. He rushed for 41 yards on 5 carries for a touchdown and caught 12 receptions for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also had 301 yards on punt returns and another touchdown. He played on 765 of Michigan’s snaps; 613 on defense, 69 on offense, and 83 on special teams.
So if Charles Woodson wasn’t the last pure defensive player to win the Heisman, who was? Answer: nobody. Ernie Davis, Leon Hart and Larry Kelley are other notable names that won the Heisman after playing both offense and defense but no pure defensive player has ever won the Heisman Trophy. That’s right, the award given to "the most outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity" in a single season has never been awarded to anyone that played solely defense. It’s not looking good, Jadeveon.
The only two players on defense to even have a sniff of winning the Heisman in recent memory are Ndamukong Suh and Manti Te’o. If Ndamukong Suh was only good enough for fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009 and Manti Te’o was a runner up last season - two players who had about as dominating seasons as any on the defensive side of the ball - what hope does Clowney have? Well quite a lot actually. Clowney has something that neither Suh nor Te'o had. Hype.
Suh threw offensive lineman and quarterbacks around like rag dolls for much of 2009 but it wasn't until the Big 12 Championship game against Texas where he sacked Colt McCoy 4.5 times and had 6 tackles for a loss that much of America truly knew who he was. It was a little too late to make any real noise in New York, hence his fourth place positioning. Had he played in Alabama crimson rather than Nebraska red it might have been a different story. When Manti Te'o sealed Notre Dame's victory in Norman over 15 Oklahoma with an interception, he formerly catapulted himself into the Heisman conversation. The only trouble with that was it took until week 9 to reach the level of legitimate contender. Had he been entrenched as a favourite from the outset, maybe he could have beat out Johnny Manziel.
I'm not saying that you have to be a frontrunner from word go to win the Heisman, plenty of unknowns and dark horses have emerged from the pack. You won't be able to find a single person in the pre-season that thought the last three winners would win the Heisman ("Cam who? The kid that played JUCO last season, no chance"; "the skinny sprinter out of Waco that tore up his knee? Yeah right"; "a freshman to win the Heisman? Are you for real?") When it comes to defensive players however, I think the only realistic chance they have of winning the Heisman is if they're in the public eye from the outset and the media hype machine is preaching to the masses from day one. Te'o had all the stats, the on-field performance, the off-field sob story, the national championship contending team, the gold Notre Dame helmet and yet still fell short. I think that Clowney has more of a hope than anyone else in recent history because of the stigma surrounding him already, six months before the season even kicks off.
So what will it take for Jadeveon Clowney to win the Heisman? He might have the media hype already in the bag but he’ll obviously need to produce on the field. Last season he made 54 tackles including – are you ready for it? – 23.5 for a loss (!!!). 44% of the tackles he made were behind the line of scrimmage, including that monster hit on the unsuspecting Michigan running back in the Outback Bowl that I linked to above. In addition that, Clowney sacked the quarterback 13 times, hurried him 5 other times, forced 3 fumbles, recovered 1 and swatted 2 balls at the line of scrimmage. A truly heroic effort that leaves you understanding exactly why he was touted as a potential number one overall pick had he been eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft. If he can replicate and better these numbers, he’ll undoubtedly be in the running.
The stats only tell half the story though. Watching Jadeveon Clowney makes you truly appreciate why he might be a legitimate Heisman contender. He explodes off the line of scrimmage with a freakish burst of speed; he’s runs a 4.5 forty and you can see how when the ball is snapped. He matches his speed with elite strength to put offensive lineman on their back foot before relentlessly driving them back. He knows when to stop his rush and disengage from the blocker in an attempt to bat the ball down at the line. He has great awareness in the run game and almost effortlessly peels off blockers to make a play on the ball carrier; as can be seen by his tackles for a loss. He gets after the passer and flushes him out of the pocket with his speed. All in all, Clowney is a freakish athlete that could help make the South Carolina Gamecocks legitimate contenders in the SEC and consequently the BCS National Championship picture.
With no Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M on South Carolina’s schedule, the Gamecocks have a great opportunity to run the table next season. They have a home game against Florida to get through plus Georgia and Arkansas on the road but any time the schedule reads Mississippi State and Arkansas from the SEC West rather than Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M or Auburn, you know you’ve dodged a bullet or two. If South Carolina is able to win the SEC East, Clowney will be in a good position in the Heisman race.
If a pure defensive player is going to win the Heisman, he’ll need hype surrounding him from day one, monster stats on the field and a national championship contending team. He’s got the media hype part alright. If South Carolina win the SEC and Clowney puts up similar numbers to a season ago year, he might just better Manti Te’o’s runner up place. I'm not stupid, I know his chances are practically less than one percent; it's no coincidence the Heisman Memorial Trophy is a running back stiff-arming a defender. Nevertheless, he has a steep uphill climb ahead of him but if anyone has a chance, it's Jadeveon Clowney.