With Clowney's Heisman star rising along with the decline in Johnny Manziel's fame as the season nears, there's been increased discussion of just what it will take for a pure defensive player like Clowney to win the award. As points of comparison, let's take a look at the most recent defensive finalists for the award going back ten years. What drove their candidacies? There are, in fact, only three players who finished in the top five, although a few others, including Clowney himself last season, have finished in the top 10.
Manti Te'o--2012. Te'o came the closest of any pure defensive player to win the award, earning 321 first-place votes and 1706 point to Johnny Manziel's 474/2,029. Te'o's Heisman narrative began long before his senior season. After coming to Notre Dame as a coveted five-star recruit in 2009, Te'o played early and led the Irish in tackles in his sophomore and junior seasons. As a junior, he was a second-team All-American and a finalist for the Butkus and Lott Awards. He was widely considered a first-round NFL prospect at the time, but he elected to return to Notre Dame to finish his eligibility. Expectations were obviously high for his senior year. Such expectations oftentimes seem to hurt Heisman candidacies, as players with expectations seem to be held to a higher standard by the voters, who sometimes seem to prefer the breakout star. We've seen expectations hurt candidates in the SEC with Tim Tebow and Darren McFadden. Te'o, though, exceeded expectations, again leading ND in tackles and this time leading the Irish, as well as all LBs, in interceptions. His candidacy was helped by great performances in big games against Michigan and Oklahoma; he had two interceptions against Michigan and a memorable 13-yard sack of Landry Jones of Oklahoma. It didn't hurt the perception of his production that ND's overall defense had a great regular season as one of the best statistical defenses. Lastly, Te'o's candidacy was obviously aided by the fact that he played for ND, a popular team with unparalleled media presence, one that was in the midst of its best season in recent memory. Te'o's story represents a perfect storm of sorts for a pure defensive player to win the Heisman, and he got very close, coming in second not far behind Johnny Football. The fact that he got so close suggests that it can probably be done. Still, the fact that he didn't win the award with his accolades illustrates the difficulty pure defensive players face with this award.
Tyrann Mathieu--2011. Honey Badger finished fifth with 327 points. Not a pure defensive player, Mathieu's campaign was bolstered considerably by his special teams prowess, which was capped off by memorable punt returns in high-profile late-season games against Arkansas and, in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia. His defensive efforts also included participation in a number of memorable turnovers. Honey Badger was also the face of an LSU team that, prior to its abysmal performance in the national championship game, was widely considered one of the best college football teams to take the field in recent years. The fact that his candidacy was largely based on his special teams efforts makes it hard to compare him to Clowney, in any event.
Ndamukong Suh--2009. Nebraska's Suh placed fourth, with 161 first-place votes and 815 points. He offers a nice comparison for Clowney, given that he was a pure defender as well as a defensive lineman. Although he wasn't a household name like Te'o, Suh came into 2009 with high expectations after an All-Big 12 season in 2008. As a senior, the guy was a dominant defensive force like no other, registering 85 tackles, 12 quarterback sacks, 28 quarterback hurries, 24 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks, and one interception. Even those numbers don't do justice to the kind of havoc he wreaked on opposing offenses; much like Clowney, Suh seemed to live in opposing backfields and to cause one negative play after another. His season culminated in an incredible performance in the Big 12 Championship against undefeated Texas. The Huskers lost the game 13-12 on a last-second Texas field goal, but Suh kept them in the game with his efforts in shutting down a prolific Texas offense led by Colt McCoy. Suh would pull off the rare feat of winning MVP honors in a loss. All of this wasn't enough, though, to get Suh the Heisman, even with a weak crop of candidates. Suh finished fourth, although the voting was very close that year and Suh didn't finish too far behind the top three in total votes. If not for Te'o's greater success last year, I might have said that if Suh couldn't win it in 2009's field, no pure defensive player could.
A few notable trends emerge from these comparisons, some of them unsurprising. First of all, it goes without saying that it helped these players, especially Te'o and Mathieu, that they played for great teams, but another really notable aspect of all of these candidacies was that big plays in big games were huge. For this media-driven award, Te'o's candidacy was driven by interceptions and sacks against Michigan and Oklahoma, while Suh's was helped by his success in shutting down fellow Heisman finalist McCoy. Clowney needs to come up big against Georgia, Florida, and Clemson. Multiple sacks and turnovers in these games will immeasurably help his cause. If we win these three games, we'll be in the national title race, which will obviously help, too.
Second of all, expectations matter. They can be a curse, as they were for Tebow, who after he won the award as a sophomore could never impress voters enough to win it again. But they can also help. Part of what helped Te'o was that he managed to exceed lofty expectations, having a fantastic individual season en route to leading Notre Dame to the BCS Championship Game. Clowney could potentially benefit from a similar dynamic. Part of the what's so amazing about Clowney's career so far is that whereas most players who come in with massive hype inevitably fail to fulfill the impossible expectations, Clowney has managed to exceed the expectations placed upon him as one of the most ballyhooed prospects in the past 25 years or so. If he can somehow outdo himself one last time in his college career and beat the massive that's made him college football's most recognizable player coming into the 2013 season, it may be difficult for the voters to choose against him. Everyone already thinks he's the best in the game; if he plays better than what's expected of the player who's supposed to be the best in the game, who could vote against him?
Another thing that may work in Clowney's favor is that the voters seem to be warming up to defensive players. Two pure defenders and one defender/specialist have finished in the top five in the past four years after none had done so in the previous six. Several defenders had finished in the top ten previously. In 2005 A.J. Hawk finished sixth, Elvis Dumervil tenth. In 2007 Glenn Dorsey and Chris Long finished ninth and tenth. Ray Maualuga was ninth in 2008. (Clowney, of course, was sixth in 2012.) But the particularly strong finishes of defenders is a new development. It could just be a product of how good Suh and Te'o were. There have been great college defenders before, though, that didn't get half the momentum for the award these two enjoyed. In recent years, Heisman voters seem to be giving up on some of their old prejudices. Remember, Tebow was the first sophomore to win the award in 2007. Manziel was the first freshman last year. More defenders are getting a serious shake. Maybe Clowney, very likely the best overall defender in recent years and a star at a major impact position as a pass-rush specialist defensive end, will be the one to get defenders over the hump.
What is working against Clowney is that this probably isn't going to be a weak Heisman field. Even if Johnny Football doesn't play or his public image keeps him out of the running, there are still some pretty good quarterbacks and tailbacks in this year's crop. Braxton Miller will put up strong stats for a media-darling Ohio St. program that's going to be in the national title race. Teddy Bridgewater is considered the best pro-style QB in the country for what should be an excellent Louisville team that has some momentum after a strong finish last year. Players such as A.J. McCarron, Marcus Mariota, T.J. Yeldon, Marqise Lee, and heck, even Tajh Boyd, all have the talent to make strong runs. If Clowney does win it, it probably won't be because the field was weak. I doubt Clowney would have it any other way, though.