Barrett Jones had to laugh. While listening to sports talk radio earlier this month, the Alabama offensive lineman shook his head as a caller claimed that of all the position groups on a football team, offensive linemen should have the least difficulty playing immediately. After all, a lineman simply blocks the man in front of him, doesn't he?
Though the offensive line positions are more strategically complex than any other position except quarterback, most Heisman Trophy voters probably share the opinion of that uninformed caller. How else can we explain the fact that a Big Ugly hasn't cracked the top five in the voting since Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace finished fourth in 1996?
My fellow voters, if you're looking to broaden your horizons and consider the 19 positions that aren't quarterback, tailback or receiver, begin by watching Jones. The redshirt junior will start the season at left tackle after two years starting at right guard, because that's where the Crimson Tide need him to play at the moment. Jones may not stay on blind side duty, though. "Every day, I've been taking a few snaps at center," Jones said. "I think I'm the backup center."
Actually, Jones can play all five offensive line positions, and he probably could play any of them well enough to earn All-America consideration. Cam Newton (the 2010 Heisman winner) and Tim Tebow (the 2007 winner) may have been dual-threat quarterbacks, but Jones is a triple-threat lineman (guard, tackle and center).
Last year, Jones led a line that paved the way for Alabama rushers to average 5.1 yards per carry. This season, he'll be charged with protecting a first-year starter at quarterback.
Since the Heisman also has turned into an award -- in most years -- for the MVP of a national title contender, most Heisman voters probably would argue that a Heisman candidate must affect the national title race. Last year Jones -- or rather the absence of Jones -- did affect the national title race. A high ankle sprain kept Jones out of the Georgia State and Auburn games. Had Jones played against the Tigers, Alabama would have punched in at least one more score and won the game. Assuming Auburn still would have beaten South Carolina the following week for the SEC title, the loss would have created an intriguing dilemma for poll voters. Should one-loss Auburn face Oregon for the BCS title, or should undefeated TCU face the Ducks? Jones doesn't worry about how his Iron Bowl absence affected the big picture; he only wishes he could have had a chance to match up with the nation's best defensive tackle. "I wanted to play in that game worse than I've ever wanted to play in a game," Jones said. "I had watched so much film on Auburn -- specifically Nick Fairley. I was really looking forward to getting a chance to block him. I love a good challenge, and he's a really good player."
While the Heisman's vague selection criteria don't necessarily encourage considering off-field factors, consider these facts about Jones if you need a tiebreaker.
• The Memphis, Tenn., native grew up playing the violin. He even earned extra cash by playing his fancy fiddle at weddings.
• In eighth grade, Jones became obsessed with Scrabble. He reached the Scrabble national championships in Boston, where he finished 15th in his age group. He currently crushes all comers at smartphone-based word games.
• Earlier this month, Jones polished off a 4.0 undergraduate career when he received his degree in accounting. He has since begun the accounting master's program at Alabama. "I really am a nerd," Jones said. "I love accounting. ... You've got to be nice to nerds. They could be your boss someday. Remember that."
• The past two spring breaks, Jones has traveled to Haiti with a church group to help children devastated by the massive earthquake that rocked the island in January 2010.
Jones never paused to consider his unusual choice of vacation destinations. He feels he answered a calling. This past spring break, he worked at a school, painting and building a basketball court. In 2010, only two months after the earthquake, Jones worked at a refugee camp outside Port-au-Prince for children who had lost their families to the earthquake. "More than anything, you just love on them," Jones said. "They had been through a traumatic experience. A lot of them were just young kids who had lost everything. We just went there and showed them we cared."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Jones' willingness to help speaks volumes. "I think Barrett Jones is a fantastic person, probably as fine a person as I have ever had the opportunity to coach in terms of his character, attitude, intelligence, willingness to give of himself to help other people," Saban told the (Mobile, Ala.) Press-Register last spring. "I think to make that sacrifice two years in a row at spring break when most college student-athletes are worried about going to the beach to see how much beer they can drink, or whatever, he wants to go give of himself and help other people."
Maybe this season, the pancake-compiling nerd can perform another public service: convincing Heisman voters an offensive lineman can be The Most Outstanding College Football Player in the United States.
Of course, Jones isn't the only player from outside the favored position groups who deserves consideration. Don't forget these other worthy candidates.
Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State: While four of Ohio State's best players serve five-game suspensions to start the season, Brewster will attempt to hold together a team that has been through the wringer this offseason. The nation's best center might also be the ultimate steadying influence.
Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska: Stop me if you've heard this one before. An unusually large, unusually quick Cornhuskers defensive tackle passes on a potential first-round draft slot to return to Lincoln for his senior season. If Crick even comes close to the 2009 production of former teammate Ndamukong Suh -- the first recipient of a husky-sized Heisman campaign from SI.com -- the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder might find himself headed to New York in December.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State: If the Seminoles make their anticipated leap back into the ranks of the elite, Jenkins should play a major role. As a sophomore Jenkins led the Seminoles in sacks (13.5), while the Seminoles led the nation in sacks (48). This season Jenkins will have even more talent around him, which should drive his numbers higher.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College: Heisman voters who only watch the ball should see a lot of Kuechly. He is always near the ball. As a freshman in 2009, Kuechly ranked second in the nation in tackles with 158. Last season, Kuechly led the nation in tackles with 183. Barring injury, he'll probably lead the nation again this season.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish offense gets most of the publicity, and deservedly so. But if Notre Dame hopes to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2006 season, the Irish will need more from their defense. That would mean an even greater contribution from Te'o, who led Notre Dame in 2010 with 133 tackles and whose tone-setting hits can inspire a defense to greatness.