In 2012 Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o put up one of the best defensive seasons in recent college football history. The senior served as the anchor of a stingy Irish D, leading the team with 113 tackles and seven interceptions. Te’o and Notre Dame reeled off a 12-0 regular season and reached the BCS national championship game in Miami, where it lost 42-14 to Alabama.
Prior to playing in that game, Te’o reached New York as a Heisman finalist, joining two quarterbacks, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Kansas State’s Collin Klein. But Te’o’s status as the leader of the resurgent Irish—and the later-debunked narrative surrounding his relationship with his girlfriend—wasn’t enough to lift him into Heisman glory. Instead, Manziel became the first redshirt freshman to win the trophy. Te’o, meanwhile, finished as runner-up.
Te’o is the most recent example of a defensive player contending for college football’s highest honor. But like many before him, the linebacker proved how difficult it is for a defensive player to win the Heisman. In fact, history says it’s impossible. No exclusively defensive player has ever claimed the trophy, and that trend doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.
The only primarily defensive player to win a Heisman—Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997—did more than play defense. He also took snaps at wide receiver and returned punts. But counting Woodson, only 23 defensive players have finished in the top five of Heisman voting since the award’s inception in 1935.
Why do Heisman voters tend to favor offensive players? For one, the numbers. Most offensive candidates boast gaudy stats, especially with running quarterbacks so prevalent in today's game. Five of the last seven Heisman winners have been dual-threat passers who threw for at least 2,500 yards and ran for at least 600 yards. Voters love players who can do it all.
Offensive players also get more attention. In today’s YouTube-heavy, social media age of quick highlights, fans crave long runs and last-second touchdown passes more than key tackles or pass breakups. It’s difficult for players on defense to contend with Heisman candidates who touch the ball on every snap. That explains why running backs (41 trophies) and quarterbacks (32) have been the most prolific Heisman winners. The recent trend towards quarterbacks is even more profound; last season Oregon’s Marcus Mariota became the 13th passer to win the Heisman in the last 14 years.
Finally, it’s easier for Heisman voters to gauge an offensive player’s impact on a game. Passing and rushing stats are a more straightforward manner of quantifying a candidate’s effect. This is an inherit disadvantage to defensive players, especially when coupled with an ambiguous Heisman Trophy Mission Statement that demands voters recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”
There is no objective way to determine the more outstanding player between two candidates who line up at two different positions. Instead, voters lean on players who A) touch the ball most often, and B) post big numbers. This is unfair to defensive standouts, some of whom disrupt plays without notching a single stat. But this kind of bias also plagues stellar offensive linemen, whose work in the trenches is similarly difficult to quantify.
Despite the aforementioned hurdles, a few defensive players have flirted with Heisman glory in recent years. Since Woodson’s victory in 1997, three players have finished among the top-five vote-getters: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in 2009, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu claimed fifth in 2011 and Te’o finished second in 2012.
Te’o might’ve been the most successful defensive candidate ever. He earned the second-most first-place votes (366) of any runner up—offense or defense—in Heisman history. His 1,706 total points were third-most of any runner-up, as well. Te’o’s name also appeared on 84% of ballots, a remarkable number when considering the previous year’s winner, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, appeared on just 80% of ballots. Despite Manziel’s victory, many considered Te’o’s runner-up finish a watershed moment for defensive candidates.
What has to happen for a defensive player to win the Heisman? First and foremost, every other offensive contender must fall to the wayside. Defensive players must also star for teams in contention for the national title. Plus, every Heisman winner needs a big moment on a big stage; Te’o’s late interception in an October win against Oklahoma was huge for his candidacy. Fair or not, spotlight matters in the Heisman race.
Though unlikely, all of those things could happen, and this fall a number of stellar defenders could sneak into the Heisman conversation. His early season suspension will hurt him, but defensive end Joey Bosa is still a disruptive force on Ohio State’s defensive line. Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright returns to Tucson after putting up video-game stats last season (163 tackles, 29 TFLs, 14 sacks). Cornerback Jalen Ramsey, meanwhile, might be the best and most athletic player on an ACC contender at Florida State.
Each one of those names could lay claim to a Heisman-caliber season. But the current era of hurry-up offenses in college football produces more Heisman candidates at quarterback than perhaps ever before. Until voters place more weight on defensive contributions, a player on that side of the ball is unlikely to win the Heisman.