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The Heisman Case For Aidan Hutchinson

Aidan Hutchinson has been the defensive leader for Michigan all year and just broke the program's single season sack record. His case for Heisman has grown each week and his late-season performances could propel him all the way to win, despite the lack of historical precedent for defensive players in the race.

After his exhilarating, prophecy-fulfilling, three-sack performance in the win over Ohio State, Aidan Hutchinson officially threw his name into the Heisman conversation. Unlike most years, there is still no clear-cut front-runner and Hutchinson has suddenly rocketed to the third-best Heisman odds despite not even being listed on most betting sites throughout most of the season.

From a narrative standpoint, Hutchinson makes a lot of sense as a winner. Hutchinson came back for his senior year as a man on a mission and this year he has emerged as the vocal leader of a Michigan team that is likely heading to the playoffs while individually, he’s solidified himself as a top pick in next year’s NFL draft.

“I've invested so much of my energy - mental energy, physical energy - into giving this all I've got,” Hutchinson said back in July at Big Ten Media Day. “I'm back for my last ride here. When I tell you that I've given everything - from in spring ball in coaching guys up, working out in summer conditioning, winter conditioning, rehabbing this ankle - I mean I've done everything for my body and what I put in it to ensure that we have success this season. I'm just...I'm willing to die for this. I swear. I want it more than anyone, I promise you that.” 

Hutchinson talked the talk and has backed it up with his play on the field. Through 12 games, Hutchinson has 13 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Hutchinson set the single season sacks record against the Buckeyes and has led a revived Wolverines defense to new heights. Even on plays that don’t register on the stat sheet, he’s constantly wreaking havoc on offensive lines and drawing multiple lineman his way to try and slow him down.

Michigan has surpassed every expectation this year and Hutchinson is the biggest reason why. What hurts his case for the Heisman may simply be the side of the ball he lines up on. 

The historical precedent for defensive players in the Heisman voting is not great.

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Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to win in 1997 and he also got playing time at wide receiver. The last defensive player to finish in the top two in voting was Mantei Te'o in 2012 and he was only the third ever defense-only player to finish as a runner up. The most recent finalist was Chase Young in 2019 when he finished fourth. Young and Ndamakong Suh in 2009 are the only defensive lineman to finish as Heisman finalists this century.

Young had a monster season in 2019, going for 16.5 sacks, 21 tackles-for-loss and 6 forced fumbles, but that case didn’t hold up against Joe Burrow’s historic season at quarterback for LSU. Suh had a huge year for Nebraska in 2009 with 52 tackles, 12 sacks and an interception but he also finished fourth with Mark Ingram taking home the award.

Historically, even great defensive campaigns are no match for offensive stars when it comes to winning the Heisman. The difference for Hutchinson is that the usual slew of offensive candidates has fallen back rather than risen down the stretch. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker is second in the nation in rushing and will be a finalist in January, but the Spartans have faded down the stretch and Walker’s chances of winning appear to have faded along with them. The two frontrunners ahead of Hutchinson are Alabama QB Bryce Young and Ohio State QB CJ Stroud. The former needed four overtimes to beat a 6-5 Auburn team last week and everyone knows how Stroud and Hutchinson’s head-to-head matchup played out.

Ballots are submitted on Monday and this weekend gives Hutchinson one more chance to plead his case to voters. He will line up against Iowa’s offensive line and try to be a disruptive force and win a Big Ten Championship. Young meanwhile has to face Georgia’s vaunted defense. Stroud, of course, will be watching from home.

If there was a year for a defensive player to win the Heisman, this would be it. The quarterback candidates are flawed, and Hutchinson has been dominant all season, even if oddsmakers are just starting to take notice.

He deserves the highest individual honor in college football because of what he’s done on the field and for helping catapult Michigan into a national title contender — which no one saw coming.

The historical precedent may not be there. But in Hutchinson's case, that shouldn’t matter.