Publish date:

Longing for the day when Heisman voters think outside the box


If he reaches the end zone for the fourth time in his career, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh might reprise the Ducky Dance. The 300-pounder debuted the jig, named after a Parasaurolophus from The Land Before Time movie series, last season after he lined up at fullback and caught a touchdown pass against Kansas. But could Suh, a player NFL scouts could consider the nation's best college football player by season's end, use such a moment to make a more iconic statement?

"Do I strike the pose?" Suh said. "No, I do not. I do not strike the pose."

With that vaguely Suess-ish answer, Suh scuttled the notion he might channel Desmond Howard and strike a blow for all the husky-section shoppers ignored by Heisman Trophy voters. Besides, even if Nebraska bought a billboard in Times Square and treated tourists to a 30-foot tall image of Suh doing his best impression of former New York University back Ed Smith's classic stiff-arm, Heisman voters probably wouldn't think of Suh when they cast their ballots.

Which is unfortunate, because even in an era when television and the Internet take fans deeper inside the game than ever, most Heisman voters can't wrap their brains around the possibility that the "Most Outstanding College Football Player in the United States" -- the man voters are asked to elect -- could be someone other than quarterback, running back or wide receiver who also returns kicks.

Obviously, this might not be the best year to make this argument. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (2007 winner), Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford (2008 winner) and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy (2008 runner-up, who might have won in any other year) could be the best trio of quarterbacks playing simultaneously in a generation. But with no clear consensus on who is the best, maybe it's time to start considering the 19 positions Heisman voters routinely overlook.

Tebow, Bradford and McCoy were excellent choices last year, but an equally excellent choice didn't even finish in the top 10. Offensive tackle Andre Smith, who steamrolled SEC defenders for three seasons, helped the Crimson Tide improve from 7-6 in 2007 to 12-1 by the time votes were due for the 2008 Heisman. Yet Smith wasn't even considered.

In 2001, when Heisman voters had no clear favorite and Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch won the award, the best player on the nation's best team went completely ignored. That year, Miami destroyed every team in its path en route to a national title. Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey finished third in the balloting, garnering 109 first-place votes. Dorsey, though, wasn't even the best player on his own offense. That was tackle Bryant McKinnie, who finished eighth. The soul of the Hurricanes, safety Ed Reed, didn't even place.

So bless Tennessee for mounting a campaign for safety Eric Berry. Though Volunteers fans never will forgive Heisman voters for choosing Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson over Vols quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997, at least voters that year gave serious thought to the notion that a defensive player can change a game just as much as an offensive one. Of course, if Woodson hadn't occasionally lined up at receiver, he probably would have finished fourth.

Since 1980, when Pitt defensive end Hugh Green finished second behind South Carolina back George Rogers, no player outside the Holy Trinity of positions has finished higher than fourth except Woodson. (Gordie Lockbaum, the Holy Cross dynamo who finished third in 1987, played running back and defensive back in equal doses.) Ohio State's Orlando Pace, the most dominant offensive lineman of the '90s, finished fourth in 1996. Penn State's LeVar Arrington, one of the most dynamic linebackers in the college game, finished ninth in 1999.

Let us dream for a moment that Heisman voters collectively began appreciating all 22 positions. What positions would get added to the usual mix? The offensive line positions are probably out, for two major reasons.

SI Recommends

The first, Alabama offensive guard Mike Johnson explained, is a lack of statistics. "There are no measurables when it comes to us," Johnson said. "There are no catches. No carries. No touchdowns." And since offensive line grading varies from coach to coach, there is no reliable metric that would allow quantitative comparison.

Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett added the very nature of offensive linemen would prohibit them from garnering enough individual attention to win such an award. The best linemen, Trickett said, are concerned more about their line's performance as a whole than about individual glory. "All I sell is the unit," Trickett said. "Our group is the unit. There's only one quarterback. Only one tailback."

The new breed of five-tool safeties could make a dent. Tennessee is touting Berry, who is fast enough to cover any receiver one-on-one and vicious enough to blast a charging tailback. Berry also has a nose for the ball and is plenty elusive once he gets it. The junior needs only 15 more interception return yards to break Terrell Buckley's NCAA record.

On the other side of the safety spectrum stand USC's Taylor Mays, a speedy, 230-pound genetic freak who probably would be one of the nation's best linebackers if he wasn't already one of the best safeties.

Since Heisman winners are expected to take over games, defensive tackle might be the best position to follow. No other position on the defense allows such a direct impact on every snap. Trickett explained a dominant defensive tackle can completely alter the course of a game. He cited the example of B.J. Raji, the 337-pound Boston College beast who nearly beat the Seminoles single-handedly in 2008. "He must have been feeling good that night," Trickett said. "Because I've got an All-America guard (Rodney Hudson), and (Raji) just took the game over."

But here's why defensive tackles don't get considered for the Heisman. Raji finished with one tackle that night for a nine-yard loss. That was his entire stat line. Yet Trickett, who has forgotten more football strategy than most Heisman voters will ever know, considers Raji the most important player in that game.

To understand why defensive tackles should be considered just as heavily as quarterbacks and tailbacks, consider what they can do to an offense, often without making a single tackle. Commentators often praise interior linemen for "blowing up" plays, but that description isn't accurate. They don't make plays explode. They make them implode.

Let's imagine Nebraska's Suh is facing Kansas in a game that could decide the Big 12 north title, and Suh decides to take over. If Kansas is foolish enough to try to block Suh with one lineman, Suh will either beat him with a rip or swim move or bull rush the poor Jayhawk into the backfield. If the play is a run, the back will have to alter his course, allowing Nebraska defenders more time to grab him. If the play is a pass, quarterback Todd Reesing's field of vision suddenly will be filled by a 6-foot-4, 300-pounder.

More likely, Suh will be double-teamed. Every once in a while, he'll split that double-team and wreak havoc. More often, the concentration of resources on Suh will allow teammates Jared Crick, Barry Turner and Pierre Allen to make more plays. Besides that, an offensive line sliding its pass protection scheme to one side to nullify one dominant lineman is more susceptible to a blitz or stunt.

Unfortunately, Suh is not much of a self-promoter. He's still mad at himself for throwing the ball after he returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown against Colorado last season. So don't expect a Heisman pose from him. And don't expect most Heisman voters -- who seem incapable of thinking inside the tackle box -- to notice him or any other lineman.

"It seems out of reach," Suh said. "Since I've been watching the Heisman, it's usually been a quarterback, a running back or someone in an elite skill position. I don't see myself being put in that view.

"But I'm not opposed to it."