Manti Te’o didn’t win the Heisman Trophy this year, but he may have cracked the door open for a purely-defensive player to win college football’s most prestigious honor down the road.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has already received some way-too-early Heisman chatter for 2013 after finishing sixth in 2012. Clowney received four first-place votes and garnered 61 points, more than NIU’s Jordan Lynch and Oregon’s Kenjon Barner.
The sophomore’s 13 sacks were tied for the most in the nation, and he’ll return to a strong South Carolina squad next year as he’s ineligible for the NFL Draft until after his junior season. He’s regarded as the most dominant force on a defensive line in college football, and has already garnered significant national attention.
Perhaps Te’o’s finish showed some unconvinced voters that it’s not a sin to vote for a defensive player.
[MORE: Dr. Saturday: Will a defensive player ever win the Heisman? Well, what about next year?]
Te’o garnered more second-place votes than all but one Heisman runner-up, and only finished about 300 points behind a guy who set the SEC record for all-purpose yards in 2012. That seems like good news for Clowney, given the willingness to vote for Te’o, who didn’t play a lick of offense or special teams.
But Notre Dame went undefeated with a top-ranked defense. That had just as much to do with his Heisman Trophy candidacy than his on-field play -- which, interceptions aside, wasn’t as statistically eye-popping as you’d expect from a middle linebacker in the running for a Heisman.
“Without my team, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate,” Te’o said earlier. “If we weren't 12 and 0, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. So without my team and their help, I wouldn't be going to New York.”
Offensive players can put up monster numbers on teams with multiple losses (like Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III) and win the award. Defensive players, however dominant, don’t have that luxury -- Hugh Green’s Pittsburgh team went 11-1 in 1980 while Alex Karras’ Iowa squad went 7-1-1 in 1957, and they’re the only two other purely-defensive players to finish second -- so Clowney’s chances hinge just as much on his on-field performance as South Carolina’s record.
South Carolina avoids Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M in 2013 and draws Florida and Clemson at home. A road date against Georgia and a potential SEC title game look like the Gamecocks’ two biggest tests away from Columbia, but obviously plenty can change between now and next fall.
After Manziel was announced as the Heisman winner, plenty Te’o supporters took to Twitter to argue that if Te’o can’t win the honor, no defensive player could. Te’o built the strongest case a defensive player had for the Heisman in over three decades, maybe ever.
It’ll be tough for Clowney to equal that. If he can, though, perhaps Te’o’s 2012 finish will help Clowney in 2013.