Please keep these non-traditional choices on your Heisman radar
Voters proved last year they don't understand game enough to identify MOP
If anyone can take the husky Heisman mantle from Suh, it's Adrian Clayborn
Others to watch: Jared Crick, Rodney Hudson, Greg Jones, Patrick Peterson
Some people laughed at me last August when I wrote a column suggesting that a Nebraska defensive tackle with a difficult-to-pronounce first name should be considered among the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy. According to the voting criteria, the award is earmarked for "The Most Outstanding College Football Player in the United States" -- not the nation's most outstanding quarterback, running back or receiver who also returns kicks on a top 10 team. Silly me. In my first year as a voter, I took the instructions literally.
Four months later, Ndamukong Suh single-handedly destroyed the Texas offense in the Big 12 title game and inserted himself into the Heisman conversation. A few more voters came around and joined me in placing Suh No. 1 on the ballot, but most didn't. The electorate proved once again that outside of the former winners, most Heisman voters simply don't understand the game well enough to tear their eyes away from the ball and evaluate the rest of the players on the field.
So, as a public service to my fellow voters, I'm going to build on my Suh/Rolando McClain campaign from 2009 and offer an annual preseason primer for Heisman voters who aren't confident in their abilities to judge players who don't throw, catch or run with the football. One of the reasons Suh didn't get more traction last year was that most voters didn't really begin watching him until he tied Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert into a pretzel on ESPN during a rainy Thursday game in October. So read this column, dear voters, and follow these players from Week 1. You might find yourself voting for one of them in December.
If anyone can take the husky Heisman mantle from Suh, it's Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Like Suh, Clayborn was a no-brainer first-round pick who decided to put off NFL millions and return for his senior season. Unlike Suh, who lined up over the opposing center most plays, Clayborn lines up outside the tackle.
But the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Clayborn is every bit the athletic freak Suh was. He announced that to the nation during last season's win against Arizona, when he lined up on the back side of the play and chased down Arizona tailback Nic Grigsby from behind -- after only a two-yard gain. Grigsby, by the way, is no plodder. He is a 190-pound speedster who had gained 1,153 yards and averaged 5.4 yards a carry the previous season.
Clayborn played his best in the biggest games. One of the Hawkeyes' finest memories of last season has to be Clayborn blocking a Penn State punt, scooping it up and returning it 53 yards for the score that gave Iowa a lead it never would relinquish as a whited-out Beaver Stadium crowd sat in stunned silence. In an overtime loss at Ohio State in the de facto Big Ten title game, Clayborn racked up 12 tackles (three for loss) and a sack. In Iowa's Orange Bowl win against Georgia Tech, Clayborn was named MVP after making nine tackles, including two sacks of Yellow Jackets quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
One play from the Orange Bowl epitomizes Clayborn's tenacity. After beating the left tackle, Clayborn rumbled toward Nesbitt. The agile Nesbitt stepped into the pocket just as the left guard got a hand on Clayborn, and Clayborn sailed past. Clayborn quickly adjusted course, ran back the other way and buried Nesbitt.
More important was what Clayborn did on plays when he didn't make the tackle. No defensive end in America moves down the line of scrimmage as efficiently as Clayborn. Even if he doesn't reach the ballcarrier, he can force the action to the sideline -- the defense's 12th tackler -- or back inside, where the rest of the Hawkeyes are waiting. If defensive coordinator Norm Parker wasn't so good at teaching his players to gang tackle, viewers would probably have a better idea of how often Clayborn is the first to the ballcarrier.
Clayborn also has the critical element every Heisman contender needs -- an able sidekick. Last year, Suh had fellow tackle Jared Crick to keep opposing offensive lines from scheming specifically to stop Suh. (It could also be argued that 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram couldn't have won without the holes opened by guard Mike Johnson.) Clayborn has fellow senior Karl Klug, a man who was destined to play defensive tackle at Iowa from the moment his parents named him. Klug is undersized at 270 pounds, but he never stops coming, and he's more than willing to occupy two blockers to give Clayborn a chance to make a play.
Unfortunately for those of us who appreciate a quality defensive lineman, Iowa isn't the type of program that will go out of its way to tout a D-end for the Heisman. And though he's listed as an administrator on the "Adrian Clayborn for Heisman 2010" Facebook page, Clayborn won't help much, either. "I don't think about [awards] at all -- especially the Heisman," Clayborn told reporters at Big Ten media days.
(Clayborn also has another issue. Heisman voters don't look kindly on legal problems, and Clayborn pleaded guilty in March to disorderly conducted after he was arrested and accused of punching a cab driver in January 2009. Clayborn explained at media days that he responded to a racial slur directed at him by the cab driver, so we'll have to see if voters accept that explanation.)
Clayborn is the best option for a non-traditional Heisman choice, but a few other players fit the bill. These guys might also deserve consideration come December.
Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini doesn't believe that Suh's absence will allow opposing offensive lines to focus only on the 6-6, 285-pound Crick. If they do, they'll probably turn defensive end Pierre Allen or fellow defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler into a star. Crick isn't quite the disruptive force Suh was, but he still might be the nation's best defensive tackle. Even playing in Suh's shadow, Crick finished 2009 with 73 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 9 1/2 sacks. Those numbers should improve this season.
Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State: Like Clayborn, Hudson loathes the idea of self-promotion, so don't expect him to hold a teleconference every week like Houston quarterback Case Keenum did last season. But if the offense helps lead the Seminoles back among the ranks of the nation's elite, Hudson probably will deserve as much credit as quarterback Christian Ponder. In July, Ponder said he marvels while watching Hudson on film because Hudson, never, ever makes a mistake. Add the fact that the Mobile, Ala., native has a nasty streak as long as Florida's panhandle, and Hudson might be the nation's best offensive lineman.
Greg Jones, LB, Michigan State: Jones was voted the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year over Clayborn last year and this preseason. The 6-1, 240-pounder finished third in the nation in tackles with 154, including 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Because Jones is such a tackling machine, his contributions are the most obvious of the five players highlighted in this column. Unfortunately for Jones, the Spartans will have to win more games for him to merit serious consideration. A player's ability to lift his team higher is a legitimate factor in choosing The Most Outstanding College Football Player in the United States.
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: Michigan's Charles Woodson won the Heisman playing cornerback in 1997, but he also moonlighted as a receiver and returned kicks. Well, guess which 222-pound cornerback will add kick returner to his résumé this season? Success as a return man should draw attention to Peterson, who probably would otherwise be ignored by ignorant Heisman voters because of his lack of statistical production. What those voters don't understand is that Peterson's stats suffer because he does his job too well; opposing offenses simply avoid his side of the field. The sidekick who could help Peterson the most is sophomore Morris Claiborne, who will occupy the cornerback spot opposite Peterson. If Claiborne also locks down receivers, quarterbacks will have no choice but to test Peterson on occasion.
This is by no means a complete list, but hopefully it adds a few deserving names to the Heisman mix. Suh did every player in the trenches proud last season. Here's betting Clayborn will do the same this year. The only question is whether more Heisman voters will notice.