Alabama's MVP headlines annual non-traditional Heisman Watch
Offensive line jack-of-all-trades Barrett Jones deserves Heisman consideration
Punter Brad Wing's importance in the grand scheme cannot be overstated
Watch defensive linemen Star Lotulelei, Stansly Maponga, Jadeveon Clowney
As a group, Heisman Trophy voters aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer. That's probably because most of them (including myself) are sportswriters.
Sportswriters -- especially the old ones who make up a large portion of the Heisman electorate -- love baseball because it offers dozens of statistics that allow them to better understand how a particular player impacts the game. Basketball offers a similar treasure trove of numbers, though not to the extent that baseball does. (Beyond the rebound total, traditional basketball stats did a lousy job of quantifying how a non-scorer such as Dennis Rodman affected a game.)
For most of the players on the field, football offers little in the way of meaningful numbers. Punters and kickers are ranked fairly easily by pure stats, but, because they are punters and kickers, they probably aren't going to be considered for the Heisman. Among position players, only a few statistical categories produce benchmarks readily understood by the average fan and the average member of the fourth estate. We grasp the following: attempts, completions, passing yards, interceptions, rushes, rushing yards, catches, receiving yards, punt return yards, kickoff return yards and, of course, touchdowns. We might understand tackles if some schools didn't grossly inflate their tackle stats, but unless you know which schools pad the stats, that number is fairly useless.
Unfortunately for a majority of the college football players in America, this lack of understanding eliminates them from contention for the Heisman. Only three positions can be measured by the above stats: Quarterback, running back and receiver. Everyone else is out of luck, even if the ballot asks voters to choose "the most outstanding college football player in the United States."
But the rise of advanced stats such as the ones at Football Study Hall, wonderful sites such as Smart Football and intelligent ex-jock analysts such as Chris Spielman and Trevor Matich have given everyone a greater understanding of the game. Twice in the past three seasons, a player from outside those three positions has made it to New York (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in 2009 and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu in 2011). So maybe the Heisman electorate is finally ready to consider a member of the smartest, best-looking position group in football: the offensive linemen.
I stumped for Alabama's Barrett Jones in this space last year, and his performance proved my nomination correct. After earning AP first-team All-SEC honors as a guard in 2010, Jones moved to left tackle in 2011 and won the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation's best lineman on either side of the ball. One problem was his modesty. Given the option to campaign for himself, Jones suggested voters pick his teammate, tailback Trent Richardson.
This season, Jones will play his third position in as many years. If he winds up being the best center in the nation, too, he absolutely deserves Heisman consideration. Why is Jones moving to center? Because Alabama has a sophomore tackle named Cyrus Kouandjio who looks like a future first-rounder, and it needs a center to replace William Vlachos, the undersized, undrafted fireplug who started for two national title teams and is now trying to make the Tennessee Titans' roster. Before spring practice, Jones met with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and head coach Nick Saban and told them to move him wherever they pleased. "I just told them I'd do what's best for the team," Jones said. "I know that sounds cheesy, but that's how I feel. Our philosophy has always been to get the best five guys on the field."
Besides, Jones knew he could handle the strategic and vocal requirements of the job. "I already knew most of the calls," Jones said. "As William will tell you, I already tried to make a lot of the calls. At least now I get to officially be the boss out there."
Jones should have plenty of time to hone his snapping craft this semester. He only needs one class to finish his degree. "Corporate taxation," Jones said. "It's the same thing that Matt Leinart took, right?" Did we mention the degree in question is a master's in accounting? Former USC quarterback Leinart, while seeking his second Heisman in 2005, took ballroom dancing.
Jones will dance plenty this fall. Playing center is a tango that requires the player to diagnose the defensive front, assign roles to the other linemen, snap the ball with a 300-pounder inches away and ready to strike and then successfully block said 300-pounder. (Or, if facing an even front, block a linebacker or fire out at an angle on a distant defensive tackle.)
The skill set is closer to guard, which Jones played as a freshman and sophomore. Guards and centers place a premium on power and technique. Tackle, where Jones shined last year, requires more sheer athleticism. While it isn't the same kind of feat as 1997 Heisman winner Charles Woodson starring at receiver and cornerback in the same game at Michigan, it is akin to mastering three linebacker positions or excelling as a wide receiver, slot receiver and flexed-out tight end.
If Jones can pull off the offensive line trifecta, he should be in New York in December. But that doesn't mean he is the only player who might prove himself worthy of breaking the quarterback-tailback stranglehold on the Heisman. These guys also deserve consideration.
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: Jones led the SEC in sacks (13.5) and total tackles for loss (19.5) in his first year in the league after transferring from USC. Coordinator Todd Grantham brings Jones from a variety of locations, but the result is usually the same: The player who winds up matched up with the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Jones can't block him.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: One of the arguments for the disproportionate number of quarterbacks considered for the Heisman is that they affect almost every play, and it's a valid point. But anyone who has played football -- or watched the 2009 Big 12 title game -- knows a great defensive tackle can also affect almost every play. The problem is the stats might not reflect that. A tackle gets no statistical credit when he throws a guard into the quarterback-center exchange and the ensuing confusion helps a defensive end make a tackle for loss. The negative play doesn't happen without the tackle's contribution, but his role doesn't show up in a box score.
Lotulelei probably would have been a first-round pick had he left after the 2011 season, but, like Suh in 2009, he elected to return for his senior season. He may be the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive season, but he'll be subject to the other major Heisman voter bias. If a player's team isn't at least on the periphery of the national title picture at some point in the season, he's probably out of luck. Lotulelei probably will go unnoticed by Heisman voters unless the Utes challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title.
Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans have a few defensive players who might make this list, which is why everyone is East Lansing is so excited for this season. Defensive end Will Gholston is the most physically impressive, but he has been inconsistent and his penchant for unnecessary roughness could turn off voters. Allen, a 5-11, 225-pound linebacker, is the steadiest performer on an excellent defense. Last year, Allen led the Spartans in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5). Those plays change games, and players who change games contend for the Heisman.
Brad Wing, P, LSU: Remember how I wrote a few hundred words ago that kickers and punters would never be considered for the Heisman? That's true for 99 percent of them, but that statement does not apply to weaponized former Australian rules football players who can kick a ball as accurately as a quarterback can throw it and who can take a fake punt to the house against an SEC opponent. Last year, Wing pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 27 times. Thirteen of those kicks forced opponents to start inside the 10-yard line. He also can kick for distance, blasting 20 punts 50 yards or more. Without Wing's 73-yarder against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers probably would have lost. That would have eliminated the need for a rematch in the BCS title game and possibly derailed the political push that led to the playoff conference leaders created this offseason. Wing's importance in the grand scheme cannot be overstated.
Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU: For the Horned Frogs to succeed in their first year in the Big 12, Maponga will need to improve on the stats he posted last year in the Mountain West. In 2011, Maponga led TCU in sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13.5). He also finished 10th in the nation in forced fumbles with five.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: Speaking of the forced fumble, a play with serious game-changing implications, Clowney probably forced more fumbles per snap than any player in the country last year. Despite playing fewer downs because of a limited knowledge of the playbook, Clowney forced five fumbles and also finished the season with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss. This season, South Carolina coaches expect to play the 6-6, 256-pound Clowney on most downs, and they have tinkered with the idea of playing him at middle linebacker on occasion. If he can post those numbers as a part-time player, imagine what he can do as a full-timer.