As he began his senior season at Penn State in 1999, of course LaVar Arrington believed he could win the Heisman Trophy. It went to the nation’s best college football player, by his reckoning. Also by his reckoning, Arrington was the nation’s best college football player, at least this side of Florida State receiver Peter Warrick.
But he also felt he took some public, early-season shots about freelancing from Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno. And then Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne began stampeding through defenses en route to the NCAA’s career rushing record.
Before September was out, Arrington knew he would receive a stiff arm in the wrong way.
“I call it what it is: I think Ron Dayne is an awesome guy,” Arrington said. “He was not the best football player in the NCAA that year. But he won the Heisman because he’s the all-time leading rusher in the NCAA. We all knew that was an automatic. But I felt like if Peter Warrick didn’t win the Heisman, then I should have got it.”
Arrington finished ninth, another defensive player shunted to the shoulder in a Heisman race, a paradigm that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o now collides with every time he collides with a ball carrier, one phenomenon working against the historical heft of another.
In a surreal senior season, Te’o runs a consensus No. 2 behind Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein in Heisman polling. While it would be an achievement to be the 11th defender to finish in the top five since 1970, Te’o’s push stokes the frustration with obstacles faced to win — while also renewing questions about how much the mystique of a traditional power boosts his candidacy.
“Normally a defensive player wouldn’t be able to match up with a larger field of quality offensive players,” said Chris Huston, Heisman analyst for CBSSports.com and founder of HeismanPundit.com. “When you play for a Notre Dame team that is undefeated and taking up a lot of attention, the propensity is for people to look for the person most responsible for that.
“Lacking a dominant offensive player, that appears to be falling on Te’o. All that said, there are a lot of problems with a defensive player running for the Heisman. It’s not necessarily a bias against defensive players. It’s more of a comparative inability for voters to quantify defensive accomplishments as compared to offensive accomplishments.”
In brief, Te’o’s case revolves around big plays, Notre Dame’s return to prominence and the character to overcome personal tragedies in the loss of his grandmother and his girlfriend in September.
His tackle numbers are the same as last year (10 per game in 2012, 9.8 in 2011), his tackles for a loss are down (0.56 per game in ‘12, 1.04 in ‘11) but he has five interceptions. The timing, simply, is everything. Not all sacks are nationally broadcast pancakes of Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, and not all picks seal a win in Norman that sparks a national title run.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Arrington said. “It’s just a matter of who captures the media’s attention, who can hold it. You make plays when the play needs to be made.”
Plenty of defenders have made plays like Te’o, but only Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won in 1997. Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh recorded a mind-boggling 85 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 10 pass breakups and three blocked kicks in 2009. He finished fourth in the Heisman race.
In 1991, tackle Steve Emtman was an Outland and Lombardi Trophy winner for an undefeated Washington team that earned a share of the national title. He finished fourth, too, more than 1,700 points behind winner Desmond Howard.
“You can’t afford to lose,” former Washington coach Don James said. “You have to have a successful team and you have to get a lot of publicity. For a defensive lineman, Steve got a lot, but that doesn’t compare with quarterbacks and running backs. That’s the dilemma.”
Asked what would have happened to Emtman if the Huskies hadn’t gone unbeaten that year, James said flatly: “He wouldn’t have gotten a vote if we didn’t have that visibility.”
Luke Kuechly can attest to that. At Boston College in 2011, Kuechly amassed 191 tackles — averaging 15.92 per game — and added three interceptions. He would be the No. 9 pick by the Panthers in the 2012 draft. He didn’t crack the top 10 of Heisman voting.
“My year there was (Robert Griffin III), there was (Andrew) Luck, there was Montee Ball,” Kuechly said. “Those guys had been up there from the start of the year. You kind of always knew as the year went on.”
Te’o has team success. He has visibility. The question is whether that’s enough.
“He’s probably going to get to New York as a finalist,” Huston said. “His odds of actually winning are very difficult.”
There’s the other bit that eats at observers such as Huston: Often when defenders thunder into consciousness, there is a backlash against voting for offensive players centered around the notion that it’s the “easy” pick to make.
Huston sees South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and wonders if people railing against “easy” picks aren’t making another one.
“Manti may be the best defensive player in the country,” Huston said. “I don’t think there’s no debate about it. In which case, why aren’t these people advocating for Jarvis Jones or Jadeveon Clowney or Damontre Moore?
“Not to downplay what Te’o has done, but he’s benefiting from the very same things offensive players have benefited from over the years, which is he’s on a highly ranked team going for the national title which also happens to be perhaps the greatest traditional power in college football.”
In fact, the entire Te’o singularity may be best expressed in one of his brethren, denied more than a decade ago. Arrington hated Notre Dame. He thought Notre Dame was overrated. And now he’s watching Notre Dame.
And Te’o is the main reason he’s watching, so enamored is Arrington with the idea of a defense-only player (Woodson also stood out on offense and special teams) doing what he could not do. The idea of Te’o carrying home the Heisman has at least one former contender getting carried away.
“If you think about it, it’s almost like what happened with Barack Obama becoming the president,” Arrington said, bursting into laughter. “I would love to see a true defender win the Heisman Trophy before I leave this Earth.
“To a defender in college football, it has a very, very, very big value to us. We look at ourselves as the underdog. That would be a shift of paradigm within NCAA football, if we had true defenders being mainstays. It would be great to see us win.”
©2012 Chicago Tribune
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