Going Out on a Limb for 2015: A Defensive Heisman Finalist

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Michigan great Charles Woodson is the only defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, and he did so when college football’s class of freshmen were newborns.

It’s been a long time since Woodson’s landmark win, but recent years have shown a gradual shift in voter sentiment, suggesting more consideration given to the stars on that side of the ball. Ndamukong Suh was the first of three defensive Heisman finalists over a four-year span. Tyrann Mathieu and Manti Te’o followed.

Last season Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright was gaining steam just before the award presentation. Wright may not have joined the elite club of defensive Heisman finalists in 2014, but the Wildcats junior is among the contenders capable of making it happen in 2015.

A former two-star recruiting prospect — distinction Wright wears proudly as his Twitter handle — he built on the momentum of an impressive freshman season to have a monster 2014. His 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles — all nation-leading — netted him the Lombardi (nation’s best linebacker), Bednarik and Nagurski Awards, and he was a finalist for the Walter Camp Award.

Arizona’s Pac-12 South counterpart USC has its own Heisman contender on the defensive end in sophomore Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson embraces Heisman talk, calling it “fun.”

Such confidence from the Trojan sophomore is no surprise; Jackson is also chasing an Olympic gold medal, as Friend of the Site Aaron Torres examined for Fox Sports.

Before pursuing the Games, Adoree’ Jackson is trying to emulate Woodson. USC head coach Steve Sarkisian drew the parallel last December, after Jackson scored a touchdown on both offense and defense.

Playing multiple roles helps a defensive Heisman finalist pad his resume, to which one of Jackson’s cross-town rivals can attest. Myles Jack’s Heisman credentials were bandied about extensively last season, though the buzz for UCLA’s talented linebacker centered exclusively on his explosive ball-carrying.

Jack’s days of rushing regularly for the Bruins may be done, but he’s established himself as the latest in UCLA’s current run of star linebackers. Jack is the quintessential counter to spread offenses, functioning equally as well as a run-stopper as he does in pass coverage. Jack’s stardom on offense should help command more attention to his stellar defensive play. And, as the leader of the Bruins defense in the coming season, his status goes a long way.

The prolific offenses of the Pac-12 make for abundant play-making opportunities for the conference’s star defenders like Wright, Jack and Jackson, and the same goes for the run-and-gun style of the Big 12.

Arguably the biggest star for Baylor, which has the nation’s most prolific offense, is a defensive player: end Shawn Oakman. Oakman became subject of a popular, if not beaten into the ground meme shortly after January’s Cotton Bowl.

Half the battle of a Heisman campaign is exposure, and Oakman has plenty of it — not referring to his since-banned cropped jersey, either. Oakman’s public profile is deserved, with the Baylor defensive end coming off a season of 19.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.

His devastating tackles make for highlight reel fodder, and his larger-than-life persona make Oakman this year’s comparison to Jadeveon Clowney.

For those SEC readers scoffing at the notion of a defensive Heisman finalist emanating from the uptempo hubs of the Pac-12 and SEC, fret not. Ole Miss embarks on the 2015 campaign with arguably the stingiest defense in college football, and one of the game’s biggest stars to boot.

Robert Nkemdiche’s signing with the Rebels in 2013 was met with much fanfare, and the 5-star defensive lineman has failed to disappoint. His statistics are not necessarily eye-popping, but Nkemdiche is perfectly productive for an outstanding defense. Plus, entering his third year, he has the ability to up his production dramatically.

Defensive tackle may not be the position best suited to pursuit of the Heisman. Last fall, I asked USC’s Leonard Williams about the Heisman, and his response was a dismissive, “Well, I play defensive tackle.”

But with Suh finishing 2009 as a finalist, and both Williams and Pitt’s Aaron Donald earning their share of buzz, there are cracks in that presumptive glass ceiling.

Nkemdiche has done the two-way thing, albeit not nearly as frequently as Myles Jack in 2013 or Adoree’ Jackson last season. He rushed five times in 2013. That said, Nkemdiche was a standout goal-line weapon for his Grayson High School team.

Perhaps if Heisman buzz for Nkemdiche builds, Hugh Freeze can line up his defensive line in red-zone situations to give him that all-important Heisman moment.

Of course, none of these potential defensive Heisman finalists have a tactic endorsement from the President of the United States. The only All-American defender who can make that claim is Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

Defending national champion Ohio State is rife with Heisman Trophy candidates: Playoff star and running back Ezekiel Elliott; 2013 standout quarterback Braxton Miller; 2014 quarterback J.T. Barrett; postseason quarterback Cardale Jones.

Making a case on such a star-studded roster might actually put Bosa at more of a disadvantage than any of the other potential defensive Heisman finalists. However, building off a 2014 in which he made 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss, Bosa may be the nation’s best defensive end heading into 2015. The notoriety of a national championship, and a shout-out from the President, can’t hurt his case.