As we run through Heisman week here at Crystal Ball Run, we talk about quarterbacks and running backs. Dynamic playmakers and how they each have their own shot at winning the stiff arming trophy. I’ll admit it outright, I’m a defensive guy. I played safety and defense is what separates a good team from a great team. Defense is a gang of guys that are reacting with speed and skill to a group of players that already know what they are doing before the ball is snapped. So, pardon me for not buying into this idea that to be the most outstanding player in college football, you have to play offense; more specifically quarterback or running back. It is a simplistic view of the situation and one that discredits every position on the field. I’m totally on board with the idea that a lineman; one of the big boys opening up holes and protecting the passer might well be the best player in college football. For today’s purposes we’ll look at defense and four guys that, regardless of who you think “should” win the Heisman, are better football players than your Heisman favorite.
TJ McDonald – USC Safety
We all remember Taylor Mays and the human hit machine that he was flying around in the back end for the Trojans. McDonald is Mays, but actually really good at football too. He has great range in the back end. He lays the wood to offensive players and truly embraces the idea of separating them from the football. He has the coverage skills to play both man and zone and the kid is not afraid to get in the box and mix it up.
Quarterbacks and wide receivers know what they are doing pre-snap. McDonald is capable of back pedaling, diagnosing what they are up to; and then beating them to the spot to thwart their best efforts.
Star Lotulelei – Utah Defensive Tackle
Big boys need love to and Lotulelei is most certainly worth of making this list. The big defensive tackle is a mountain of a man that gobbles up double teams and makes offensive linemen buckle under his dominance. He is a natural fit at the nose and as he is pushing the pile back by occupying centers and guards he is also forcing teams to run away from him. While McDonald is diagnosing plays and breaking them up; Lotulelei is taking the offenses’ best laid plans and simply telling them, “you’re not good enough to do what you want to do” by imposing his will. There are not many folks out there who are good enough to stop Lotulelei from having his way.
Tyrann Mathieu – LSU Cornerback
As folks gush over Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin as big time playmakers, the fact is Mathieu is the biggest playmaker in the college ranks. He does not just change the excitement level of the game by wowing people with a long pass catch or a return. No, Mathieu changes the entire complexion of the football game itself, beyond just momentum swings. Punt returns are great and Mathieu is on the same level as other return men in business. However, Mathieu provides more, he’s changing defense into offense, something most guys are not out there doing.
Getting the ball back to your offense or taking it to the house yourself is about more than momentum. That is a tangible push by your defense to preserve field position, to put points on the board and to give your offense an extra possession. Forcing punts are nice; forcing fumbles is better. Scoring touchdowns off those fumbles? That’s even better. Yeah, Mathieu’s a playmaker on a whole new level and last year his invitation to New York proved that even offensive biased folks can see that.
Manti Te’o – Notre Dame
Linebacker Probably the best player in college football this year, hands down. Te’o is a machine at the linebacker spot and while his tackle numbers will never be as gaudy as Luke Keuchly’s the presence he brings to the game is unmatched. Te’o is doing so much more than being a tackling machine, he’s a defensive football player that does everything the right way. He reads and diagnoses plays within the instant they begin and he gets there with the quickness and arrives with bad intentions.
Say what you will about every quarterback in the country, as far as leaders go, if I only have to pick one then it is Manti Te’o. Notre Dame is his football team. He is as much in charge of the ball club as Matt Barkley is at USC or Landry Jones is at Oklahoma. If people are going to talk Heisman and exemplary leadership in addition to being an outstanding player then Te’o deserves to be on that short list.