History not on Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o’s side in quest for Heisman
By Mark Lazerus, firstname.lastname@example.org November 1, 2012 8:46PM
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on the sidelines of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
doesn’t pay to play ‘D’
Five defensive players have finished in the top 3 in the Heisman balloting in the last 60 years. Only Charles Woodson, who moonlighted as a kick returner and wide receiver, won it.
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:51AM
The Heisman Trophy voter was just getting settled into his seat on the 45-yard line at Memorial Stadium, and nervous Oklahoma fans already were pointing out the Heisman Trophy candidate.
Watch No. 5! Keep the ball away from No. 5! Don’t go near No. 5!
A mere three snaps into the game, and seemingly everyone already was fixated on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
“When you hear that, you understand that this guy is not just somebody who’s a good player — he’s a dominant player,” said Tim Brown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the 1987 Heisman winner as a receiver at Notre Dame.
Indeed, in Te’o’s case, seeing is believing. Seeing him dart into gaps and plug holes. Seeing him move laterally to trip up a tailback about to break a big gain. Seeing him drop into coverage, step in front of a receiver and snatch the ball away. Seeing how his teammates feed off him, draw strength from him, revere him.
“When you look at a guy that you want to have that trophy, you want to see the guy making a play that people can point to and say, ‘Wow, that play won the game or sparked the team,’ ” Brown said. “When you look at Manti, he’s done that several times.”
There’s the rub, though. Looking at Te’o on the field, you see a viable candidate to become Notre Dame’s record eighth Heisman Trophy winner. But looking at a box score, you see … what, exactly? Box scores provide numbers, not context. Does a game-sealing interception like Te’o’s at Oklahoma equal a game-winning touchdown run? Does a goal-line stand like the one Te’o led against Stanford in overtime equal a highlight-reel kick return? Does a two-interception performance against Michigan in the wake of personal tragedy equal a toe-tapping touchdown catch?
It’s easy to measure quarterbacks against quarterbacks. It’s tougher to weigh quarterbacks against linemen and linebackers and defensive backs. It’s why no strictly defensive player has ever won the Heisman.
Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the only primarily defensive player to win college football’s top honor in 1997, did it largely on the strength of his scintillating punt returns and stints at wide receiver — his “gimmick,” as CBSSports.com’s Chris Huston put it.
“It’s not a bias against defenders,” said Huston, a Heisman voter. “It’s an inability for voters — or anybody — to properly quantify the output of a defensive player versus the output of an offensive player.”
There hasn’t been a linebacker in the top five of the Heisman voting since Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth finished fourth in 1986. Since that season, only four pure defenders have finished in the top five.
But Te’o — thanks to his own stellar play, combined with surprising stumbles from the likes of USC quarterback Matt Barkley and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson — is currently running second in most Heisman predictions, behind only Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, who has 28 total touchdowns (16 rushing) against just two interceptions for the unbeaten Wildcats.
But what if Klein limps to the finish line, the Wildcats lose a couple and Te’o leads the Irish to a 12-0 campaign? What if Ohio State’s Braxton Miller falls off the pace, opening up the Midwest to Te’o? What if Te’o comes up with a few more interceptions? His five are one off the nation’s lead.
Probably still won’t matter.
Brown said it won’t help that Notre Dame historically shies away from putting its marketing muscle behind an individual player. In 1987, Brown said some “Heisman hankies” mysteriously showed up for the home finale against Alabama, but that was the extent of it.
“They didn’t do it with me, so I can’t see them doing it with him,” Brown said. “Wouldn’t be a bad idea, though.”
Brown takes his vote very seriously. He made it a point to watch the Kansas State-Texas Tech game before heading to Memorial Stadium. But of the 928 Heisman voters, 870 are members of the media, likely at a stadium all day every Saturday, so it’s unrealistic to expect them all to see every game featuring every viable candidate.
And so it comes down to box scores and late-night highlights — neither of which tends to focus much on defensive players.
Te’o has demurred every time he’s asked about the Heisman, something that occurs with great frequency now.
“If I even get invited to New York, I’ll be happy,” he said.
It’s almost a given at this point that Te’o will be the latest defensive star to get that token gesture from Heisman voters. But it’s likely he’ll only get to clap politely in the background for the guy with the gaudy stats.
But his teammates and coaches insist he’s the guy. Not surprising, since they’re the ones that see him do his thing every day.
“That’s not for me to decide,” ND coach Brian Kelly said. “I tell you what, he represents all the things that the Heisman trophy espouses — integrity and character and a great football player. But I think Manti’s more interested in beating Pittsburgh.”
And, fair or not, that goal is certainly more realistic.