It's been a more than a dozen years since anyone from the Big East has won the Rotary Lombardi Award given annually to the nation's top lineman or linebacker.
When former Virginia Tech defensive end Corey Moore captured the award in 1999 it marked just the third time a player from a Big East school earned the distinction. Five years earlier, the Lombardi Award was one of several national defensive honors brought home by former Miami (Fla.) defensive tackle Warren Sapp. In 1980, Hugh Green, a former defensive end at Pittsburgh, became the first player from a Big East school to win the award.
While it is unlikely that the drought will end this season, several standout players may hear their names called when the finalists are announced on Nov. 17. Earlier this month, seven players from the Big East were named to the Lombardi Award watch list headed by Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh, Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene and Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Louisville center Mario Benavides, Connecticut tight end Ryan Griffin, linebacker Sio Moore and defensive end Trevardo Williams also were among the nominees.
There's reason why Pugh is considered the top lineman from the conference by a number of experts in the 2013 NFL Draft. The senior moves quickly for a 6-6, 290-pound left tackle and has gained a reputation for springing gaps for running backs on the second-level. Pugh flashed his speed as far back as his prep days when he returned an interception for a touchdown while playing defense for Council Rock South High School in Holland, Pa.
Pugh, a 2011 First Team All-Big East selection, has started all 25 games in his Syracuse career after redshirting during his freshman season in 2009. He anchors an experienced offensive line that returns three starters. Syracuse fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Nassib has two veteran receivers in senior Alec Lemon and redshirt senior Marcus Sales. With added time to allow his wideouts to get open downfield, Nassib could flourish in 2012.
Greene, the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, hopes to recover from a nasty ankle injury suffered in last December's win over Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. In 2011, Greene (6-1, 220) came from out of the play to force a fumble against North Carolina and recorded a sprawling one-handed sack on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri against the Panthers. It was one of his league-high 141 tackles on the season.
The senior linebacker is one of eight returning starters on a defense that led the Big East in fewest points allowed (18.3 per game) last season. The Scarlet Knights also added freshman defensive lineman Darius Hamilton, who ranked No. 11 overall in the Rivals 100 Class of 2012.
Donald will have less help at Pitt. The 6-0, 275-pound junior is the only returning starter on a front seven that will be transitioning from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 scheme under new coach Paul Chryst. Donald ranked second in the Big East in 2011 with 11 sacks.
Griffin, a 6-6, 247-pound senior, is the top returning tight end in the conference. In 2011, Griffin had 33 catches for 499 yards and three TDs. Moore is one of three starting Uconn linebackers that will return in 2012. Of Moore's 86 tackles last season, 16 were for a loss. Williams, a 6-2, 233 pound senior, led the Big East with 12.5 sacks in 2011.
Benavides, a 6-4, 280-pound senior, has recovered from a knee injury that plagued him early in his career. The Cardinals center has 34 career starts.
The Lombardi Awards ceremony will be held on Dec. 5 at the Hobby Center in Houston.