There's been a lot of buzz this past week about the Heisman prospects of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, so I thought it'd be worthwhile to go back and look at how past defenders have done in the Heisman race.
Here are the defenders who have finished in the top five in the vote. Note that a few of them before 1965 also played offense. An apples-to-apples comparison with Te'o is better made between players who only played defense thanks to the implementation of the two-platoon system and limitless substitutions starting in 1965. This is why Charles Woodson, who also played significant snaps at wide receiver for Michigan while winning the Heisman in 1997, is not on this list.
Defensive players in the top 5 of the Heisman vote
1948 - Chuck Bednarik, Pennsylvania, 3rd
1952 - Donn Moomaw, UCLA, 4th
1954 - Kurt Burris, Oklahoma, 2nd
1956 - Jerry Tubbs, Oklahoma, 4th
1957 - Alex Karras, Iowa, 2nd
1962 - Lee Roy Jordan, Alabama, 4th
1964 - Dick Butkus, Illinois, 3rd
1968 - Ted Hendricks, Miami, 5th
1972 - Rich Glover, Nebraska, 3rd
1977 - Ross Browner, Notre Dame, 5th
1980 - Hugh Green, Pittsburgh, 2nd
1983 - Terry Hoage, Georgia, 5th
1986 - Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma, 4th
1991 - Steve Emtman, Washington, 4th
2009 - Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, 4th
A linebacker hasn't made it into the top five of the vote since Brian Bosworth in 1986. For those of you who remember, Bosworth was one of the colorful characters in college football history and he exemplified the, ahem, spirited Oklahoma teams of the mid-1980s. Had Bosworth been a quiet hayseed, it's doubtful he would've been given as much attention.
As for Te'o, he wouldn't be the first Notre Dame defender to make the trip to New York. Ross Browner did it in 1977 while helping to lead the Irish to a national title. Thirty-five years later, Te'o is in the mix to do just that.
While I maintain that pure defenders can't win the Heisman, a hollowed-out Heisman field gives Te'o a chance to finish as high as second, something a defender hasn't done since Hugh Green in 1980. The Pitt defensive end was almost the exception to the Heisman rule that year, losing out to South Carolina tailback George Rogers by just 260 points (he received 179 first-place votes to Rogers' 216).
One other point to make: Not all finishes in the Heisman race are equal. Both Bosworth ('86) and Ndamukong Suh ('09) finished fourth in the vote in their respective years. But Bosworth received just nine first-place votes and 395 points, finishing well behind Vinny Testaverde, who won in a landslide with 2,213 points. Meanwhile, Suh garnered 161 first-place votes and 815 points, less than 600 points behind winner Mark Ingram's 1,304. Two fourth-place finishes, two very different outcomes.
If Te'o is going to make history and actually top some of the names listed here, he'll have to start by producing some highlight-reel plays while leading the Irish to a win over Oklahoma this Saturday. It wouldn't be the first time in recent years that Oklahoma has jump-started a Heisman campaign.